The paintings depict the anguish of fleeing one's homeland, death an imminent threat.
The artists left war-torn Vietnam, risking encounters with pirates to land in detention camps in Hong Kong, the Philippines and Thailand to wait for asylum.
Reproductions of several paintings created by refugees are on display at UC Irvine as part of "Hope of Freedom: Project Ngoc's Decade of Dedication."
UCI graduate student Tom Wilson created Project Ngoc in 1987 to provide direct relief to refugees in the camps.
"I didn't want to start anything," he said. "I just wanted to find something that already existed. But there was nothing there."
Wilson lived in a town on the Cambodian border 100 kilometers south of the camps on and off from 1985-89.
After hearing refugees' stories while working at the camps — his longest stint was six months — he said he fell into a deep depression when he left because he realized the hopelessness of their situations.
Project Ngoc took its name from a story he wrote about Thuy and Ngoc Lan, who escaped Vietnam by boat. Pirates raped and kill Ngoc while Thuy was thrown overboard and eventually rescued by a passing ship.
What started as an epidemiology course to prevent disease in the camps, became a student organization tackling concrete, long-term goals.
"When I started it, I did not want it to be a [strictly] Vietnamese organization," Wilson said. "I wanted it to be an organization that opened the eyes of everyone to the plight of the Vietnamese. When we first started, we had [students] from India and Iran and a tremendous number of dedicated students."
During its time on campus, Project Ngoc raised awareness about the plight of all Southeast Asian refugees and raised money to send UCI students to work as teachers, counselors and translators in the refugee camps.
Project Ngoc became politically active as student volunteers wrote letters of appeal and held candlelight vigils in support of refugees. The students fought against refugees' forced repatriation. In Orange County, students organized protests, vigils, art exhibits, concerts and conferences.
The project disbanded in 1997, after most Vietnamese refugees had been resettled or repatriated.
Works spark action
"When you return to the States, please exhibit these so that the rest of the world can learn about our relentless search for freedom — so that the rest of the world knows of the prison that is our lives. Do not let them forget about us," reads part of the Project Ngoc exhibit, which is part of a larger exhibit housed in UCI's Southeast Asian archive.
The exhibit, which has been part of a traveling exhibition, engages people in a very powerful way, said Michelle Light, head of special collections, archives and digital scholarship at UCI.
One woman who was a refugee as a little girl in a Hong Kong camp remembered Project Ngoc students bringing her an apple. Instead of eating it, she treasured it as a gift.