Community Centre for Refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – VLC Centre

Formally known as St. Mary’s Church Hall, 151 Whiston road was established as a Community Centre in June 1984, becoming a focal point for a range of social, cultural and educational activities. A steering group of 12 representatives from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia was then set up to draft a Constitution for a new organisation gathering refugees from the three groups.

In June 1985 a general meeting was held with an attendance of about 200 refugees to elect a Management Committee in charge of refining the Constitution. The latter was approved and the organisation was granted Charity Status No 291530 under the name of Community Centre for Refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia also known as VLC Centre.

In February 1986, the Greater London Council made a contribution towards purchasing and renovating the property at 151 Whiston road for a lease of 99 years. In April 1986, the London Borough Grants Unit awarded funding towards running costs and staff.

The Community Centre for Refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia officially opened to the public in June 1987. Development grants were also provided by various funders to support essential activities for the settlement of new arrivals and care for elderly, women, unemployed and young people.

The development of the Centre has been a vital meeting point for refugees from South East Asia to socialise, integrate into the wider society and gain support from those who experienced similar life journeys. Today, despite challenging economic times, the VLC trust has formed new collaborative partnerships in order to continue its services and legacy for future generation.

The Vietnamese Refugee Community

The fall of South Vietnam in 1975 forced 3 million people to flee Vietnam for fear of persecution, leaving behind their land, properties and their extended families. “Thousands of Vietnamese died or drowned in the South China Sea because their boat capsized, or murdered by pirates” [FC Kiehne, Focus, 1989]. Supporting the cause of Vietnamese boat people, the Guardian wrote on December 14 1989 , ‘they were the victims of appalling persecution, terrible enough to make them sell all their belongings, leave their homes and risk their lives sailing in overcrowded and dangerous ships, with no certainty of escape…The plight of boat people in their leaky, wooden junks, touched the heart of millions all around the world’.

This tragedy had not ended as borders war broke out in 1979 between China and Vietnam. The Vietnamese authorities forced North Vietnamese of Chinese origins or those having connections with China to leave the country for fear of spying for China. A new flow of Vietnamese became homeless and fled the country to unknown destination.

The Vietnam War has ended for nearly 4 decades and Vietnam has established an Open Door Economic Policy but the Vietnamese authorities cannot prevent young Vietnamese from making their way to the West. The socio-economic and political deprivation in Vietnam is a push factor for them to leave their homecountry via clandestine routes run by smugglers after selling all their belongings and claim asylum in the UK.

An estimate of 32,000 Vietnamese now live in Britain not including asylum seekers. Historically the London Borough of Hackney has been and still is today a place of welcome for the community. Before reaching the UK, many of them stayed for extended period of times in refugee camps where they received no formal education and no access to social services. Hencewhy the community faces challenges such as language barrier, lack of transferable skills, breakdown of family relationship network, high level of unemployment and culture shock.

Today, whilst many young people have reached higher education, the majority of adults concentrate in the area of service provision or low paid work. Their contribution to Hackney’s dynamism is undeniable with some areas such as Mare Street and Kingsland Road peppered with Vietnamese businesses.

Lao Association in the UK – LAUK

At the beginning of 1970, there were a very small number of Lao students living in the UK, most of them came to further their studies under the sponsorship of the British Government through the Aid Programme offered to the then Royal Lao Government. Their main areas of studies were Electronic engineering, printing, hospitality and catering.

By 1975, some returned to Laos after completing their studies hoping to participate in rebuilding the motherland under the new regime. Unfortunately, almost all those who returned were forced to escape to Thailand, where they applied to come to the UK as refugees. The British Government welcomed them back with open arms. Some came back with their immediate families, some applied for their families much later after settling down.

With a sense of community, the Lao Association in the UK was formed in 1980. Its aims are to promote charitable purposes for Lao people living in the UK, including the advancement of education and the relief of poverty and distress. The association was also set up to preserve and develop an understanding of Lao culture amongst Lao community members and their counterparts. It also aims to provide outreach, news and information between the community and other organisations with the same objectives.

According to a survey carried out by LAUK, there are about 1,000 Lao people living in the UK today, mostly in London and Portsmouth. Coming from diverse educational and cultural backgrounds, Lao people in the UK have integrated in the British society.

Cambodian Society in the UK – CASUNIK

The Cambodian Society in the UK is a non-political organisation whose aim is to advance the education of the public about any aspect of Cambodia, including its people, history, culture and traditions.

CASUNIK was formed during the Buddhist Pchum Ben ceremony in October 1979 from the ashes of the student Association of the Khmer Republic – SAKR together with some former Khmer Republic Embassy Staff and their families who were left stranded in the UK.

The SAKR, a non-political organisation, was formed in Colchester under the auspices of the Embassy of the Lon Nol Khmer Republic 1971-1975 whose aims were that the Cambodian national and British people alike get together socially and promote the Cambodian culture to the host country. Its members were originally a group of 12 Cambodian students, who were under the sponsorship of the Colombo Plan administered by the British Council in the UK, arrived in London at the beginning of 1971. The primary aim of the students was to further their post-graduate studies, many successfully achieving Doctorate and Master degrees and then to return to serve Cambodia on completion of their studies.

The SAKR was dissolved in late 1975 following the takeover of Cambodia by the Pol Pot regime in April 1975. Some students members who chose to return to Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime were reported to have been killed then.

The remaining former students and some former Embassy staff and their families who stayed became ‘stateless’ but later adopted refugee status in the UK under the 1951 Geneva Convention.

In 1984, following several discussion with the British Council for Refugees and with the help of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, CASUNIK became a fully registered charity organisation with a much revised constitution originally formulated at the AGM in October 1981.

CASUNIK remains as a registered charity organisation to the present day. With an executive committee of 5 elected members, the organisation has and continues to work well among the Cambodian and British communities at large in preserving and exchanging cultural and other mutual interests amongst its members in the UK.

There are approximately 1,000 Cambodians living in the UK, amongst them nearly half live in London.