It is with heavy hearts that Eka shares the tragic news of Yao Nay's death on Sunday morning (August 19th, 2012) near his home village in an area of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. The official report is that he succumbed to injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident near his wife's village, (Ia Phang village, Chu Se District, in Gia Lai province),an area closed to foreigners by the Vietnamese government. Details are limited as communications in and out of this area are severely restricted by the government. A full investigation by Department of Foreign Affairs is now underway.
Yao Nay (July 24, 1982 - August 19, 2012) with his MP & former federal immigration critic Don Davies last Christmas. Don has worked tirelessly over the years with Eka to help Yao and the other Montagnard men reunite with their wives and children.
Yao Nay was Jarai, one of the Montagnard (aka Degar) peoples indigenous to the highlands of what is now considered Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In 2005, he joined thousands of his fellow Montagnard who have risked everything – leaving their families, communities and ancestral lands behind – to flee decades of violent religious and ethnic persecution by the Vietnamese government. Yao escaped through the heavy jungle over the border to Cambodia and sought asylum in the UNHCR refugee camp in Phnom Penh. After a year in the camp, he was resettled to Vancouver by Canada as a government sponsored refugee.
Yao arrived in Canada on a cold December day in 2006 – quite a shock to someone raised in the tropical jungles of Southeast Asia!
Along with the other Montagnard men sent to Vancouver, Yao struggled with the difficulties of being resettled into Vancouver's Vietnamese community and provided with only Vietnamese interpretation (a language unrelated to theirs, which they do not understand.) He also struggled with being separated from his wife for so long. A soul can handle a year or two, but if he or any of the men had known just how long it would take to reunite with their families, not one of them would have gotten on that plane in Cambodia. Sadly, earlier this year, as Yao turned 30, his 6-year effort to sponsor his wife to Canada hit a brick wall when Citizenship & Immigration Canada officially denied his One Year Window sponsorship application.
Yao had applied to sponsor his wife under the One Year Window program when he first arrived as a refugee, but being mistaken for Vietnamese seriously impeded his ability to communicate with border services or understand the complexity of the sponsorship process. Citizenship & Immigration Canada denied his application on the grounds that he did not tell immigration officials he was married when he was questioned at the airport. Yao had in fact tried in his language, Jarai, but the officials who oversaw the process only spoke Vietnamese and did not record his statement. To complicate matters, his wife was called to the Canadian Consulate in Ho Chi Minh last fall for an interview, where she was questioned in Vietnamese (ignoring her extremely limited ability to communicate in Vietnamese) and couldn't give a satisfactory answer as to why they had not gone on a honeymoon and didn't have any wedding photos (practices that are entirely culturally irrelevant to these indigenous forest peoples.) Eka helped Yao launch an appeal before the Immigration & Refugee Board; however, by the time he left, it was becoming clear that they would not be able to overturn the decision on humanitarian & compassionate grounds.
Nevertheless, Yao worked very hard to learn English and accomplished the incredible feat of becoming a Canadian citizen just a few short months ago (the only way for him to return to Vietnam to see his wife again.) "It was a proud day when he brought me the letter which invited him to his oath ceremony," said Kara Ardan, an Eka Director who worked closely with Yao for years, "I remember shaking his hand – he was so thrilled! He knew it also meant he could travel to Vietnam to see his wife again." Yao immediately applied for a Canadian passport and used this new ID to get a visa to travel back to his village. While excited to see his wife, he was also very worried about how the Vietnamese police would treat him (as all the Montagnard men are who manage to do this). He gave a copy of his identification and emergency contact numbers to us here at Eka in case 'anything happened'. Predictably, the harassment began as soon as he arrived at the airport and the Vietnamese officials saw the birthplace on his passport. He called home several times throughout his stay to relay that he was being bullied, interrogated, harrassed and followed by the Vietnamese police.
[Unfortunately, this situation is all too common in Vietnam. Several Montagnard men have managed to go back, and each time have face lengthy interrogations on arrival at the airport and repeatedly throughout their visits about their activities and relationships here in Canada. Family members have been forced to sign statements accepting personal liability for any political uprisings that occur during their visit and we have obtained documentation of repeated police interrogations and physical harassment of family members of refugees resettled to Canada. Many of the men have never returned to their village again, as their visit brought significant hardship and continued police harassment upon their wives, children and extended families. In fact, one of Eka's founding Directors – herself Canadian-born – was denied her right to contact the Canadian embassy, while detained illegally by the Vietnamese police for 3 days after attempting to visit a Montagnard village in the Central Highlands.]
During his years in Canada, Yao had been working hard at many low wage, part-time jobs to save up enough money to give his wife a larger wedding, with a fancy dress and a big dinner for their families. Like many other young Montagnard, Yao got married during a time of heightened violence and severe oppression. Large village gatherings were banned and the Vietnamese police would observe and severely restrict attendance at community celebrations like weddings. Yao was so happy to be able to surprise his wife with this big party when he arrived back in Vietnam. And they did have a lovely time, Yao said it was everything he had hoped for and that he was getting sad, as he was due to come back to Vancouver on Sept 3rd, when his visa expired. I think he knew it would be a long battle to convince CIC that in fact they really were married and that they wouldn't able to be together permanently for a very long time. The uncertainty of the appeal of CIC's decision weighed heavily on him, even though several excellent lawyers had agreed to assist him pro bono with his complicated case.
To compound the tragedy of Yao's story, he had been alone for a very long time and during this period became close friends with a young Montagnard girl he'd met in the refugee camp who had bravely escaped through the jungle as a teenager. When the camp was closed, she too was resettled to Vancouver and, although not outwardly a couple, they sought comfort with each other through the long, difficult years – a serious consequence of the extraordinary length of time CIC takes to process family reunifications. Yao leaves behind two very young children born here in Vancouver. At just 21, this young single mother is now alone again and utterly devastated that her children (3 years and 6 months old) will never know their father.
While the Vancouver Montagnard community is deeply mourning the loss of their close friend, their ability to carry on together with grace, faith, hope and humility in the face of the many hardships they continue to face is an inspiration to all Canadians – especially those of us who they've so readily welcomed into their lives.
Through all of the tears shed here at Eka and in the Vancouver Montagnard community, we are all taking some comfort in knowing that Yao was able to spend his last month on the land he loved, surrounded by his parents, village community and the wife he'd yearned so long to see again.
Chair & Co-Founder