Growing up abroad: a glimpse back in time


Over 800,000 Vietnamese refugees were recorded fleeing the country from 1975 to 1995. Photo: Wikicommons.

For nearly a decade now tuning in to the six-o’clock news meant tuning in to the war in the Middle-East; a conflict synonymous with clashing cultures, opposing ideologies, and of course fleeing refugees.

It seems we are all too familiar with this story, however despite the near daily coverage of displaced communities, images of bloodied children and war-torn families, we tend to miss a second narrative; one closer to home and perhaps much more disturbing.

That is the ongoing public debate about what it means to be Australian, and more importantly, what place refugees have in our national identity.

In early October 2001, the tensions over the influx of refugees from the Middle-East had grown extreme. A boat carrying over 200 passengers was intercepted just north of Christmas Island; a boat that would become infamous in the argument against refugees, and synonymous with their incompatibility with Australian values.

This boat was known as SIEV 4, and the vessel in which according to the Australian Government, threw children overboard to secure passage into Australia. Showing the world that refugees were apparently willing to risk their children’s lives, for a shot at asylum.

Now of course that’s not what really happened; and in the years following the event, the truth eventually surfaced. However, that was not before the damage had been done; not before swathes of far-right supporters labelled refugees incompatible with Australian values and readily denied them acceptance into Australian society.

For over a decade the refugee narrative has dominated political debate, and unfortunately the argument still rages on 15 years later, however maybe by looking to the past – to the refugees that have come before, those that have successfully settled and started anew, it may give us a fresh perspective on more contemporary issues; perhaps it’s time to revisit the Vietnamese refugees of the 1970’s.

Motorboat vessel Hong Hai, which transported over 30 Vietnamese refugees to Australia in 1978. Photo: National Museum of Australia

After the fall of Saigon in 1975 the war in Vietnam came to an end, and with it, the end of life as they knew it for many Vietnamese residents.

With the Viet-Cong victory over the South, it marked an uncertain future for many on the losing side, and with American and French withdrawals from the war, many were left to fend for themselves under an increasingly hostile and unwelcoming new regime.

Not unlike the war is Syria, many were forced out of their homes, having to flee impending persecution and possible imprisonment – if not death.  Many were even forced to leave family members behind in the wake of strict migration laws, allowing only a select few into refugee camps.

Surprisingly enough however, one country welcomed these refugees with open arms – Australia.

“After the war the Viet Cong hunted down anyone who fought in the resistance, my father had no choice but to flee or face life in prison.”

For many Vietnamese refugees the journey to Australia and their adjustment in the new country had been extremely difficult, and with the exception of the elite, most lacked education, job skills, and could barely speak English.

Vietnamese refugee camp used to house refugees fleeing from the Vietnam War.              Photo: Liam Widdicombe.

“My parents knew very little English, they knew some phrases here and there, but communicating their needs to anyone was an extremely painstaking task,” second generation Vietnamese refugee Vy Lam said.

“After the war the Viet Cong hunted down anyone who fought in the resistance, my father had no choice but to flee or face life in prison.”

Vy Lam, a second generation Vietnamese refugee. Photo: Vy Lam.

Now in her mid-twenties, Vy was born into a family scarred by warfare. A family forced to flee their home in search for a new one, and a family unsure about what the future held, and much like those arriving from Syria today, a family desperate to escape the violence of their homeland.

“My parents wanted to go to America, but the wait list was too long – nearly a month,” Vy said.

“Australia was accepting refugees for immediate settlement so my parents boarded the earliest boat and never looked back.”

Arriving in Australia in the late 1970’s the Lam family were presented with a myriad of challenges. However, unlike the detention centres and mistreatment that await today’s refugees,  the Vietnamese refugees of the 1970’s were for the most part greeted with open arms and sympathy from much of the Australian public. An attitude that should be remembered in the context more recent arrivals.

“I think growing up, people were a lot more sympathetic of the Vietnamese than they are the refugees arriving today,” she said.

“My parents were given jobs, housing and the community was full of support – it was just a different time.

“Because of the media, nowadays I think refugees are perceived as intruders and a danger to Australian ideals.

“I can’t imagine how hard it would be to finally escape the danger, and then to be labelled dangerous yourself.”

In fact, a recent study by a Queensland based organisation MDA, who are devoted to easing the settlement process for refugees, has found the mental health of refugees to be among the worst in the country.

“Refugees are considered a vulnerable group who have experienced pre- and post-migration stressors that impact on their long term physical and mental health and well-being,” the report reads.

“It is well recognised that refugees arrive with a comparatively poorer state of wellbeing than other migrants.”

However, media and communications officer for MDA, Michelle Toben, believes this doesn’t have to be the case for those seeking refuge in Australia. She believes that social connection, access to support groups, and community backing and encouragement are vital in preventing depression and social anxiety in new settlers.

“For new arrivals, it’s exciting and daunting to come to a new country; there is the promise of peace and a bright future, and the trepidation of navigating a new culture.” Michelle said.

“It is important that this support is available and affordable – and located in local communities to ensure effective access and cultural relevance.

“Individuals who are isolated or disconnected from their community, including women independently raising children, can find it particularly difficult.”

So has Australia forgotten its hospitality?

Over 40 years ago, Australia opened their arms to the Vietnamese, people who had lost their home and had nowhere to go, people who were scared and frightened – but hopeful. Australia opened its arms to the Lam family.

However today, these same arms which once welcomed those in need push them away, pick them up and place them in detention centres for months if not years. They label them ‘intruders’ and accuse them of stealing Australian jobs, ‘muddying-up’ Australian culture and forcing theirs upon us.

“One of the biggest arguments against refugees is their value to society, the constant question of ‘are they worth the effort?’ and what they contribute to the broader community,” Vy said.

“As a child my family was shown compassion, we were shown kindness and inclusion when our own country wouldn’t.

“We were given a new home, and I can’t be more proud to call myself Australian.

“I can fortunately say I grew up happy and healthy, something unfortunately a lot of refugees that have arrived today can’t.

“I owe it all to the kindness of the community” said Vy.

Having come from a refugee family, Vy Lam is now the Partners-in-Recovery Coordinator for ‘Footprints’ and organisation dedicated to supporting those with mental illness and physical disabilities who often work with refugees.

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