Los Angeles Times

UCI displays decades-old relief work for refugees

The paintings depict the anguish of fleeing one's homeland, death an imminent threat.

The artists left war-torn Vietnam, risking encounters with pirates to land in detention camps in Hong Kong, the Philippines and Thailand to wait for asylum.

Reproductions of several paintings created by refugees are on display at UC Irvine as part of "Hope of Freedom: Project Ngoc's Decade of Dedication."


Political organization

UCI graduate student Tom Wilson created Project Ngoc in 1987 to provide direct relief to refugees in the camps.

"I didn't want to start anything," he said. "I just wanted to find something that already existed. But there was nothing there."

Wilson lived in a town on the Cambodian border 100 kilometers south of the camps on and off from 1985-89.

After hearing refugees' stories while working at the camps — his longest stint was six months — he said he fell into a deep depression when he left because he realized the hopelessness of their situations.

Project Ngoc took its name from a story he wrote about Thuy and Ngoc Lan, who escaped Vietnam by boat. Pirates raped and kill Ngoc while Thuy was thrown overboard and eventually rescued by a passing ship.

What started as an epidemiology course to prevent disease in the camps, became a student organization tackling concrete, long-term goals.

"When I started it, I did not want it to be a [strictly] Vietnamese organization," Wilson said. "I wanted it to be an organization that opened the eyes of everyone to the plight of the Vietnamese. When we first started, we had [students] from India and Iran and a tremendous number of dedicated students."

During its time on campus, Project Ngoc raised awareness about the plight of all Southeast Asian refugees and raised money to send UCI students to work as teachers, counselors and translators in the refugee camps.

Project Ngoc became politically active as student volunteers wrote letters of appeal and held candlelight vigils in support of refugees. The students fought against refugees' forced repatriation. In Orange County, students organized protests, vigils, art exhibits, concerts and conferences.

The project disbanded in 1997, after most Vietnamese refugees had been resettled or repatriated.


Works spark action

"When you return to the States, please exhibit these so that the rest of the world can learn about our relentless search for freedom — so that the rest of the world knows of the prison that is our lives. Do not let them forget about us," reads part of the Project Ngoc exhibit, which is part of a larger exhibit housed in UCI's Southeast Asian archive.

The exhibit, which has been part of a traveling exhibition, engages people in a very powerful way, said Michelle Light, head of special collections, archives and digital scholarship at UCI.

One woman who was a refugee as a little girl in a Hong Kong camp remembered Project Ngoc students bringing her an apple. Instead of eating it, she treasured it as a gift.

Another time, a man recognized his sister who was a refugee in the Philippines in one of the hundreds of photos of refugees in the collection.

More than 100 paintings, some of which are reproductions, are part of the collection. They illustrate the limited resources in the camps.

Refugees painted on whatever they had, such as recycled cardboard signs, the back of completed works or over other paintings. They gave the paintings to Project Ngoc students, who brought them back to UCI to raise awareness.

Also featured in the exhibit is a booklet with guidelines for large ship owners to pick up boat refugees and a map showing typical boat refugee routes. Refugees in distress would signal commercial ships to rescue them, but were often ignored. To promote rescue at sea, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees offered ship owners reimbursement for picking up refugees.

Former UCI student Tri Tran felt guilty for not being involved in the project, he wrote in an email.

Now a lecturer at the university, the former refugee wrote that he was too busy with classes and work. On a recent visit to the exhibit, he recognized newsletters from camps in the Philippines, where he stayed.

"Project Ngoc, to me, was a symbol of youth compassion and dedication," Tran wrote. "What they did shows that the young Vietnamese generation understood their sense of responsibility toward the plights of their compatriots in the refugee camps, who shared their 'Hope of Freedom.'"

Project Ngoc inspired him so much that once he finished school, he began getting involved in community activities to preserve the Vietnamese language and culture among young Vietnamese people in the U.S.

"Although what I have been doing can never be compared with the lofty goals of Project Ngoc, it is obvious that they had inspired me — and many others — to pursue our dream of achieving what we want in life and making sure that others can have the same opportunities," he wrote.

That is the exhibit's goal, Light said. The library special collections' staff wanted to tell the story of UCI students' dedication to Project Ngoc to rouse current students.

Wilson, who saw the exhibit when it first opened, said he is encouraged that UCI is using Project Ngoc to motivate students to get involved.

"I think that students that don't become involved, that don't become knowledgeable and don't become dedicated are almost wasting university resources and they should be trying to do something that ensures that life exists in the next couple of centuries," he said. "You can't sit back and wait for someone else to make the decision."


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If You Go

What: "Hope of Freedom: Project Ngoc's Decade of Dedication"

When: Through October

Where: Muriel Ansley Reynolds Gallery, UC Irvine

Information: http://www.lib.uci.edu

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