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For immigrants, an extra challenge in Gulf oil spill

The Vietnamese fishermen who provide the US with much of its seafood are getting locked out of cleanup efforts.

Shrimp boats idle in the Venice Marina as fishermen await the news of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in Venice, La., May 3, 2010. (Joe Mitchell/Reuters)

NEW ORLEANS — They’re America’s shrimpers, crabbers and oystermen. Peelers, shellers and shuckers.

They came to the Gulf Coast as war refugees from Vietnam in the 1980s. After Katrina, they were the very first community to return and rebuild. But just as a sense of normalcy had returned to the community of Vietnamese fishermen, the Gulf Coast oil spill hit.

"They are the ones providing this country with 30 percent of its seafood,” said Father Vien The Nguyen, the pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam church in New Orleans East. An estimated one-third to one-half of Gulf Coast fishing vessels are owned by Vietnamese-Americans.

But many don't speak English — and as a result, they are getting locked out of cleanup efforts and having trouble filing for lost income.

About 200 fishermen gathered in the church in New Orleans East earlier this month to get updates from the Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency and BP. An estimated 210,000 gallons of oil are leaking into the Gulf of Mexico every day. Fragile marshes, marine life and the fishing communities that depend on them face great risk.

At the meeting, Vien moved back and forth between microphones for three hours. “Just switching back and forth trying to find the right words is tiresome,” he said with a few beads of sweat running down his forehead, “but I have to translate correctly for my people.”

The oil spill has indefinitely closed key fishing grounds in the state. Vien says everyone is asking the same thing: “What about jobs?"

The fisherman had barely been hanging on before, with high fuel costs and international competition. They scraped by after Katrina, but this could be the knockout blow. They're out of work, losing money by the day and unable to pay their mortgages. No one knows how long the spill will last.

BP spokesman Hugh Depland promised to provide the Vietnamese fishermen with the training they need to be hired to help with the cleanup. Yet training sessions that involve key safety and health information are mostly in English.

BP has done one training session in Vietnamese so far, but Vien said it didn’t go very well. BP brought translators, but after 20 minutes, some of the fishermen got frustrated with the level of communication. BP switched the training back to English and asked the fishermen to raise their hands if they needed translation. “We’re not sure how many understood how much and these are hazardous materials," Vien said.

With so many problems in the Gulf, details like language access have been overlooked.