Boat People SOS
Falls Church, VA USA
Formed in 1980, Boat People SOS (BPSOS) was based in San Diego, California and conducted many joint rescue-at-sea missions with international organizations. We rescued over 3,000 Vietnamese boat people in the South China Sea.
In response to major shifts in US and international policies toward the Vietnamese boat people, in 1990 we moved our headquarters to Northern Virginia to concentrate on advocacy.
By 1997, when most boat people were either repatriated or resettled, we shifted our focus to domestic programs for Vietnamese refugees and immigrants in communities all across America.
In 2005 and the years that followed, the Katrina Aid Today (KAT) recovery program was a catalyst for our work in the Vietnamese-American communities of the Gulf Coast. As a direct result of working with KAT, a national consortium of organizations under the guidance of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, we founded branches in Bayou La Batre, New Orleans, and Biloxi. Many of the tens of thousands of Vietnamese Americans living in those areas were poor even before Katrina struck. Working as case managers through KAT, we boosted many families from misery to self-sufficiency through programs to rebuild everything from homes and bank accounts to social networks.
In the course of more than two years following Katrina, the BPSOS KAT teams assisted close to 4,000 families, securing them $16.5 million in assistance, placing 850 into homes, and referring 265 to jobs; built capacity for 12 faith-based and community organizations to serve hurricane victims, including raising over $200,000 to support their activities; and established a system to disseminate news and information directly to some 5,000 Vietnamese households via the press, radio, and television.
While working on KAT, which wound down in the spring of 2008, we kept our focus on providing services to seniors and working families. Programs such as the Road to Independence Through Savings and Education (RISE) have provided job counseling, financial workshops, assistance with opening bank accounts, and other vital services to Vietnamese immigrants. Other initiatives, such as the Seniors and Trauma Survivors Empowerment Program (STEP) and the Health Awareness Program for Immigrants (HAPI) have tackled the challenge of moving Vietnamese Americans from being underserved populations to health-conscious advocates of preventive healthcare.
For many years, we have also been active in tackling the global explosion of human trafficking, especially in the realm of labor exports. Slashed wages, grueling working hours, ill-treatment, and deception are all everyday challenges faced by a new generation of Vietnamese working overseas.
BPSOS first became involved in the issue of human trafficking through the Daewoosa Case. In 1999, over 200 Vietnamese and Chinese workers were tricked into paying thousands of dollars each in order to travel to work in a sewing factory on the island of American Samoa. Each worker was promised $408 per month for wages, plus free food and housing. However, once there, the workers were beaten, confined to the factory, barely fed, and forced to live in filthy conditions while the employer kept their travel documents.
We worked hard to bring media and government attention to this case of human trafficking. After the US government prosecuted Daewoosa, BPSOS along with other service providers came to the aid of the victims. Daewoosa survivors are now legally in the US and are being helped to receive the benefits of immigration relief, health care, education, and employment assistance by our Victims of Exploitation and Trafficking Assistance (VETA) program.
More recently, in February 2008, BPSOS came to the aid of over 170 young women employed by W&D Apparel, a Taiwanese firm operating in Jordan. Fed up with being cheated out of wages and forced to work 16-hour days, the workers went on strike for several weeks. Despite the use of brutal force by factory guards and the police to break the strike, they persevered. Since then, international pressure from BPSOS, the State Department, and members of the US Congress has helped them return home, as they wished, with a measure of dignity.
As a founding member of the Coalition to Abolish Modern-day Slavery in Asia (CAMSA), BPSOS has since worked with Esquel Malaysia to successfully resolve disputes over wages and working conditions at that firm. The latest firm to receive the focus of CAMSA's concerns is Polar Twin Advance, a high-tech firm in Penang.
With these accomplishments under our belt, we are moving forward, mindful of the key lesson learned from taking on foes like the South China Sea and Hurricane Katrina: Never give up.