Thursday, 28 February 2013

New beginnings - a refugee story

This story was dictated by my mother. From staying with her these last 10 days I was able to sit down with her for hours and finally hear the whole of her story for the first time. It is not an easy story and not light reading. Come prepared with an open mind and heart. It has been wonderful to share this with her.
Mum when she was about 12 years old.
I was born and grew up in Vietnam. My life was very simple. I went to school and then university from hence I became a teacher at a high school and married a colleague in 1977. I was a Vietnamese teacher and he was a French teacher. That was two years after the North Vietnamese communist regime invaded South Vietnam. We could not live with the new regime and decided to flee the country. 

The plan was to boat across the pacific ocean to Malaysia where we could get immigration papers. In 1979 we commenced our journey with some relatives. We had no children at this point. This journey was both dangerous and illegal and there was the ever present fear of capture and imprisonment. We gathered what we could carry, I had some gold imbedded in my shoes. However, it ended in severe disappointment. Two days into the trip there was some very strong winds and we feared for our safety. At that point my sister in-law who was with us on the boat had given birth.

Once we berthed there were police on shore waiting for us. Those that were tired (or had just given birth) were captured. My husband and I ran off the boat, we didn't know where we were but we knew we had to run. A young man saw us and offered us a hiding place. He was a bee keeper. He hid us in a bush to await nightfall where he then lead us for hours to his home. It was a long distance and I could no longer go further, drained. My husband carried me on his back when I couldn't continue. The young man offered to hold my bag with my belongings and gold filled shoes. We were offered a meal and were soon off on a bus back home. My shoes were gone at this stage.

Our abandoned identification papers were found by the police and the high school that we worked for were informed that we had made an attempt to leave the country and were dead. I no longer was able to go back to my teaching job. We focused all our time, energy and money on leaving the country. We moved to a rural area where I sold a small amount of fabric in a stall. This work provided little money so I then set up an ice cream store. All this we did for money and we bought an old boat, that my husband fixed up so we could leave.

But luck was not on our side. On a trial run of the boat, police stumbled upon my husband and went to investigate. Why did the boat have such a large motor? Why was there a spare motor on the boat? Suspicions were high. Everything was denied. I gave him some gold to buy petrol for the engine which was very expensive at the time that was hidden in a cigarette packet. My husband was checked and nothing suspicious was found so they were to let him go. He asked for his cigarettes back and the policeman picked it up to give back to him. The packet was heavy. The gold was found. My husband was jailed but due to some friends and luck, he was released after 40 days.

I gave birth to my first daughter and a month afterwards another plan was made to go. However I became very sick and we could not go. My cousin's son and his wife had boarded that boat, there were many onboard. I was devastated that I couldn't board this boat but as fate turned out, it was a decision that saved my life . That boat was  attacked by Thai pirates. All the women were taken and presumed dead. My cousin's son who tried to save his wife was thrown overboard but he survived by clinging onto the anchor of the captured boat. Once the pirates left he climbed back onto the boat and the continued to Thailand, with only his two sons.

Many years past, and ten attempts were made and failed. In 1985 I had a second girl. The chances of a family of four leaving the country were slim as people were unwilling to take on children that would cry and hence attract attention. The trials were not over yet, by far. The worst was still to come, 1986 was a terrible time for me that would I would rather forget. Even remembering it now brings out the fear so very vivid in my mind.

We were placed on a boat that would take us out to the beach where we were to be transferred to the main boat that would take us to other country. The water was choppy and the two boats were only adjoined temporarily. We would have to make a leap of faith to the other boat. There were 120 people cramming to jump to the other boat. I had a 7 month old I was cradling in my arms. I was terrified. I screamed for people not to crush my child.

The boat was overloaded. The maximum capacity was for 30 people and it was holding four times that amount. The greed of the operators meant we were slow and going nowhere. We were then captured by the police. The men and women/children were separated and we were imprisoned. My children and I were locked in a cell with a hundred strangers. My children went no where without me. We moved as one unit. 

My oldest child's head had a massive abscess and her mouth was all swollen and she couldn't eat. After a few weeks she was permitted to leave but I was terrified to let her go as the officer did not tell me who had come to collect her but I had to let her go, because the conditions were so poor. Luckily it was a family friend who had come to collect her. I was ill from the poor hygiene standards myself and a week later I was free to go with my second child however it was the evening and no cars were driving by and we sat in the cold and dark til the morning until we could buy a bus ticket home. My husband was in jail for 9 months and I visited him weekly bringing food. 

Such misfortune, loss of health and faith meant that another year passed before we tried leaving again. At the end of 1987 we were finally successful.  We travelled for  three days, my children were constantly drenched by the ocean spray and it was difficult. We reached a beach and I listened closely for what language they were speaking on this land. I was hoping it wasn't Vietnamese and my hopes were fulfilled, it was a foreign tongue (Malaysian). I thought I was dreaming, I could not believe we had finally made it after so much.

We were sent to a refugee camp in Bidong Island where we stayed for a month. In these times, processing was quick and the whole family was able to be go to Australia. I am so grateful that the Australian Government had given us this opportunity to build ourselves a new life. Such a country it is to help not only its own but others in need. In Vietnam, it's own countrymen suffer from poverty and lack of healthcare, there is no help.
At Kuala Lumpar waiting for transport to Australia

Me - stylin' at 2 years old

Dad, mom and me and the refugee camp.

It was the 1st of September 1988 that we boarded a plane and entered the country we were now to call home. My oldest child was 5, my younger only 2 1/2 years old. And from all this, I know that my children's future is assured. They have an education, they have choices. They are confident in their future. My story ends happily.

At our first home in Australia, a sort of halfway house.

Our first Aussie outing to the Opera house.

Me and my mum. Chillaxing.

Me and my new brother born in 1994.

My older sister Lynda (left) and I (right) with our fav toys.


  1. *Sniff sniff* I can't thank your Mum and Dad enough for all they did and all they went through for you and your siblings Toni. Wow. Amazing story. Love, Jill xx

  2. Toni, I was there in 1979, on that boat with your mom. I got really seasick and the engine oil smell didn't help. I do recall that our Uncle's (Cau Het's) wife gave birth. My memories are not too clear of that night. We all ran different directions once we got off the boat. But most of us were captured. Women stayed in a hut and men were locked up in the cell. Our Aunt (Di Nam) came to visit us and secretly gave me money. I guessed no one would suspect since I was only a child. I did not realize that your mom made so many attempts afterwards with much difficulties. So glad she shared her stories and you've written it here. Thank you! Melanie

  3. Wow thanks for your side of the story Melanie. What a trial the whole family has been through and what crazy memories you must have. It makes me feel so lucky to have what I have now as well as to know you personally now.