Saturday, December 23, 2000

Margaret Wente

A boat kid's Christmas in Canada

It's uncertain what his real name is, but he calls himself Sam.

His home is China's Fujian province, but his new home is somewhere in British Columbia's Lower Mainland, where he's about to spend his second Christmas in Canada.

Nearly 600 illegal migrants were picked up back in the summer of '99, the summer of the boat people. Sam is one of the few who are left. Most of the adults disappeared before their refugee hearings. Some were sent back home; a handful gained refugee status.

Most people had not a shred of sympathy for the queue-jumping illegals, and even less for a government that couldn't figure out how to send them back. But then there were the kids — 143 of them, mostly on their own, all under 18. It was hard to see the kids in handcuffs.

Most of the kids are gone now, too. But a couple of dozen are still here, still trying for refugee status, still hoping they'll be allowed to be Canadian. Sam is one. And, as he waits, he's becoming more and more Canadian every day.

"His English is very good now," says Robin Pike, the child-protection worker who manages the boat kids' care for the B.C. government. "He has a job, knows the bus system, has a new group of friends. Last year, they had a traditional Canadian Christmas and they loved it and, this year, they're having another one."

A couple of weeks ago, Sam and eight of the other teenagers got an early Christmas present. The Federal Court of Canada stopped their deportation because, it ruled, they could be persecuted by being trafficked all over again by their parents and human smugglers. The court said they hadn't been old enough to give informed consent, and sent their cases back for review.

Sam was 17 when his parents told him they were sending him away. He says they gave him two days notice. He did what he was told, as Chinese kids are raised to do, and because he was convinced he'd be helping his family. From that moment on, his future was ransomed to the snakeheads.

Sam wasn't told where he was going, or how he'd get there, or how long it would take. He was simply told that North America was the land of opportunity. In fact, he was headed for indentured servitude, where he'd work off his passage in the sweatshops and restaurant kitchens of New York. Or he might become a prostitute. The smuggling fee for human cargo was as high as $40,000 then.

Sam's decaying cargo ship was intercepted in Nootka Sound. Some of the other kids on board were only 13. All of them were hungry, cold, sick, scared. They all gave false names — Western names, such as Michael and Jordan. They named themselves after Western products and companies and celebrities.

Every other nation on Earth would have kicked out the kids right away. But we are too inefficient, naive or compassionate (take your pick) for that. Instead, we turned them over to B.C.'s child-protection service while the courts tried to figure out what to do with them.

We treated them like our own. Sam settled into a group home with a bunch of other boat kids. The regulations say no more than two kids to a bedroom, but they preferred a crowd. So they bunked four to a room, and hung the walls with posters of Western action movies, Western cars and Western sports stars. They took up swimming and basketball. They had curfews, chores and allowances. They celebrated the Moon Festival, and then a Christmas with turkey, tree and trimmings, and then Easter. All of them are sponges for Western culture.

Being Fujianese, the boat kids have an entrepreneurial streak. They're very good at origami and so they went into the origami business, using their teachers and supervisors to help peddle their folded paper animals. When Sam turned 18, he moved out of the group home and got an apartment and a job in construction. He's trying as best he can to lead a Canadian life.

The child-protection service never locked them up, though some people think it should have, if only for their own safety. They know all about the snakeheads now.

But after the refugee board turned them down last spring, most of them took off, preferring the perils of the underground to the jail time and harassment they will surely face if they're deported back home. Sam, however, decided to roll the dice and stick.

Every day of his life, he's got to make that decision all over again. Which path will be least perilous? It's not a choice any boy I know will ever have to make.

It's easy for us pampered Westerners to sentimentalize Sam's plight. For centuries, parents have sent away their strongest children to be breadwinners. All over the world, boys and girls younger than Sam leave hard lives at home for hard lives in unknown lands. Only we in the West are rich enough to treat our children tenderly for so long and protect them so much.

Still, I hope Sam makes it. It sounds as if he'd be one terrific Canadian.

[Vancouver 2000] [News by region] [News by topic]

Created: December 21, 2000
Last modified: January 21, 2001
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