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Vietnamese fishermen, supporters protest BP spill disaster

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Dozens of Vietnamese-Americans gathered in sweltering heat here Tuesday to protest the impact of the BP oil spill on their community, much of which lives off a now polluted sea. More than 80 percent of the southeast Asian families in the Gulf region work in the seafood industry, which has been hard hit by water closings due to the spill.

Minh Than Nguyen, 25, the son of a shrimper left jobless by the worst environmental disaster in US history, exhorted fellow demonstrators at a commercial fishing wharf in Biloxi, 150 miles (93 miles) east of New Orleans.

“What do we want?” Nguyen said. “Justice,” the crowd shouted. Behind them, blue and white fishing boats with Vietnamese names like “Than Tam” and “Captain Sen” sat idle on the 57th day of the spill. Thousands of Vietnamese are now watching in dismay as the environmental calamity in the Gulf of Mexico threatens the lives they rebuilt here after the Vietnam War.

Of an estimated 40,000 Vietnamese-Americans who live in the oil-threatened
Gulf states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, one in three has thrived as commercial fishermen harvesting shrimp, crabs and oysters and processing seafood, says Leo Esclamado, an protest organizer based in New Orleans. “The fishing industry was a natural appeal for many Vietnamese refugees arriving in the US in the mid 1970s since these jobs did not require English proficiency,” Esclamado said.

“It also became a pathway to realize the American dream by becoming successful entrepreneurs of the sea. Now, the entire seafood industry and this American dream is ruined indefinitely.” Thousands of Vietnamese fishermen are suddenly out of work. Bills are due for college tuition, health insurance and property insurance for fishing vessels that cannot fish. Vietnamese fishers like Than’s father are now struggling to repay government business loans to replace crab traps lost during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

BP has hired Vietnamese-American fishermen to work in the oil spill cleanup operations, and paid 5,000 dollars each for initial damage claims. Information on jobs, health risks, and hazards from oil spill cleanup hazards — including snakes and alligators — are published in Vietnamese on the BP and Deepwater Horizon web sites. “We’ve tried hard to address this issue,” BP spokesman John Curry told AFP.

The British oil giant met with a coalition of Vietnamese groups June 1 to discuss their concerns, and a BP interpreter is available to answer questions about claims and work in Biloxi, Curry said. But the young activists said Tuesday that the US government and BP need to hire more Vietnamese interpreters to help their elders navigate spill-related documents required for employment, health care, and damage claims.

“In times like, these a lot of things get lost in translation,” Ann Dinh, an activist from New Orleans, told the crowd Tuesday. Dinh, 21, said certified Vietnamese interpreters are “rare” on the Gulf Coast — and that she herself is not proficient in the native language of her parents.

Van Lam, an outreach specialist for West Jefferson Medical Center at Marrero, Louisiana — the hospital closest to the offshore oil spill — said the Vietnamese she met at the rally were talking about canceling their health insurance to dave money.

“They also have to have insurance for their boat to help BP clean up the oil — but they can’t afford that either,” Lam said. Tuyet Nguyen, of Pass Christian, the wife of a shrimper, fought back tears as she described in broken English her husband’s undiagnosed complaints of numbness on his left side. “The first thing we need is a place to work and insurance — if the government can help,” she said, grimacing.

Biloxi, Mississippi, June 15, 2010 (AFP)