James Nguyen was five years old when he boarded a tiny boat with 100 other people for a harrowing sea journey from Vietnam to Malaysia in the fall of 1980.

“I don’t remember what it looked like, I was very young then,” he said. “All I know is that it was very crowded and we were out on the open sea for five days and four nights.”

In the 20 years after the fall of Saigon, around 800,000 people have fled Vietnam by sea, braving storms and pirates in search of a better life.

Nguyen and his sister finally made it to a refugee camp in Malaysia, where they lived for six months, uncertain of their future, before they eventually heard that they would be sent to Canada as part of a programme that resettled more than 60,000 refugees.

Today, he’s one of many in Canada’s Vietnamese community looking to pay the favor forward by extending a helping hand to a new wave of families displaced by war.

“It’s near and dear to the Vietnamese community’s heart because we know what it’s like to be a refugee,” said Nguyen, 40.

Nguyen and other Vietnamese-Canadians are working with Lifeline Syria – a citizen-led project to recruit and train Canadians who want to sponsor and financially support Syrian refugees.

War has been raging in Syria for five years now, causing more than four million people to flee the country, with many making dangerous journeys to Europe and abroad in what human rights advocates have called the worst refugee crisis of our era.

The Canadian government pledged this year to resettle 10,000 of them over the next three years, and prime minister-designate Justin Trudeau promised during the election to increase this number to 25,000.

But regardless of the exact number, sponsors will be the key to success.

Lifeline Syria is modeled on Operation Lifeline, the 1979 rescue program that was a major part of the Canada’s response to the Indochinese refugee movement that eventually resettled 60,000 people around the country.

Le Luong was still a toddler when her grandfather paid a fisherman to smuggle her and her family out of Hanoi in 1978.

Now 39, Luong said that images of Syrian families in refugee camps reminded her of the two years she and her family spent in a Hong Kong camp.

“You become so much more appreciative of everything that we have in Canada, having lived through poverty, having not eaten and having to stand in line for basic necessities like food and water,” she said.

She was sponsored by church groups in London, Ontario and is now a business consultant in Toronto. In October she was one of dozens who gathered to launch the program, called “Vietnamese for Lifeline Syria”.

It costs roughly $20,000 (CAD) to sponsor a refugee family of four for a year, plus startup costs of roughly $7,000 (CAD.) Sponsors will do everything from meeting them at the airport to helping find and cover costs for housing, clothes, food, furnishings, healthcare and training for employment.

But supporters say it’s a small price to pay.

“Without such generosity my life wouldn’t be the same, I don’t know where I would be right now,” said Tom Tang, 44, whose family was sponsored by a farming community in Port Perry, Ontario. Today, Tang has his own accounting firm in Toronto and has no question about helping.

“We’re going to do something about it,” he said. “It’s about being human – the good side of human.”

By Kathleen Caulderwood - The Guardian - October 30, 2015