It’s easy to look at the current humanitarian crisis in Syria, in which we see many refugees making perilous voyages by sea to desperately enter Europe – and often the UK – and think of it as a relatively new phenomenon. The truth is, for many generations the very fabric of British society – our teachers, doctors, nurses, shop workers, baristas, cleaners, artists, builders, computer programmers, plumbers and painters – has consisted of people who came to the UK as refugees and immigrants.
Together with Western Union and the Western Union Foundation, we are sharing real stories of refugees to help breakdown the misconceptions that surround them. We’re all humans and neighbours, no matter our background.
Dam Van Huynh is an award-winning dancer and choreographer with his own company in East London. His contemporary dance projects and movement operas have toured the planet, and he now teaches workshops to budding dancers. He’s lived in Britain for almost two decades.
“I feel like I am a product of the UK,” says Dam. “My home is here, my company is here. I’ve been regularly supported by the Arts Council, so even my creativity is of Britain.”
Dam was born in the Southern region of Vietnam in a small village near the Mekong Delta. This was Vietnam just after the war with America, he tells me, and “it was basically a third world country.” Poverty was everywhere you looked, and if you were lucky enough to have food, you would hide it. But at the same time, he remembers his childhood through a filter of nostalgia. “You have a different sense of the world as a child. We would go to the delta in the evening and swim, and there was something about it that was grand and magical.”
But in the years after the Americans withdrew from the war, the Vietnamese government looked to punish those in the Southern region who had opposed communist rule, and Dam’s mother was left with two choices: stay and die, or flee towards dangerous uncertainty. During this period, many Vietnamese fled their country by sea, and they became known as “boat people”. Over the years, it’s thought that almost 800,000 blindly set sail into the South China Sea and Gulf of Thailand in the hope that someone would pick them up.
Dam’s family began the journey when he was only four years old and it took two years. At first they were picked up by a coast guard and spent two months on an oil rig in the middle of the ocean. Eventually they found their way to refugee camps in Thailand before their papers were finally processed and they were granted safe passage to the United States.
Between the ages of six and seventeen, Dam grew up in the US. “When you are going through that experience as an immigrant, there is a sense of shame almost. I just didn’t want to stand out. I tried my best not to think about my culture or heritage. I knew I was different, so I tried my best to be invisible perhaps.” One afternoon, when bored with a friend, they decided to take a risk and attend some dance classes at a local community centre. “I fell into it and fell in love with it,” says Dam. “It made sense to me and it stuck. It was a perfect fit.”
He graduated from The Boston Conservatory (a college for performing arts), and began performing across the world, before moving to the UK where he founded his own company and has now lived and worked for 18 years. He sees the UK as his home. “I’ve been fortunate to have a career in the arts,” says Dam, “because you are constantly allowed this opportunity to reflect on yourself. I think it is through this medium of expression that I have been able to take stock and really look at my journey as an individual.”
Whenever Dam and his family first arrived on foreign soil as refugees, it was always local community centres that gave them the most support, guiding them on the path towards building a new life and settling down. As a result, it became his lifelong obsession to repay these organisations somehow, and in the last few years his story has come full circle.
“A few years ago, I started as a volunteer at a community centre for refugees in Hackney. The more time I spent there the more I realised they were struggling.” With his dance company already operating with a strong infrastructure, he decided to offer to merge with the charity and pool their resources. “We had a community centre that was dying and a dance company that needed a new home, so I joined the board of trustees and we formed a partnership where we can sustain each other as a creative way to get through the challenges of the current economic crisis.”
Now, what was once a struggling community centre has been re-branded as Centre 151. It’s become a place where migrants from East Asia and local Hackney residents can come together. Vietnamese food is served at lunch, dance classes happen weekly and there is even a meditation centre. “It’s not just about us helping each other,” says Dam. “It’s also a legacy thing. I am from the same area of the refugee experience as them, and I want to help them continue to do what they do in the UK.”