Journalists meet many people in the course of their working lives. Some of those people – and their stories – stick in our minds. Some more than others.
As the flood of refugees from Syria to Europe makes daily news, and Australia’s government wrestles with the issues surrounding asylum seekers who head for our shores, my mind has turned more than once to a young refugee I met in Melbourne in 1982.
I was reminded of Lien Hoang earlier this year, while on a visit to Brisbane’s Captain Burke Park at Kangaroo Point. I found myself standing in front of a memorial dedicated to the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese “boat people” who perished while attempting to reach Australia by sea between 1975 and 1995.
Lien was one of the lucky ones. On her fourth attempt to escape Vietnam – leaving behind her parents, three siblings and everything she knew – she joined 297 other people in a 5 x 7 metres boat. Six people on the boat died during the six day trip to Malaysia. After spending about six weeks in a Malaysian refugee “holding camp”, Lien, then aged 17, was selected as one of a group who were sent to Melbourne.
The daughter of a South Vietnamese army major who had spent six years in a Communist concentration camp, she would not allow me to use her full name for the first story I wrote about her for fear of repercussions for her family in Vietnam. When I met her, she had been in Australia for 16 months and had so impressed her high school teachers that they had contacted the local newspaper, for which I worked, to see if we would publish an essay she had written about her experiences and about what it might be like if she could return to Vietnam in the future.
It was heart-wrenching stuff, resulting in a feature story on her experiences and her hopes for the future. Lien, 19, wanted to become a doctor, an impossible dream because funding her studies would be financially out of reach. Instead, she said, she might settle for a career in computer science.
Two months later, she was accepted into the University of Melbourne’s medical school – but the problem of how she would fund six years of study remained. I wrote another small story, appealing for anyone who could help her find work to get in touch.
If I ever heard the outcome of that story, I had forgotten. But with so much debate in Australia – and elsewhere – about the plight of refugees and their treatment by the Australian government, including appalling conditions in offshore holding camps, it got me thinking. Thinking about the wonderful contributions that so many refugees make to their adopted lands, the richness that other cultures bring to us in so many ways and the different ways in which they are treated by those already here. Because – as is the case with any country that was colonised by others – in reality many of us are descendants of “boat people”.
I wondered if I could find out what happened to Lien. And it was easier than I expected. A quick Google search turned up information about her on the Museum Victoria website, where her story is featured in detail.
After my story was published, Lien received a $500 donation and was offered work as a housecleaner. But crucially, the article was also seen by Nan Rivett, the widow of well-known journalist Rohan Rivett, a former war correspondent and long-time Murdoch editor in the 1950s and early ’60s. Nan organised a scholarship for Lien and acted as her guarantor throughout her studies at medical school.
Lien wanted her family to join her in Australia, but her repeated attempts failed. Nan’s daughter, Rhyll Rivett, who had worked with immigrants for many years, helped her – and she was finally successful after becoming an intern. The first to arrive were her parents and brother, followed in later years by her two sisters.
Among Museum Victoria’s collection relating to migration and cultural diversity is a black case with red lining, holding 11 miniature Vietnamese wooden musical instruments. These instruments were bought by the Hoang family in Saigon in the late 1980s as they prepared to migrate to Australia, as a reminder of the traditions and culture of their homeland.
Later, the family presented the instruments to Rhyll and Nan Rivett in gratitude for their support and assistance to Lien. The Rivetts, in turn, presented them to Museum Victoria in 2002.
So Lien had become a doctor, and as far as I can ascertain is working as a family GP in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond, which has a large Vietnamese community. Her dreams had been fulfilled by her own persistence and hard work, and through the kindness of an Australian family.
Of course, there are many stories like Lien’s. Stories of migrants who have arrived with nothing, rebuilt their lives in strange new lands, learned a foreign tongue, created successful new careers for themselves – and then set about contributing to their new communities and countries in a significant way.
It makes me wonder why so many people are so set against accepting new arrivals, and why the compassion that was shown to the Vietnamese “boat people” in the 1970s and 1980s seems to have disappeared.
At the base of the Brisbane memorial, erected by the Queensland chapter of the Vietnamese Community in Australia, there is an additional message. It reads: “In Gratitude/In the hour of our greatest need – you were there/We thank you Australia”. I’m sure that every refugee who flees war or persecution and is granted asylum in Australia – no matter what country they began their journey in – feels the same. Those who end up incarcerated in appalling conditions in offshore holding camps, or who are subjected to a new kind of terror by those charged with their care, may not.
The memorial has one last message, a quotation from the Greek playwright Euripedes, who wrote in 431 BC: There is no greater sorrow than the loss of one’s native land.
We should all think about that, and give thanks every day that we are not among those forced by circumstances beyond our control to flee our homes, perhaps never to return.
One girl’s story, etched in my mind for 33 years, is just a simple reminder of that.