Vietnamese refugee forgoes vacation to volunteer in the Gulf Coast and sees pieces of his past

By Lee Xie

Instead of spending his vacation on a beach somewhere, Thao Tran, a Vietnamese refugee and staff assistant to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, went to the Gulf Coast to see its present condition and volunteer. What he experienced there has affected him profoundly.

NWAW: Why did you decide to visit the Gulf Coast?

Thao Tran

Tran: Without sounding too corny, because I was a Vietnamese refugee, and I love the ocean. I can relate to fishermen, knowing the drama of folks in the Gulf Coast, having to rebuild their lives after Katrina, something I’ve done as a refugee.

When oil touched New Orleans, I thought of the Vietnamese, one third of the population there.

I scheduled a vacation with a strong feeling that I wanted to go visit and see what I could do. I found an ad for Vietnamese translators, and it felt serendipitous. They needed a translator, something I could easily do.

NWAW: What did you find or see while you were visiting the Gulf?

Tran: I helped fishermen file for rent and food assistance, as well as unemployment in Louisiana. I met a bunch of fishermen and interviewed some, recording their stories and taking photos.

I met Spike Lee as he filmed a new documentary called “If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise.”
I did some translation for Spike and interviewed 10 fishermen that day.

I observed pelicans, brown in oil, and visited the shoreline, also pasted with oil. I saw a dolphin covered in oil and distraught.

The Coast Guard saved the dolphin, but it had almost beached.

This distraught oil-covered dolphin that was rescued in Grande Isle, La. (Photo by Thao Tran)

Director Spike Lee (middle right, behind woman in blue) was in the Gulf Coast at the same time as Tran. Lee interviewed Vietnamese fisher people for his upcoming four-hour HBO special, “If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise.” (Photo by Thao Tran)

NWAW: How is the Vietnamese community coping with the oil spill?

Tran: It’s tragic; they’re in shock. It reminds me of extremely sad people who have lost their future. They are living day by day and remind me of refugees. I saw 40 people turned away because there were not enough food vouchers. I saw men, women, and children peering through the windows. It was heartbreaking to see.

NWAW: What are some positive experiences you’ve had?

Tran: The fact that I was able to help [them]. I’ve met fishermen and heard stories. I heard stories about how they escaped Vietnam and how their kids went to college and did well, contributing to society.

I’ve met a family of five generations of bait-sellers — very gracious. I’ve formed relationships down there, and saw a part of the country that I would have otherwise not gone to.

I can see why they call it a fisherman’s paradise. It’s so lively. The bayou is always moving. The nature and sunsets are beautiful.

NWAW: What are some negative experiences you’ve had?

Tran: The racism. It’s very apparent how people treat each other. There are blatant verbal jokes and racism from everyone. It’s pervasive.

NWAW: How are the Vietnamese people feeling? Are they optimistic or pessimistic?

Tran: Well, the oil spill is so different than Katrina. During Katrina, they were able to rebuild.

This problem is so deep, and the impact is so deep. There are 200 million gallons of oil here, where plants and bayous reside. The oysters around the coast are already gone.

It’s going to take at least three or four years for the oyster beds to come back. The oil is multiple feet deep — 20, 30 feet deep, and it’s not being cleaned up. Microbes are going to eat it, killing everything.

When Katrina happened, fish weren’t affected, and that’s what their livelihood depends on.
They’ve rebuilt from Katrina, and now they don’t have time to rebuild. The future they thought they had is gone.

NWAW: So the oil isn’t getting cleaned up?

Tran: They’re getting some of the oil on top, but everyone’s worried about oil that’s not being picked up. In addition, tropical storms churn everything up.

What I’ve learned is that BP is going to pay people, but they can’t bring back the ocean.

NWAW: What have fishermen been doing lately if they can’t fish due to the spill? How are they earning income?

Tran: They’re waiting for BP to pay them. And that’s happened, but it seems to be inconsistent. They’re complaining that they aren’t getting paid fast enough, and not in accurate amounts. One fisherman got $98. For house payments and boat payments, that doesn’t go far enough, especially when you haven’t made income for 3 months. $5,000 is the most I’ve heard.

They’re relying on food assistance and other things that Catholic charities have offered, such as utility and rent assistance.

Names of things that have been affected adversely by the oil spill are written on crosses in Grand Isle, La. (Photo by Thao Tran)

NWAW: How can people in Seattle help without having to go to the oil spill?

Tran: They should look at organizations and donate to those directly working with people with no high over cost.

[For example], The Mary Queen Catholic Church [in Texas]. Locally, donate to the Sierra club, Hands Across the Sand, People for Puget Sound, and WA Conservation Voters.

We should take a lesson from the Gulf spill. If we depend on oil, there might be more spills.

These organizations push for alternative energy. They help reduce emissions and help elect environmental officials.

They also work on cleaning Puget Sound, which is very toxic now. ♦

Lee Xie can be reached at

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One Response to “Vietnamese refugee forgoes vacation to volunteer in the Gulf Coast and sees pieces of his past”

  1. Phung Tran says:

    Hi, I am a senior in high school and have a senior project to where I must write a research paper on someone who has done something in this world or city. Someone not well known and it has to be someone we do not know. I was browsing online and found Thao Tran and what he did for the Vietnamese community in Versai. I want my paper to be on him. if you are reading this I am thankful. If you can, contact me at or give me a call. My number is (504) 810-8808.


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