From refugee to tax target: one family’s story - The Orca

From refugee to tax target: one family’s story

Cheryl Ziola

After arriving penniless and working hard for years to own a home, one Surrey family takes being called ‘lottery winners’ personally.

(Note: Last names have been initialized.)

The path to owning a modest home in Surrey for Nhon L. and his wife Hoa came following a dangerous ocean crossing 35 years ago from Vietnam, each separately fleeing a country ravaged by years of war and an oppressive communist dictatorship.

As a young teen, Hoa was especially fearful for her future in her home country after her father was falsely accused of spying for western countries, and imprisoned for six years, four of those in brutal solitary confinement where he was routinely tortured.

“He went gray overnight and had lifelong respiratory health issues as a result of the cold, damp conditions and malnourishment he endured,” she recalled.

Others, like him, were executed or faced life imprisonment. “We had no human rights in Vietnam.”

Under cover of darkness, Both Nhon and Hoa left behind family and friends, without knowing if they’d even survive the treacherous journey, get caught by Vietnamese police, jailed, robbed, raped or killed by Thai sea pirates.

Many boats sank. Hundreds of thousands drowned as these boats often capsized in rough seas. Just 19 years old then, Hoa recalls seeing a body – the same person she’d eaten her single daily cup of rice per day with in the windowless, rat-infested, boat hold – thrown overboard like kitchen scraps to the waiting sharks and a watery grave in the South China Sea.

Hoa shudders as she describes those memories she normally doesn’t like to talk about. “We were hungry and thirsty all the time,” she recalls of that seven-day journey with 50 others fleeing the country.

“Even though I feared for my life, it was more scary if I had to live in Vietnam. I wanted an escape to a country with freedom.”
She eventually landed in Indonesia, grateful just to be alive. She then spent six months in a refugee camp with conditions not much better than the boat. In camp, her meal rations each week consisted of only 200 grams of sugar, 200 grams of flour, 200 grams of mung bean, some salted dried fish and rice. (That flour ration makes about a half loaf of bread). She traded some for scarce vegetables when available.

During that half-year stay, she contracted malaria and was very sick for two months.

“I was lucky to spend only six months there. Some people spent five years.”

Nhon, who had not yet met his future wife, travelled six days on the ocean from Vietnam, then spent one and half years in a similar refugee camp in the Philippines.

From such traumatic beginnings to now being parents of a 33-year old boy and homeowners in Surrey, they don’t consider themselves “lottery winners”, as suggested by some.

On arrival in Winnipeg, Nhon in 1982 and Hoa in 1984 respectively, Hoa emphasized: “Each of us had nothing, no money, no job, no family, no friends. Language was also a great barrier. We couldn’t understand when people talked.”

Hoa received had some initial help from the Canadian government, who loaned her the funds for an airline ticket from the refugee camp to Winnipeg, which she later paid back. Her future husband Nhon, was sponsored by a Canadian church.

They both learned English, eventually settling in Ontario, where they met, got married and had a child.

“My husband worked two jobs to support us and his parents in Vietnam. I worked part- time, paid daycare for my young son, and went to school full time, graduating from a three-year college program (in IT) followed by accounting and payroll certifications.”

Feeling indebted to her new home country, Hoa seized an opportunity to give back to her local community:

“I volunteered at the church, and helped at the Salvation Army Soup kitchen for the homeless.”

Eventually, her husband and son’s asthma and other health challenges forced them to move to a milder climate in Metro Vancouver where they rented an apartment. The cost of living in BC was still very high; even then, the joke was BC stands for “Bring Cash.”

“We tried to save money by buying sale-priced foods, seldom ate out, relied on homemade meals. We didn’t travel much, just went camping. I cut hair for my husband and my son. We rented movies instead of going to the movie theatres,” says Hoa.

After 12 years, they saved enough to put a down payment on a small, older two-bedroom condo in Surrey.

During their 17 years in the condo, they suffered through the leaky condo crisis in the late 1990s. A poorly designed and legislated BC Building Code, modeled on a drier, California-style climate, led to widespread defects, as the Lower Mainland’s rain and moisture caused mold and significant water damage.

The family, like many others, were forced to borrow: an additional $20,000 on top of their existing mortgage to for repairs and bringing their condo up to the revised code. As they struggled to pay these additional unforeseen costs, they also raised their son and paid for his post-secondary accounting education.

After years of frugal living and paying condo insurance, mortgage debt, property taxes, maintenance costs, they were able to sell the condo and trade up. They put that equity towards a modest, single-family home in Surrey with a small yard and vegetable garden which they tend regularly. This cuts down the grocery bills during the summer growing season.

Having been both renters and homeowners, they understand the frustration and resentment felt by those who can’t afford to purchase their own first home. But they question why governments would even consider making it worse by adding more taxes (costs) to home ownership.

The family is alarmed by reports of the federal government funding research into another potential tax on home savings in one’s principal residence.

“Forcing us to take on more debt to pay taxes doesn’t help housing affordability or enable a first-time homeowner struggling to save for a down payment. Why not encourage more rent to own options? Or remove some of the government taxes and regulations which eat up $644,000 in a single-family home price in Vancouver?”

Coming from Vietnam, where more people share smaller spaces, she and Nhon wonder why governments don’t allow more housing choices on scarce land.

“If we could build a duplex or a couple townhomes on our single-family lot, that would help my son and his future family to live near his parents. Then we would be close by to assist with child care needs.”

When the global pandemic has decimated people’s incomes and investments, and governments seek new tax revenue sources, Hoa is worried homeowners are convenient targets.

“I’ll likely be working until my ‘90s to pay all the growing taxes. All our lives, we have been fiscally responsible. We don’t spend money we don’t have or live on credit card debt. Homeowners should not be used as bank machines by government to fund all this spending with money they borrowed during low interest rates.”

She cautions people not to jump to conclusions.

“You’re not wealthy just because you own a home. We came here without money, not a dime. We worked very hard and saved money for a down payment on our first home. My husband’s health has declined so he can’t even work anymore. I’m still working two jobs to pay our mortgage, take care of our son and future needs.”

Ironically, their single-family home was built in 1982, the same year Hoa’s future husband, Nhon arrived in Winnipeg. At the time, owning a home was a far-off dream. Now, they fear new housing taxes will make their future plans a dream once more.

A former journalist and organization executive, Cheryl Ziola is a communications professional whose experience spans non-profits and charities in natural resources, the building industry, a chamber of commerce, as well as the public sector. She is a voluntary director on the executive of the Dunbar Community Centre Association and past Executive Director of the BC Association for Charitable Gaming.