The Mississippi Center for Justice was looking for help reaching out to the Vietnamese fishing community after the BP oil spill, so they posted a job opportunity on their website. The job required someone with five years experience and mid-level training, and would be co-financed as an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Fellowship.
Lan Diep, who was literally fresh out of the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the Pacific, didn't think he had a shot. "I turned in my resume anyway," he told the Huffington Post. "I knew I didn't have the experience, not even close, but I had the interest and the language skill, and I was willing to relocate."
To Lan's surprise, he got the job. A few months later, he relocated his entire life to Mississippi and found himself immersed in a world he didn't know existed.
"I've been involved with the Vietnamese community everywhere I lived in the past," Lan said, talking about his time growing up in Houston and the bay area. "But I truly had no idea there were so many thousands of Vietnamese fisherman in Alabama or the Gulf states."
After the oil spill destroyed their livelihoods, the Vietnamese fishermen along the Gulf Coast (close to 20,000) found themselves marginalized by government paperwork and duped by attorneys looking to turn a profit. "They'd tell the fishermen to 'sign here for health care, sign here for help, we'll get you money,' but so many of them don't really speak English, and didn't realize they were being tricked into signing legal binding agreements." The attorneys weren't even giving the fishermen their own copies of the agreements they'd signed.
On top of that, the process for getting reimbursed for the money these fishermen lost in 2010 is deeply convoluted. "Nobody with the Gulf claims department understands the fishing season. They don't understand that it's not only an income that fishing provides, it's everything; its their diet, it's their bartering tool. They're refusing to recognize very legitimate claims." Essentially, these fishermen aren't getting the money or the support they need to stay afloat.
But Lan has made an effort to frame himself as an ally. Not only does he assist the fishermen in their written communications with the Gulf claims office, he also writes a monthly newsletter in Vietnamese, alerting communities about new rules and procedures. "I explain the laws, I try to help them understand what makes a good claim," he said.
He also makes the rounds of local restaurants and supermarkets, trying his best to reach out to a community that is, by nature, insular and wary of government services.
The question now is how far into the future the oil spill will impact the Vietnamese communities and the Gulf fishermen at large. Lan worries about the serious quandary these fishermen find themselves in. On one hand, many of them have the grounds to take legal action against BP, but on the other, BP still provides a good chunk of their income, thanks to the settlement. They're hesitant to risk giving up the small paycheck they've been provided since the oil spill.
"Last year these people had to essentially restart their lives after over 30 years in this country, since the fall of Saigon [in 1975]" Lan said. "And now they're losing their boats, they're losing their homes, and they're stuck in this difficult system."
But Lan will continue to do what he can. In fact, his presence has become such a fixture in the Gulf state Vietnamese communities that he's considered a sort of de-facto attorney for more than just oil spill-related ssues. "People are passing my number around, saying 'Just call Lan,' he'll help you out," he said, relaying the memory of past calls he's received about people's personal problems. "Really, I just want to help as much as I can, however I can."
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