As a young teen living in Perth in 1981, the plight of refugees fleeing from Vietnam, or anywhere else for that matter, was not on my radar. But I had grown up in a loving church community called the Wembley Downs Church of Christ, it was here, and in my family, that I am sure the seeds of compassion for those in need were first planted. I know the people in the story below personally. I’ve eaten with them and (not for a while now) spent quality time with them. My passion for seeing desperate people be given a chance in this great country, no doubt, was borne in the following story;
In 1968, two years after qualifying to become a high school maths teacher, Kiem Do was conscripted at the age of 21. He successfully passed an exam that qualified him to join the Air-force and he quickly rose through the ranks to become the Chief Air Terminal Controller in Danang airbase with the rank of Lieutenant. During this time the war between Vietnam and the United States (depending on who you ask) was raging and continued for 20 years.
Kiem was in the Airforce from 1968-1974 and during this time, in 1973 he met Ky-Anh who was a school teacher, they got married in the same year (it was love at first sight)! They welcomed their first child, Do Dinh Dang Khoa, the following year.
In 1974, when North Vietnam took over South Vietnam many allies were captured and placed in “re-education” camps – these camps were really prisoner of war camps (enduring extremely harsh physical and mental conditions). The minimum sentence for all Prisoners of War (POW) was 3 years and the higher the rank the greater the solider would be held, some cases up to 15 years.
One of the things the prisoners were required to do was to write down details of their involvement in the war every month. If a prisoner’s story changed from month to month, their term of stay would be increased. Imagine the mental state of the prisoners required to divulge details of their “disloyalty” regularly.
Due to Kiem’s high ranking position in the South Vietnamese Army, Kiem was treated very poorly in the camp – his living conditions were horrific. With little to eat and forced to do continual hard labour under harsh conditions, Kiem lost a considerable amount of weight. By way of example, POWs were forced to clear forests for farming and harvest lumber for furniture making. Sadly, quite a number of POWs died from illness, starvation, exhaustion and purpose to live. These POW camps were designed to strip their prisoners of dignity and their will to live – their biggest torture method was to slowly diminish their prisoner’s hopes. During his time in the camp, Kiem found it hard to imagine that there could ever be a bright future for him and his family.
Ky-Anh and Khoa during this time were refuged back in Saigon at Ky-Anh’s family home where all her nine siblings and their families lived under one roof. With food, resources and money being scarce, you can imagine the family squabbles Ky-Anh would have had to deal with. Saigon during this time sustained a great deal of destruction and loss. Ky-Anh lived in fear and saw terrible effects of the war first hand, including human casualty.
After three long years, Kiem’s name was called out for release. While detained at POW camp, prisoners wanted to hear their names called out on two occasions. The first is to announce the prisoner’s release, and the second was to clean the pots that the rice was cooked in because it meant that the prisoner could eat the burnt rice stuck to the bottom of the pot. Kiem was never told why he was released and he certainly did not want to hang around to ask!
Kiem slowly made his way back to Saigon, walking majority of the way. Kiem was met with yet another hurdle. All districts of Saigon were controlled by the North Vietnamese Communist Party. The Communist authorities still considered Kiem as a POW and did not permit him to reside in the city. Unable to live in the city, Kiem continued to be separated from Ky-Anh and his son Khoa.
He was forced to live on the outskirts of the city and was only allowed to hold menial jobs. As a POW, Kiem was constantly told that his children would not be allowed to attend any form of higher education and there would be no opportunities for them. He and his children would be barred from holding any job with any social high standing of influence.
Ky-Anh and Khoa’s living conditions were getting desperate as their living arrangements had not improved and Ky-Anh’s siblings had begun to quarrel. Imagine living with 9 adults and 4 kids, all needing to be fed and clothed with little resources to do so. Her family were on food rations and she was unable to significantly contribute to the household as she had no means of earning money, she had a young child to look after and a husband who was considered a pariah by authorities. And to make matters worse, Ky-Anh was being ostracised.
Kiem managed to secure a job at a pineapple plantation on the outskirts of Saigon. Desperate to see Ky-Anh and Khoa, Kiem would often sneak into the city, walking all the way from the plantation.
After working on the planation for 1.5 years, Kiem met a man of Chinese and Vietnamese decent who asked if he knew how to use a compass and read a map. Fortunately due to Kiem’s training in the Airforce, he had acquired the skills of using a compass and reading maps. However, during this time owning a compass or even talking about a compass would put one’s life in danger. Luckily Kiem had a friend who he knew would be willing to sell this man a compass. This set things in motion and they agreed to work together to escape Vietnam.
Escaping Vietnam was not something for the faint hearted. The Communist Party thoroughly patrolled the waterways and kept a close watch on residents living in regions surrounding the waterways closely for suspicious activity – mainly the shipyards where boats were constructed. Even moving Ky-Anh and Khoa from the city into the region to prepare for the escape was extremely dangerous in itself.
