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Refugee says his family are ‘the lucky ones’

Vietnamese refugee family

Happy Australians: Khai Nguyen (right), who came to Brisbane as a refugee from Vietnam in 1981, is with (from left) his wife Thao, and children Phong, nine, Nhi, 15, and Mimi, 12.

By Peter Bugden

KHAI Nguyen’s eldest daughter Nhi is the same age he was when he hopped on a refugee boat for the dangerous ride to freedom – only 15.

He cannot imagine that for her.

“That’s why sometimes I do explain it to them (Nhi and her sister Mimi, 12, and brother Phong, nine), that that’s where we come from,” he said at their home in Inala, Brisbane.

“We are the lucky ones.”

He’ll be giving thanks for that when he joins hundreds of other migrants and refugees at Brisbane archdiocese’s annual Multicultural Mass at St Stephen’s Cathedral on August 30.

Mr Nguyen, a parishioner at St Mark’s, Inala, said his prayer then and during a prayer novena being conducted until the day of the Mass would be for others less fortunate.

“My prayer would be, because we are the lucky ones, even though we’ve been through the refugee camps and everything like that, but we are lucky now …,” he said.

“We can support ourselves, we can send our children to school, we can have a family, we can have everything like that.

“But at the moment there are still people in different refugee camps. Australia still has refugee camps.

“So I will be praying for them, because we are the lucky ones that we have the opportunity of Australia accepting us and then for us to be built up to what we are now.

“But for those people we don’t know what happens to them now.

“So my prayer will be for all the refugees around the world who are not so lucky as we are.”

This year’s Multicultural Mass coincides with the 40th anniversary of the start of the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees in Brisbane.

Mr Nguyen was part of that wave of refugees that resulted from the Vietnam War and North Vietnam’s takeover of the South in 1975.

He made his escape on a 9m-long boat with 60 other people, heading out across the South China Sea to Malaysia.

It took them six days.

“Looking back now, especially on the journey, it’s scary,” he said, thinking of himself as a 15-year-old boy on that boat.

“I’m sitting in the front of the boat and I can touch the water with my hand, and with all the big waves.”

However, Mr Nguyen said he did not think fear entered the minds of many of the people because they were only focused on escaping.

“But looking back now, if you say you will give me $1 million or $2 million, I’d say, ‘No, I’m not going through that’,” he said.

“(On our boat) there was no cabin, or nothing. It’s just like a straight, flat thing.

“And when we first left Vietnam we were followed by fisherman, local fisherman who wanted all our money and everything like that.

“They took everything that we had, jewellery or rings or whatever they could take and then they let us go.”

Mr Nguyen said he was on his own probably because his parents could not afford to pay for all his family to leave together.

His parents had migrated to the South to escape the regime of the North, so when the Communist North invaded the South their only option was to escape by boat to another country.

They started planning that in the late 1970s, but because they did not have enough money the family had to leave in stages – first Khai’s older brother in 1979, then an older sister in 1980, himself a year later, followed by his mother and two more sisters in 1982, and his father much later.

Khai was the only one to go to Malaysia; others in the family went to refugee camps in Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines.

After being detained on mainland Malaysia for a month, Mr Nguyen spent about six months in a refugee camp on a nearby island where he was approved for resettlement.

His older brother who had gone ahead of him sponsored him for acceptance into Australia and they were reunited in Brisbane.

Their parents and others in the family followed later.

From his teenage years, and later with his wife Thao, Mr Nguyen has worked hard to make Australia his new home and he could not be happier.

“The only thing I want to say is ‘Thank you, Australia’,” he said.

“I always thank Australia for accepting us during that time.

“That’s what I keep on saying – we are lucky.

“Like here, (if I were a refugee arriving now), I could be sent back or I could be staying in a refugee camp for I don’t know how many years.

“So I thank Australia for taking me in, for me to have a life.”

The Multicultural Mass will be held at 2.30pm on August 30 at St Stephen’s Cathedral.

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