How Two Educators Approach the Challenge of Vietnamese Issues : Physics Professor Finds the Time for Global Lobbying

Times Staff Writer

The influx of Indochinese refugees into San Diego during the past decade, especially from Vietnam, has brought many changes to the area, altering the physical landscape of communities such as Linda Vista and East San Diego as well as presenting new challenges to schools and other public agencies. The changes have brought forth unusual efforts by many people. Here are two profiles of individuals whose work with Vietnamese-related issues has won them respect and recognition.

Some of the most effective lobbying to relieve the plight of the "boat people"--Indochinese refugees fleeing from their homelands--has come out of a book-lined office tucked away in a science building at UC San Diego.

From his second-floor nook, Professor Nguyen-Huu Xuong has chaired the Boat People SOS Committee during the past decade, a committee that has grown to command the attention of Vietnamese in communities ranging from Westminster to Paris and diplomats in key Western nations.

He has helped guide its efforts from initial letter-writing campaigns, which brought worldwide attention to the death-defying risks that refugees were taking, to

fund-raising campaigns among Indochinese in the United States and Europe to sponsor rescue missions in the South China Sea since 1985.

At the same time, Xuong has continued his academic work in three related disciplines: physics, chemistry and biology. His research in applying high-energy physics to study protein structures resulted in a special computerized protein image detector that the National Institutes of Health has labeled a "national resource" for molecular biologists.

'Diplomatic Skills'

"With the prestige of his Ph.D position at UCSD and his exceptional diplomatic skills, Professor Xuong has always been the person everyone in the Vietnamese community wanted to head such a committee," said Ruben Rumbaut, San Diego State University sociologist and an expert on Indochinese affairs who directs the nation's largest continuing study of refugee settlement in the United States.

Bob Devecchi, head of the New York-based International Rescue Committee, praised efforts by groups such as the boat committee, saying "the committee is a proper moral response to the terrible tragedies of boat people."

Yet the soft-spoken Vietnamese-born Xuong remains reluctant to boast of his accomplishments, saying merely that his labor for the boat people has been "his duty as a Vietnamese."

"If you are Vietnamese and you know of the stories about the pirate attacks, the rapes that occurred, you had to feel you must do something," Xuong said.

Xuong has long been a fixture in academic circles at UCSD, having joined the campus as one of its first professors soon after the school's creation in 1962. Xuong, born in what was formerly North Vietnam, studied in France and then at Berkeley. After completing his graduate studies, Xuong decided not to return to South Vietnam, where his family had moved after the country's 1954 partition. Increasing war-related problems and the lack of any real chance to continue his physics and engineering research were the deciding factors.

Xuong took successful steps to get his parents, brothers and sisters to the United States after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, and he helped with the acclimation of the first refugees who came to San Diego through the resettlement center at Camp Pendleton.

But, after reading an account by two Vietnamese journalists of their harrowing escape by sea, Xuong decided he must do more.

"When we started in 1980, I thought that the effort would be over in a few years," Xuong said. "But the problem of boat people still exists today, and I don't see the end coming soon for the committee. When we started, 100,000 Vietnamese were leaving each year, and, even now, 30,000 are still coming out" annually.

Xuong said that the situation could become worse because the United States, Thailand and Australia, which have been among those nations welcoming the largest numbers of refugees, are cutting back on their quotas.

Yet Xuong said that the committee, with members from Vietnamese communities around the world, has been able to raise the consciousness of world leaders through letter writing and testimony before U. S. congressional committees and agencies of the United Nations.

Moreover, he said, the committee has been able to tap the Vietnamese community for almost $1 million during the past several years to sponsor mercy ships that patrol the South China Sea each spring--before the typhoon season--to rescue refugees whose boats are in danger of sinking, leaving passengers at risk of falling prey to Thai fishermen.

The committee has received financial and other help from two European humanitarian organizations--the Medicins du Monde of France and Cap Anamur of West Germany. In 1985, the ships saved 520 people; 888 in 1986; 905 in 1987, and about 500 last year.

"Most of our fund raising has come in small chunks and mostly from ex-boat people," Xuong said. "I think that anyone who went through the experience will never forget, even though they don't have much money. We are able to raise money, not because we're good at fund raising, but because our cause is so overwhelming." The committee would like to tap non-Vietnamese sources but cannot afford what professional fund-raisers would charge for such efforts, he said.

Frowns on Trips Back

With the exodus of Vietnamese continuing, Xuong has no interest in visiting Vietnam to look at conditions there, and he criticizes those who have returned to see relatives. Xuong also questions visits by American veterans and teachers as well, though "I don't want to condemn anybody."

"It's just that I feel any trip to Vietnam can be seen as showing support for the present government, which is very oppressive," Xuong said. Xuong has heard from refugees that the Vietnamese government is well aware of his work with the boat committee and of his position at UCSD, and that the few scientists in Vietnam today have translated copies of his research.

Xuong is quick to point out that he has no political agenda, which has helped make the committee a success, since its appeal reaches across all points of the political spectrum in Vietnamese communities.

If anything, Xuong would like to spend more time lobbying for programs to teach about his country's culture to UCSD and other students--especially Vietnamese-Americans, for whom Vietnam is a dimming memory today.

An experimental seminar last fall at UCSD, during which Xuong brought in Vietnamese experts from universities across the country to lecture, drew large numbers of students, and he hopes for an expanded course next year.

"I knew it was going to be popular," he said. "Many of these students don't realize until they get to college that they want to know more about their country of origin. By being of Vietnamese origin and living in the U. S., I want them to know they are special and should be proud of knowing about both worlds, and should realize that many things from Vietnamese culture can help them succeed in the U. S."

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