Kiem, Ky-Anh and Khoa attempted to escape Vietnam 7 times. But each time they were about to attempt their escape, a whistle blower would raise the alarm and they would not get very far. On their 8th attempt, with a new crew and a 11 meter boat installed with a repurposed engine from a wheat grinder, they successfully fled Vietnam.
The details of the escape was delicately planned and kept a secret. Kiem himself did not know when the family would be travelling until a core member of the crew informed him a week out from the day. The family had less than a week to prepare for the potentially life ending journey. The fact that Kiem, Ky-Anh and Khoa could not disclose to their extended family members of their plans to leave, made it even excruciatingly more difficult.
In the darkness of night, the family sadly left their home and made their way down to the Mekong region to the town of Tra Vinh, to meet up with the organisers. People travelling out of Saigon were required to have documentation issued from the Government outlining their travel. Kiem, Ky-Anh and Khoa had no such documentation, so every bus and ferry ride was extremely stressful.
Anyone who was found to be travelling to the Mekong region for the purpose or suspicion of escaping Vietnam were imprisoned, regardless of gender or age. During the family’s travel to the Mekong region they had a few close encounters with the authorities. However, luckily for the family there was usually a large movement of people in this region so the Communist patrols could not check everyone in the region. The family stayed in Tra Vinh at a acquaintance’s house while they awaited for favourable weather condition to travel.
Once they received the signal, the plan was to load thirty adults and ten children onto the eleven meter boat, docked halfway downstream at the mouth of the river. This area was usually well patrolled by the authorities especially during calm nights, so the plan was to move small groups of 5-6 people at a time, by rowing small boats to the main boat docked downstream. This operation was extremely risky as these waters were well patrolled, not only by the Communist authorities but also desperate locals seeking to claim reward money if they notified the authorities of escapees. The most difficult part was ensuring that the children were kept extremely quiet during the transfer.
Once everyone was transferred into the main boat, Kiem and the crew slowly navigated the boat out towards the open sea. The noise of the engine was smothered by sandbags and channelled into the water. About 100 meters into the journey a patrol boat headed up stream towards their boat. The crew agreed that if they were spotted that they would make a dash for freedom, even though they all understood the potential risk and consequences of getting shot at. They all knew that it was suicidal because their repurposed engine was not going to be able to out run the patrol boat, they had no choice at this point. As the crew held their breath, the patrol boat brushed passed them with no more than 5 meters between them. It was truly amazing that they were not intercepted, shot down or captured during this close encounter.
Once out of the river into the open seas, they headed in the direction of Malaysia. March was the most favourable time of the year to escape Vietnam as the waters were much calmer. This was particularly important given that the boat they were travelling on wasn’t built to withstand poor weather conditions.
They travelled for 5 days and 5 nights. What an ordeal for Khoa, a little boy just 6 years of age! They had to survive on small portions of rice, but with a combination of the cramped conditions, anxiety, fear and sea-sickness no one ate.
On the 5th evening, Kiem noticed a light beaming from a light house off the coast of Malaysia. Uncertain about the depth of the water and whether there were large rocks at the base of sea, Kiem directed the crew to anchor the boat in a little cove. They watched the path taken by fisherman in hopes that they could lead them safely to shore, but Kiem knew that the fishing boats were too fast for them to follow.
The following morning, the crew got long bamboo sticks to probe the water to estimate the seabed depth whilst looking out for protruding jagged rocks. The crew navigated the boat as close to shore as possible. When it was safe enough, the crew and passengers jumped into the water and walked to shore. A local Malaysian from the island stood at shore and welcomed them. Everyone was exhausted, relieved and overwhelmed with so many mixed emotions. Some of joy and others of fear, but one thing they all knew was that they now had freedom. At this point, Kiem, Ky-Anh and Khoa finally saw a future for themselves as a unified family which they had been deprived of for so long.
The Immigration Department of Malaysia had predicted that Vietnamese refugees would be arriving from the east coast. The Malaysian government were happy to welcome Vietnamese refugees and agreed to process the refugees’ documentation.
All the crew and passengers were transferred by bus to their refugee processing camp in Malaysia. The camp was very basic, but everyone recalled it to be a place filled with positive energy. People had found a renewed sense of hope and aspiration for brighter futures. Meaningful traditional Vietnamese music was played over the camp speakers every day during sunset, whilst it sadly reminded everyone of home and loved ones they left behind, everyone knew how blessed they were to be given the opportunity to wake up each day with the knowledge that they had a sense of control over their destiny. This was a privilege that so many others have sought and lost their lives trying to pursue and for others will never have the opportunity to know freedom.
