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Hope’s Waystations—Halfway Houses for Southeast Asians in Trouble

Tran Thi Hoa and migrant workers awaiting repatriation tend their vegetable garden. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

Tran Thi Hoa and migrant workers awaiting repatriation tend their vegetable garden. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
 

Life’s journey is marked by many way-­stations. Some people leave their homelands to marry, and their spouses’ homelands become their new homes. Others travel to foreign countries to work, their homelands existing only in their dreams. But fate often ruthlessly tests people. When migrant workers or permanent immigrants are injured or suffer setbacks, there are some halfway houses run by immigrant volunteers that can comfort them on their journeys.

 

On the ground floor of a nondescript house on Guolin Road in Taoyuan’s Dayuan District, what first meets the eye on entering is a large bedroom filled with single and double beds. Two sofas act as a partition, setting off a common area. Here, Tran Thi Hoa, a Vietnamese immigrant, provides free accommodations and meals to runaway migrant workers.

A rest stop on the road

Sitting next to one bed is Hoang Thanh Cuan, who relies on a walker to get around. While evading a police roundup, he fell three stories at a construction site, shattering bones in his arms and legs. He’s been staying at the halfway house for two months. Although he has lived in Taiwan for little more than two years, he speaks good Mandarin. “To come to Taiwan to work, I borrowed more than NT$200,000 to pay a broker. A month’s salary was NT$16,000, and every month I sent NT$10,000 back to Vietnam to repay the debt. But the factory I worked at, which built screw-making machinery, often didn’t have enough work, and I wasn’t even making NT$10,000 a month. They told me to go back to Vietnam, but I owe too much money, so I ran away. A friend helped me find a job rendering walls at a construction site in Hsinchu, where I was making NT$1500-1700 a day.

“Basically there are two types of migrant workers who run away,” says Tran Thi Hoa. “One doesn’t want to work, just wants to have fun. The brokers are to blame for the other: the employer doesn’t want to hire the worker, or there isn’t any work to do, but the brokers don’t try to find them other jobs. They just say they’re sending them back to their countries. The workers have already spent a lot of money to come here, so they have no choice but to run away and look for illegal employment.”

Compatriots

Since 2014, Tran Thi Hoa has been working with migrant workers, none of whom she had known previously. For the past several years she’s been using crowdfunding on Facebook to cover the cost of the migrants’ expenses. To date, she has helped at least a thousand migrant workers. Warmhearted and generous, Hoa was herself once a runaway.

When she first came to Taiwan in 2001, Hoa looked after an elderly man in Changhua. After he died, she was sent to Taichung to care for an elderly woman.

Although Tran Thi Hoa’s job description listed her duties as “domestic cleaning,” the 70-year-old woman wanted Hoa to massage her for two hours twice a day, once from five to seven in the morning, and once again in the evening, from ten to midnight. What’s more, the woman expected Hoa to do the washing and cleaning in the homes of her five sons. “After only a week, I’d lost four kilos,” Hoa says, eyes glistening with tears.

“The eldest son’s wife was very nice!” says Hoa brightly. “She told me her mother-in-law had already gone through several caregivers in the space of a week. She said I wouldn’t be able to bear it and urged me to run away. She even gave me three or four thousand NT dollars to pay for a taxi.” While on the run, Hoa worked in a restaurant in Dayuan’s Zhuwei neighborhood, where she met Xu Haisong, a Taiwanese citizen. Ten months later the couple were married in Vietnam, and then returned to live in Taiwan.

After working in a factory for several years, Hoa opened a hardware store, and now has three shops in Nankan and Dayuan. Moreover, she has the financial means to help others.
 

Nguyen Kim Hong (right) hopes that local Taiwanese residents and foreign migrant workers can engage in friendly cultural exchanges at the Vietnam–Chiayi Culture House. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

Nguyen Kim Hong (right) hopes that local Taiwanese residents and foreign migrant workers can engage in friendly cultural exchanges at the Vietnam–Chiayi Culture House. (photo by Jimmy Lin)
 

Do good and others will follow

Perhaps it’s as South Africa’s Bishop Desmond Tutu put it: “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” Tran Thi Hoa’s good deeds have exerted a magnetic pull, attracting other kindhearted folk to join her.

