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Scattered across the world, the Boat People shaped unknown and alien places, into their new homes. Hear their stories of adjusting to their new surroundings.

Air Canada Airlift: Alain Klein

Air Canada Vancouver-based crews were assigned to airlift Vietnamese refugees from various points in South-East Asia to major Canadian cities in 1979-1980. This refugee resettlement program would become one of Canada’s largest and most ambitious, bringing over 50,000 Vietnamese ‘boat people’ to our shores and throughout the country.  The pages from
this journal are circa 1979 in its original format.

I. "They came in all shapes and sizes"
We eventually arrived at Kuala Lumpur airport and passed through the usual formalities of Customs and Immigration. We noticed our passengers were waiting patiently seated under and around the aircraft in the shade. They had arrived about 3 hours. ahead of time in buses. One very noticeable thing was the total lack of baggage, just a few stray possessions. We made our way to the aircraft and went through the usual ritual of briefing and inspections. Laws in Cantonese identifying exit areas and washrooms had already been posted up by the previous crew and our next task was to identify those passengers who were English or French speaking. This was done before anyone boarded and they were boarded first.

Those seven multilinguals of our passengers set the atmosphere of a mixture of happiness, gratefulness, relief and some apprehension, the latter being forgotten once we were under-way. Warmth and shyness were the most significant feelings. We instructed each of the seven passengers on how to use the various emergency exits and at the same time reassuring them that the chances of an emergency were very remote. Within a few minutes they had relaxed and were asking many questions about the aircraft and Canada. One of them explained that he was a pilot in the Vietnamese air force and would be very pleased if he could see the cockpit sometime during the flight “with the Captain’s permission.” The politeness of these people was evident from the time they boarded and throughout the forthcoming delay.

The time had arrived to board the rest of the group. It was suggested to board the mothers and children first but that was impractical since on no account did anyone wish to be separated.

The eyes of children were the most unforgettable sight I've ever experienced. Such awe clutching their parent's or guardian’s hand, a little toothless smile here and a little fear there, not too sure where to go, where to sit, some letting themselves be led by one of us, others holding back. They came in all shapes and sizes, clean, well groomed, their meager possessions held tightly. We loaded through the rear exit of the aircraft to the front leaving one row up front for our chosen group leader - who was more than willing to help us out with the announcements.

II. "A terrific opportunity to get to know the passengers"
During the course of the delay I had a chance to sit down and chat with our group leader. He was Vietnamese, educated in Europe and the U.S. and was, I later learned, a very well known civil engineer. Having been educated abroad and fluent in several languages, he was considered a spy by the new Vietnamese Regime and was incarcerated for two years in a Communist Labour Camp. During his imprisonment he was tortured and watched three of his family members strangled with chicken wire before his eyes. He managed to escape and during that time changed his nationality to Chinese. This apparently made it somewhat easier to move around and try to find his wife and try to escape by boat from Vietnam. He had to be constantly on the move so that the authorities could not catch up with him. After three or four months of constant running he and his wife were able to get aboard an inadequate, overlooked boat at a price of two thousand dollars in gold per person. After three months at sea, and 25% of the passengers drowned, they arrived in Malaysia and were placed in an internment camp of a maximum capacity of 2, 000 people and 20 toilets. The camp held 40 thousand refugees with barley and water and extremely squalid conditions. Due to his education and his fame in his profession this man was lucky to qualify entrance to Canada. What about the poor and unqualified, what chance do they have - a terrible thought.

For some reason or another we in Air Canada think that these other places in the world are no different with respect to the aircraft operations than they are in the rest of the Western World. I wish we would wake up. Greasing of palms, etc. are an everyday occurrence in order to run operations smoothly. A little oil on the squeaky wheel makes all the difference, saves much time, aggravation, and in the long run, lots of money. Our ground power unit ran out of gas, the INS cooled down, radio rack overheated and problems snowballed. This in turn over-projected us to arrive in Japan before Tokyo airport closed for the night and that was it - a 12 hour delay resulted. The figure of 150 dollars per hour for an air conditioning unit was quoted to me. This, was all other expenses incurred during that delay must have cost a pretty penny. Anyway, here was a terrific opportunity to get to know some of the 240 passengers.

