Ulster's Vietnamese build a future against the odds: Adam Alexander reports on the fight by refugees to find peace and prosperity on a run-down estate

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The Independent Online
Nan is schizophrenic. The second and third fingers of his right hand are stained a deep orange. There are black burn marks where he has held a cigarette too long - seemingly oblivious to the pain. Subdued by prescribed drugs, he lights yet another cigarette from his last and inhales deeply. He rocks forward gently and smiles with a childlike curiosity.

Sitting opposite is Annie Burnell - formerly social worker to the Vietnamese community in Craigavon and now their informal leader. She works her way through this week's mail, all from the DSS. None of the Vietnamese adults can read or write English. She is their only link with the outside world.

Monday night is problem night for the Vietnamese who live on the Rosmoyle estate in Craigavon, a government-inspired new town.

Once a town planner's dream along Milton Keynes lines, it is a now a miserable labyrinth of council estates, an impersonal and run-down maze where the residents are mostly unemployed.

The graffiti-strewn estate is the only part of Craigavon (and Northern Ireland) where the Vietnamese still exist in any numbers. There are about 10 families left now, compared with at least 25 that arrived in 1979.

Sitting to Annie's right is Chan K Tsan, backbone of the Vietnamese community. His three sons and four daughters are the largest family of the remaining Vietnamese in Northern Ireland. They once owned (and, according to the Vietnamese government, still do) a thriving supermarket business in Vietnam.

His son, John Tsan, is one of the few original 'boat people' who came to Britain in 1979, and one of the few who can speak good English. Now 32, he was 14 when he escaped Vietnam in 1975. 'Every day they were killing people in Saigon. There was no business,' he said.

His first job in Britain was a government training scheme in Stockport where he was paid pounds 18 a week. Disillusioned after only two months, and under a constant barrage of racist taunts at work, he left for Northern Ireland in search of a better life. 'I feel so lucky to live here. I feel lucky every day,' he said. Mr Tsan remains positive about the place where he has lived the past 12 years; but he charts its demise, and with it the demise of the Vietnamese community. 'Twelve years ago, it was very nice here. There were nice cars, you know - BMWs and even Mercedes Benz. You used to be able to go into the shopping centre and there would be at least 100 or 150 Vietnamese people. But then some lower-class people, single people, moved here from Belfast and drove the high-class people away. They were just bad people, no job, no anything.

'They would break into our homes and steal things. They told us if we reported it to the police or anything, they would set fire to our house or kill us.

'My people were scared. They all began leaving. One day five families, the next day 10 families. But not the Tsan family. We fought these people with knives. We were in the hospital, the police station, the newspapers . . . '

Things have since improved on Rosmoyle. The 'bad people' have left, the Irish community mix well with the Vietnamese and there are signs that the original Vietnamese are drifting back.

John, a father of four, now owns two takeaway restaurants, one in nearby Moy and the other in Belfast.

He said: 'When we first moved here, people asked us if we were Protestant or Catholic. We didn't understand. What is Protestant or Catholic? So they asked us what we believed and you know what we tell them - we believe in ourselves.'

He will never consider going back to Vietnam. 'They (the Vietnamese government) say they want us to go back. But we don't trust them.'

His feelings are echoed by Tony Chuong, who arrived in 1982 and subsequently married an Irish girl. 'Here I've got a job, I've got a car, I've got my family. I don't want to leave.'

(Photograph omitted)