There is a voice of this story that I don’t think I’ve been able to adequately capture. And that is the voice of the Southeast Asian immigrants that populate the fishing communities of southeast Mississippi and southwest Alabama. I wish I had had the opportunity to interview more people about this. But here’s what I know.
Many people don’t know that immigrants from Viet Nam, Cambodia and Loas make up about a third of the population of Bayou la Batre and its environs. They started coming to the US in the mid and late 1970′s as refugees fleeing the Viet Nam war, Communist dictators and the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge. They flocked to the fishing and shrimping communities here because shrimping and fishing is what they knew.
“I think they saved the shrimping industry on the Mississippi Gulf coast,” said Richard Gollot, who has run oyster and shrimp processing plants his whole adult life. Oystering and shrimping are grueling work. Once the SE Asian immigrants landed in New Orleans, they began seeking out these most jobs shucking oysters and heading shrimp. And they were good. They were good and they worked longer hours than any of the locals at the time.
Word spread down the coast, and Richard started driving the 90 miles to New Orleans to pick up the refugees who wanted work. He said he was able to increase production, and the oystering became more profitable for him. He said his production levels before the Vietnamese began working for him had been restricted simply by the hours folks were willing to shuck. Eventually the immigrant population proliferated all the way down to Mobile Bay.
A generation has gone by, and many of the workers’ children are now well educated. Many are doctors, from the stories I’ve heard. But they are now and integral part of the local fabric.
An organization called Boat People SOS operates as support for the whole community of Bayou La Batre, but they specialize in translations for the southeast asian immigrants, so that’s who they service most. David Pham, an SOS employee, says that since the spill, demand has spiked. By this past April, the community was well established. SOS was doing a lot of financial literacy classes and English as a second language support. Positive steps, not crisis management. But since the beginning of May they’re helping people file for food stamps, unemployment and BP claims.
Many of the local fisherman are in OK shape, as they can work for BP scouting oil or continue to shrimp in Mississippi. But most of the immigrants work in the support industries. Impaired by the language barrier, they are stuck. Most worked for the processing plants, which now have 70-90% less product to process. A lot of the folks I’ve spoken to say that normally this time of year, they’d be working 70-hour weeks. It is peak shrimping season, after all. But now many are lucky to get 20 hours, if they’re plant hasn’t shut down all together.
If you want to help, you could donate money to their food bank. Many of these lifelong seafood workers are going hungry. Visit Boat People SOS's Gulf Coast Oil Spill page for information.
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Ashley Hall is an SFA member and contributer toGravy, the SFA's foodletter. She is traveling along the Gulf Coast to capture stories relating to the oil spill as a traveling Gravy correspondent. We'll be posting relevant entries here, but visit the blog she's set up for the project, Third Coast Byways, for more.