The human story behind asylum-seeker hysteria
Once again, Australia’s focus has been on the so-called threat of boat people heading our way. Do we defend our borders? Are we soft on people smugglers? Is our way of life under threat?
It is a debate that has raged on and off for more than 30 years, since the first boats appeared off Australia’s northern coastline in the wake of the Vietnam War. There were many Australians who did not want to welcome those for whom we had sacrificed so many young Australians.
Good enough to defend, but not good enough to welcome. It was a time when a young man named Hieu Van Le set out on a perilous journey in search of freedom and opportunity.
Hieu was born on the first day of 1954, the year that Vietnam was divided following the defeat of French forces.
He cannot remember a day, as a child, when he did not hear the sound of gunshots and rockets, when he did not see death, disfigurement, displacement, and the terrible human cost of war.
Yet despite all this turmoil, Hieu’s early days, were marked by a love of music. He was a guitarist in his school band.
His childhood sweetheart, Lan, was a singer in the band.
Lan and Hieu first met at a small Christmas party in 1971, where - against the backdrop of war - Lan sang Silent Night while Hieu performed John Lennon’s Imagine.
In 1975, with their world collapsing around them, Hieu and Lan were evacuated to Saigon, just two months before the city’s dramatic fall.
In the ensuing chaos, Hieu and Lan became separated, and spent 60 agonising days not knowing of each other’s whereabouts or fate before they were reunited.
Together they hatched a plan to flee, travelling from Saigon to a coastal fishing village.
They were told to wait under a statue of the Virgin Mary near the water’s edge.
At midnight, they were to look out to sea and, as soon as they saw three flashing lights, run as fast as they could towards a small boat.
Because all this had been worked out in secret, Hieu and Lan didn’t realise that many others had been given the same instructions.
When the signal came, so many people sprinted for the boat that it promptly capsized.
Eventually, they reached a larger vessel further off shore packed with about 50 people - young and old, doctors and lawyers, labourers and fishermen, students and housewives.
After several days sailing under terrible, overcrowded conditions, the boat’s skipper (a local fisherman) reached waters beyond which he had not previously ventured.
He admitted he had no idea where to go, so Hieu drew - from his schoolboy memory - a crude map of South-East Asia.
From this map, Hieu figured that they would eventually “bump into” either Thailand or Malaysia. When they did indeed “bump into” Malaysia, Hieu was appointed navigator for the rest of the voyage!
That voyage, so perilous that it would make a great movie, eventually reached the port of Darwin in late 1977.
Hieu recalled the crossing the treacherous Timor Sea, and how “on the third day of the crossing there was sudden excitement on deck.”
“Someone had seen birds. These seagulls were like angels, for they meant land!
“I grabbed the binoculars and stared to the horizon, and they were focused on the most brilliant line of silver. I can’t describe the moment, the feeling.
“We chugged clumsily into the harbour, a couple of blokes in a tinny waved and one of them called out “G’day mate! Welcome to Australia.”
Soon after, Hieu and Lan arrived in Adelaide, where they were welcomed and assisted by many generous South Australians.
They have two sons, named Don (after the great Don Bradman) and Kim (after another Australian Test cricket captain, Kim Hughes).
Hieu completed a Bachelor of Economics at the University of Adelaide, and then a Master of Business Administration.
He worked as a lecturer at the University of South Australia, and served in the Adelaide office of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.
He has been a member of the South Australian Multicultural and Ethnic Affairs Commission since 1995, and is now its Chairman.
In 2007, he was appointed Lieutenant Governor of South Australia and became the first Asian-born Australian to hold Vice-Regal Office.
Hieu Van Le’s inspiring personal story is one of courage and resilience, to flee tyranny in search of a new and better life.
Our nation is significantly richer for his bravery, and that of so many who have followed in his wake.
He embodies not only the spirit, but also the reality of modern, multicultural Australia.
How many Hieus and Lans have since arrived, have been turned back, been caught up in the “Pacific solution”, or are on their way?
- Follow Mike on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PremierMikeRann
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