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A mutual friendship between two families, Te and Thanh Trinh (centre) and Lorraine and Elbert Toews has evolved to both families accepting each other as part of the same family. Gladys Terichow

A mutual friendship between two families, Te and Thanh Trinh (centre) and Lorraine and Elbert Toews has evolved to both families accepting each other as part of the same family. Gladys Terichow

Refugee sponsorship marks start of 30-year friendship

Gladys Terichow
September 23, 2009


STEINBACH, Man.—Thirty years ago Thanh and Te Trinh and their young children risked their lives to escape the harsh economic conditions in Vietnam with the hope of rebuilding their lives in a new country.

Their daughters now fill positions as a medical physician, pharmacist and massage therapist in this southern Manitoba city. Their youngest son, who was only two weeks old when they arrived in Steinbach on a blustery day in February 1980, manages a sports store here and their eldest daughter, who was nine years old when they resettled here, is an occupational therapist in Winnipeg.

Their family has expanded to include spouses and four grandchildren.

“This was my dream for my family—my dream has been fulfilled,” said Thanh, adding he and his family attribute their successes and accomplishment to the enduring friendship and support they have received from a Steinbach family, Elbert and Lorraine Toews.

“They are our parents—they are mom and dad,” said Thanh. “Everything we wanted to know about life in Canada we learned from them.”

The Trinh family was among a million refugees who took great risks to flee the war-ravaged countries of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos following the Vietnam War.

On behalf of Mennonite churches in Canada, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) responded to this crisis by negotiating a private sponsorship agreement in 1979 between MCC Canada and the Canadian government. Within weeks many other denominations signed identical agreements with the government.

Canada is the only country in the world that has a private sponsorship program to assist the government in resettlement of refugees and displaced people, said Ed Wiebe, national coordinator of MCC’s refugee programs in Canada.
Each year, the Canadian government resettles approximately 7,500 refugees through government programs and an additional 4,500 through the private sponsorships.
"It is a unique system that Canada brings to the international table," said Wiebe. "Other countries are very interested in this program and how it works. They want to know how Canada motivates private citizens to get involved."
The Trinh family, sponsored by Grace Mennonite Church in Steinbach, survived a perilous five-day voyage to Indonesia from southern Vietnam in a dangerously overcrowded ship that was looted and ransacked by three groups of pirates. Eventually the family made it to an overcrowded refugee camp in Indonesia where they spent eight months. During this time they lost contact with family in Vietnam.

Their first days in Steinbach were filled with a deep sense of relief, gratitude and apprehension. “I felt happy but I also felt very sad,” said Te. “I felt so lonely, so worried and so scared. I was very worried.”

Te was apprehensive about finding a job, learning the language and raising their children in a strange country. “I was worried if something happened, I would not have help,” she said.

Her fears were eased by the warm friendship of one of the host families from the church, Lorraine and Elbert Toews and their four children, ages 13 to 24 in 1980.

Elbert said their relationship with the Trinh family started as “befriending newcomers” but it soon changed to a mutual friendship that has evolved to both families accepting each other as part of the same family.

The extended family shares vacations, family gatherings, graduations and weddings. A special memory was their first shared vacation outside Canada—a Florida vacation in 1990 when all members of the Trinh family and some members of the Toews family drove to Florida in three cars and communicated with each other over two-way radios. “That was a lot of fun—that was very special,” said Te.

In 2000, the two couples visited Vietnam—a visit filled with the joy of seeing relatives and friends and sharing this special time with the Toews. It was also a visit that brought back sad memories of Thanh leaving his job as a driver of a 25-passenger bus, Te leaving behind the family-owned restaurant and the uncertainty of fleeing one’s homeland to unknown places.

Many churches in small towns and cities sponsored refugees from Southeast Asia in the late 1970s and 1980s but most sponsored families soon gravitated to larger centres.

“We live in Steinbach so that we can be close to mom and dad,” said Thanh. “For me, in my heart I say that God sent us good people.”

“Our children say this is the best thing that ever happened to us,” said Lorraine. “It truly is the best thing that has happened to us.”