VIETNAMESE. The Cleveland Vietnamese community is primarily made up of individuals and families who formerly were citizens of the Republic of South Vietnam. Some fled their native land to escape the violence which ravaged their war-torn homeland. Others left after the war had come to an end, to escape oppression at the hands of the victorious Communist regime which ultimately had gained control over their homeland. The first Vietnamese to settle in Cleveland arrived in May 1975.

In 1954, following an 8-year war to expel the French from their colonial domination of Vietnam, the country found itself divided by the peace agreement. The north, home to the Communist forces which had battled the French, became a Communist state, while in the south the Nationalist resistance movement instituted a republic. The "peace" settlement in actuality marked the beginning of another 21 years of struggle between the forces of the north and south. Despite the involvement of the U.S. government and military on behalf of the South Vietnamese between 1964-1973, the forces of the north eventually prevailed. On 30 April 1975 the last effective resistance in the south came to an end and Vietnam was reunified under a Communist regime.

As the end of the conflict neared in 1975, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese fled the advancing armies of the north, seeking sanctuary and freedom abroad. The stream of refugees and legal emigrants from the south continued in the years following the 1975 reunification. Eventually more than one million Vietnamese made their way to the U.S. California became the primary destination for the immigrants, eventually becoming home to some 40% of the arrivals. Some 13,500, however, settled in Ohio. By 1980 486 Vietnamese had made their way to Cleveland, and a total of 756 were residents of Cuyahoga County. In 1990 702 Vietnamese lived in the city, and 888 overall in the county. In 1995 local estimates place the size of the Greater Cleveland Vietnamese community at 1,900. For the most part, the Vietnamese arrivals settled on the west side of Cleveland. Bound together by their native language and seeking to preserve their culture, the Vietnamese immigrants settled along Detroit, Franklin, and Madison avenues, in the Detroit-shoreway neighborhood.

The first Vietnamese to come to Cleveland were sponsored by local religious and social-service agencies. Locally, Joseph Meissner, who had served as a U.S. Army captain in Vietnam during the conflict, became a leader among those committed to helping the newcomers. By Dec. 1975 a formal group dedicated to serving the needs of the immigrants was incorporated, the Vietnamese Community in Greater Cleveland (Cong-Dong Viet-Nam Tai Cleveland). It carried on the work of helping new arrivals, and in 1995 remained the chief community organization for the Vietnamese population. As time passed, the earliest arriving Vietnamese became U.S. citizens and achieved economic independence. They were then able, in turn, to facilitate continuing immigration from their native land. Many sponsored family members and friends who came to join them in Cleveland.

Religiously, most Vietnamese in Cleveland are either Buddhist or Catholic. In May 1987 the Vietnamese Buddhist Assn. of Cleveland celebrated the opening of its first permanent home. The association purchased a building at 5305 Franklin Ave. and renovated it into a temple, as well as a center for community meetings (see BUDDHISM). The Vietnamese Catholic community has centered its life around St. Stephen's Church on W. 54th St. Culturally, the Vietnamese commemorate several events. Tet, the celebration of the New Year, which according to the lunar calendar usually falls in February, not only marks the start of a new year, but is also the day on which all Vietnamese celebrate their birthdays, making it a particularly festive occasion. The community also holds a children's festival each September, and it joins with other Clevelanders in the annual celebration of Christmas.

A more solemn commemoration takes place each 30 April, as the local Vietnamese recall the fall of their nation to the forces of the North. The old flag of South Vietnam is flown that day, as the observers look forward to the day when they hope and believe that it will once again fly over their homeland. It is also a time when the 300,000 South Vietnamese and the 58,183 Americans who lost their lives in the bloody Vietnam conflict are remembered.

James Toman

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