Meanwhile, consultations between our Captain, the Air Canada rep. in KL and Tokyo, and the Canadian Ambassador to Tokyo requesting for us to be able to land in Tokyo after curfew proved fruitless. Remembering what happened to the passengers of the previous flight, who were delayed due to the Manila affair, I consulted my crew and requested the Captain to ask Kuala Lumpur airport authority for us to keep our passengers on board the aircraft and not to send them back to camp, where the previous passengers spent the night in the pouring rain because their original places in the camp had already been taken by other incoming refugees. The decision of my crew, I am very proud to say, was unanimous as far as keeping our passengers on board and the long hours of work ahead did not faze them one bit.

III. "Breaking the Ice"
We then set about making the passengers happy and comfortable and served a snack and juice, tea, and water. We were notified by our group leader that they had not eaten since the previous night to 3 hrs. later when we served the hot meal and tea. After the meal was cleared away we mingled with the passengers and tried with and without interpreters to communicate. The children were no problem. Little ones were approaching us slowly coaxed on by toys and games. First one or two came towards me. I had attracted their interest with a small calculator. Little fingers advanced cautiously and tried to find the correct button to press to make the music. First one button - no sound - then another, - still no sound and then yes, maybe this one, yes, this one and the music started. Smiles, laughter and applause. I felt like a modern version of Hans Christian Anderson. Once the ice was broken with the laughter, I found two sitting and two others climbing on my knees, the same was happening to one or two of the other flight attendants. Most of us had brought cameras with us and the opportunity to take some pictures remember the trip by. Well, as soon as the cameras came out, that was it, the whole aircraft wanted its picture taken. Individual children, mothers and children, and whole family groups beckoned us to take a photo. Names and addresses were exchanged and a filing system of some antiquity was set up in order to send the correct photo to the correct person. Some flight attendants had brought some discarded clothes along with them for distribution among the children or whoever they would fit. These little donations were received with such overwhelming gratitude it was hard to hold back tears of joy.

We had tried to organize some sort of rest period for the flight attendants, however, returning to the hotel downtown in shifts was impractical so half-hour breaks were organized to the airport crew lounge.

We had been on the aircraft for the best part of 8 hours by this time and replenishment of the aircraft with regard to food, water and amenities took place. In the meantime, our air conditioning unit had run out of gas and also broke down. The replacement unit was too small for the aircraft. Temperature on the aircraft doubled in no time and became very uncomfortable. The temperature outside was already at 90 - 100F. We put up with this for about one hour or so unit a new unit was attached.

A hot meal was boarded at 1200 hours, together with more juices and tea. This was to be served between Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo. Around this time the aircraft ran out of water - this was fine and dandy except that the hook up nozzle on the tandem was not the right fitting, Eventually some water was boarded, however, we ran out of water 3 hours out of Kuala Lumpur.

Conversation between crew and passengers, although limited, was still vigorous now that the people were getting used to us and their surroundings. Our group leader had even allocated four people to ensure that the washrooms and cabins were kept clean and tidy and to tell you the truth the aircraft was as clean on arrival in Tokyo, if not cleaner than when they boarded in Kuala Lumpur.

The sun had by now gone down and the evening had become warm and sultry, the aroma of tropical flowers and vegetation was very pleasing. As one stood on the ramp step of the aircraft a quiet moment of reflection made one ask why such grotesque hardships should be suffered by innocent people only a few miles away. The contrast of what we had been told by these people and the serenity of the evening made a burning impression on one’s mind.

IV. "Departure: Renewed Hope"
Notice of our impending departure came at around 10:00 p.m. local time. We were by this time being constantly asked by our passengers if we were really departing now. Reassurance was given that we now were all of us - keeping our fingers crossed, that nothing else would impede our departure, remembering in the back of our minds the absolute disappointment and loss of hope on their faces when they were first told of our delay.

At last doors were closed, engines started up and wheels rolled. Renewed hope on each and every face, hand clutched together peering out of windows into the surrounding darkness which did hostile feelings towards them. Mixed feelings of hope and happiness in leaving all those terrifying moments behind and great sadness when thoughts stray to friends and family left behind, in some cases never to be seen again. These lives filled with such bittersweet thoughts - like the little boys in the forward section of the aircraft aged 6 and 8 who saw their mother drown when escaping on the boat - like the three teenagers who had to leave their family because they could not afford to pay the gold demanded for themselves to escape so stayed behind and sent their three children to freedom. I could go on and on. Will we ever learn!

Our flight to Tokyo went without a hitch.


Story by Alain Klein, Kelowna, Canada. Alain is a retired flight attendant who worked for Air Canada for 25 years. Alain loves fishing, wood carving, and gardening.