In 2015, Hoa was in a hospital caring for a runaway migrant worker when she happened to meet a Taiwanese woman, Hu Meihua, who had come to visit another patient. Learning of the good things Hoa had been doing, Hu volunteered to join her. Retired and financially comfortable, she assists in handling cumbersome administrative procedures when runaway migrants turn themselves in or apply for new passports, tasks she has undertaken for the past four years.

A local Buddhist temple sometime donates rice, and Taoyuan City units of the National Immigration Agency help out with toilet paper and laundry detergent. Ta Ngoc Mai, who is married to a Taiwanese man and has been living in Taiwan for the past ten years, comes once or twice a month to cut migrants’ hair free of charge.

The neighbors who live catty-corner from Tran Thi Hoa know she’s accommodating a houseful of migrant workers. Aware of how expensive it is to feed so many, they’ve donated a piece of land so that Hoa can save money by growing her own vegetables. Hoa gets up at six every morning and tends the garden along with migrant workers who are waiting to return to their country. She’s planted several types of Vietnamese vegetables, such as star gooseberry, jute leaves, and shiso, so that they can savor the taste of home. For lunch, there’s grouper, a delicacy generously provided by a local angler.

Nothing makes Tran Thi Hoa happier than helping her compatriots in Taiwan.

A home for her sisters

Runaway migrant workers are also a concern for Nguyen Kim Hong, a Vietnamese documentary filmmaker interviewed in Taiwan Panorama’s April 2016 issue. Her documentary See You, Lovable Strangers shows what lies behind runaway workers’ misery and sense of helplessness, giving audiences a better understanding of their plight.

In Out/Marriage (2012), another documentary, Hong focuses on the domestic violence and failed marriages both she and other immigrant wives have experienced. But she also extends a helping hand to those women, sheltering as many as four at a time in her home in Chiayi County’s Minxiong Township.

To allow her family a bit more privacy, Hong had always hoped to raise enough money to set up a migrant worker and immigrant assistance center. In 2017, she rented a house in Minxiong’s Fuquan Village, establishing the “Vietnam-Chiayi Culture House.”

One resident is A-yu (not her real name), whose ­Taiwanese husband died in an accident while working in Vietnam before A-yu could qualify for Taiwan residency. She is living in the Culture House while sorting out her residency rights and arranging the transfer of custody of their daughter from her husband’s family to herself.

A place for cultural exchange

Opportunity and time are necessary for exchange and understanding to take place. In 2018, Hong participated in Sinyi Realty’s National Community Development Program. With the help of students from National ­Chung ­Cheng University, she used videos and written articles to get in touch with local aquaculturists and farmers, to let them know that the Vietnam-Chiayi Culture House is a place where they can come to get acquainted with Vietnamese culture and enjoy some Vietnamese coffee. Since learning that the Culture House often prepares meals for people in need, local farmers have provided a steady supply of fresh fruit and vegetables such as sponge gourd, sweet potatoes and guava, an expression of neighborly goodwill.

As a result of offering classes in Vietnamese embroidery, holding an exhibition called “Vietnamese in Chiayi—Vietnamese Embroidery and National Costumes,” and co-organizing a Vietnamese song and arts workshop for two consecutive years with the Chiayi Performing Arts Center, Hong got involved in planning the 2019 Chiayi “Grasstraw Festival,” hoping to give Taiwanese a closer look at Southeast-Asian immigrant culture.

For the last three years, the Vietnam-Chiayi Culture House has put on a Mid-Autumn Festival street parade. In 2017 and 2018, only immigrants and migrant workers took part, but in 2019 a local group named “Matters Great and Small” co-sponsored the event, expanding the scope of cultural exchange. Almost a hundred residents and their children made Vietnamese bamboo lanterns by hand under Hong’s instruction, and paraded through the streets carrying the lanterns they’d made. The parade gave Taiwanese a chance to experience Vietnamese culture while enjoying Mid-Autumn cookouts, and everyone had a great time.

Both migrant workers and long-term immigrants worked as volunteers, helping to make lanterns, guiding the parade, and directing traffic. Nguyen Kim Hong said that the immigrants felt they’d gained recognition and had drawn closer to the villagers. The Vietnam-Chiayi Culture House is a place where Taiwanese and immigrants can get to know and appreciate each other.