Vietnamese face racism, attacks in East Berlin Temple provides haven for refugees

May 27, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- On Buddha's birthday, Vietnamese here gather in their storefront temple on Krefelderstrasse to worship before an altar bedecked with fruit and flowers, silk lotus blossoms, burning candles and smoking incense.

They sing and chant the sutras, eat spring rolls and curries, laugh with their children, sit under the old flag of South Vietnam, and talk of their lost homeland.

The drapes are drawn and Berlin is shut out for a while. Vietnamese are under considerable pressure in Germany, especially in East Berlin and what used to be Communist Germany. They are perhaps the most frequent and visible victims of attacks by neo-Nazi hoodlums and skinhead punks.

East Germans call Vietnamese-bashing "Fiji stossen" -- knocking Fijis -- according to Pham Phu, 24, an engineering student and son of a leader of the Buddhist community.

"It's like a hobby," he says. "They say: 'Let's go dancing. Let's go to the movies. Let's go Fiji stossen.' "

Mr. Pham doesn't feel threatened in West Berlin. But he knows that as a student he lives in a protected environment. He certainly thinks East Berlin is dangerous.

"We still see the east side as a strange city," he says. "You hear of attacks and killings without any reason."

He thinks the subway and elevated systems in the east are very unsafe.

"I don't go into East Berlin," he says, "not at night."

Earlier this month the Vietnamese community was mourning a young street vendor who was fatally stabbed in East Berlin.

But now all is serene at the Linh Thuu temple, the Buddha Calling temple. Halos of red, yellow, blue and green lights radiate from the head of a large, gilt Buddha that dominates the high-ceiling space typical of a side-street Berlin shop.

The day begins not unlike Christian Sunday school with a younpeople's service at which a half-dozen kids are inducted into the Buddhist equivalent of the Scouts. Two or three girls among the 35 or so youngsters wear the classical Vietnamese ao dai, but most are in jeans, sneakers and sweat shirts.

The adults don gray robes for their service. An elderly nun with her head shaved and wearing a saffron robe, and a Korean monk in Franciscan brown lead the prayers.

The nun sings in a thin, high, reedy voice and drums the rhythms with a stick on a hollow gourd. The monk adds accents with a bowl-shaped metal gong. He's the only non-Vietnamese here except for a couple of U.S. visitors.

About 50 worshipers bow and prostrate themselves before the gilded Buddha, rise and chant and bow again.

The Vietnamese here, like most of the 3,000 or 3,500 Vietnamese West Berlin, are refugees from South Vietnam. Many were boat people.

Tam Nguyen Dinh calls himself a political refugee. He's 69 and his life has been one of those remarkable odysseys through contemporary repression.

He was a colonel in the South Vietnamese army. He twice attended quartermaster school at Fort Lee, Va. Born in Hanoi, he had fought against the colonial French and spent three years in a French prison camp.

But he went south in 1954 when the Communists defeated the French. After Hanoi's final victory in 1975 and the collapse of South Vietnam, he spent eight years in a Communist "re-education" camp.

His wife and two eldest sons escaped as boat people in 1980. He was only able to leave Vietnam in 1988 after five years of bureaucratic wrangling.

He teaches Vietnamese history and geography in an effort to pre

serve the culture and traditions of Vietnam among his people here. He's a devout Buddhist.

"Even the dangerous situation," he says, in a short talk to the congregation, "shouldn't bring you to love to hate or hate to love."

About 10,000 more Vietnamese live in and around East Berlin. They're a remnant of some 60,000 who came to East Germany as "guest workers" under contract to the old Communist government. Their jobs have vanished with the unification of Germany. Most would like to stay.

"About 9,000," says Pham Phu, without irony.

Another 18,000 Vietnamese remain under Germany's liberal, and lately controversial, asylum laws. Like all asylum-seekers, they're spread out among the German states to await disposition of their requests for permanent asylum, which can take several years.

"Many have gone to Baden-Wurttemberg [southwest Germany]," Mr. Pham says. "They don't like it there."

The Vietnamese in east Germany have borne the brunt of attacks by assorted neo-Nazi thugs.

Rising nationalism and falling production have created a fairly large class of alienated, unemployed, rootless and racist youths who like to beat up foreigners.

Vietnamese are vulnerable, unprotected and easy to identify as foreigners.

But Vietnamese in West Berlin are not necessarily always sympathetic with those in the east.

"We thought that they were the children of [Vietnam Communist] Party members," Mr. Pham says. "Because working in the GDR was a kind of privilege for Vietnamese, to be allowed to go to Germany."

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