The camp was built with a few small temporary classrooms for the kids and adults to study basic conversational English. Whilst awaiting for processing both Ky-Anh and Khoa attended the school. Having worked with American soldiers during the war, Kiem knew basic conversational English. Instead Kiem assisted in the wood workshop which a Vietnamese refugee had established as he had been at the camp for a very long time. The local camp workers supplied thin plywood and small hand saws for the workshop. The workshop produced plywood pictures (before the likes of 3D printing and laser cutters) and ornaments, including timber replica model boats, which were sold to the local markets in return for small amounts of money.
Given Kiem’s service in the Airforce with the United States allies, him and his family was given priority to migrate to the United States. However, Kiem felt that United States always seemed to be involved in conflict (he’s not wrong there) and he did not wish to see his family go through anymore wars, so he waited to see if other countries would offer his family the opportunity to resettle.
As side note, Kiem recalls an interview he saw on television in Vietnam during the war. He remembers watching Henry Kissinger the then Secretary of the United States under the President Richard Nixon. In this interview he said that if he could live anywhere in the world he would live in Australia. From this point, Kiem knew he wanted to raise his family in Australia because for a prominent diplomat like Kissinger who was well travelled, highly educated and informed, to publically announce that Australia was the best place in world was something significant. Australia was no doubt in Kiem’s mind and heart a place of peace and hope.
Kevin Sharp (who, the Do Family, now endearingly refer to him as Uncle Kevin) – was a member of the Wembley Downs Church of Christ. He had read and seen something about boat loads of refugees escaping war torn Vietnam and heading to the east coast of Malaysia and was disturbed by what he saw. It was in 1981 when he was moved to do something about this tragedy.
Kevin presented his case to the Church and suggested we rescue a family and bring them to Australia from the Refugee Camp in Malaysia. He wanted to give a sponsor a family to give them the opportunity to start a new life, a life that we all at some point take for granted.
The Australian Immigration Department (under Malcolm Frazer’s Prime Ministership) was involved in sponsorship process. They selected 3 family profiles who were residing in the Malaysian refugee camp to the Church – the Church was to choose 1 family to sponsor. The Church was faced with a hard task and made their decision purely on the photographs that they were provided. The Church chose a family comprising of a well-educated man, along with his wife and son who were in desperate need of a new beginning in a country that could offer many opportunities and possibilities. The Do family had been selected.
It took 3 months for the Wembley Downs Church to get the Do’s house in Scarborough organised.
On the 11th of July 1982, the Do family were notified that all was prepared in Perth and they were to leave Malaysia and head to their new life in the land of hopes, dreams and freedom, Australia.
Three days later on the 14th of July, the Do family arrived in Perth. Kevin and Fay, [my Aunty], nervously waited at the airport to meet the family that they had sponsored. The flight was filled with refugees who had been successfully sponsored by different churches and organisations.
Kevin and Fay distinctly remember seeing a little family coming towards them with all their worldly possessions in a small torn suitcase and under Kiem’s arm was a timber boat, a handmade replica of the boat that they left Vietnam in, which he presented to Kevin as a small token of his gratitude.
Perth welcomed the family with one of its coldest winter nights! Coming from humid Malaysia, they were not adequately prepared for such cold weather. Warm clothing was given to the family as they were bundled into a bus with the other refugees and was transferred to Graylands Immigration Centre to start their new life in Australia. At that time, Graylands was used as a holding place for quarantining newly arrived refugees. Here the refugees were involved in an orientation and assimilation program covering language and culture for a period of 6 weeks – this was supposed to be a soft-introduction to living in Perth, WA. After the 6 weeks, the Do family were free to take up residence in the home the Church prepared for them on Scarborough Beach road. When they were transported to their new home, their first reaction was of astonishment and disbelieve that this little flat was so gracefully and generously provided for them. And it was from that moment this family the Do’s become part of my family.
Over the years I came to see this family as just another family connected to my family, but beautifully different;
- We had fun with the language barriers.
- My Mum drove Ky-Anh to the hospital when she was in labour.
- Ky-Anh learnt to swim in our pool.
- Khoa went off to school, not being able to speak a word of English.
- He played basketball in our church team with Dad as the coach.
- We had fun eating delicious authentic Vietnamese food before there was any of these authentic Vietnamese Restaurants in Perth.
- We had fun watching their three children grow up, awarded university degrees, getting married, having children, receiving professional recognitions and national education awards.
Our little Church with a big heart gave a family a new start in life.
Khoa is now married with three kids: Zachary (10), Amelia (8) and Elysha (2). He currently holds the position of Associate Professor at Curtin University within the School of Built Environment and Design.
The middle daughter born in Australia, Gina is married with one daughter, Emily (6) and is currently residing and working in Geraldton. She is the Deputy Headmaster in Nagel Catholic College High School.
Christina, the youngest daughter also born in Australia is married and recently had a baby boy Noah only 8 months ago. She is a qualified lawyer and Lecturer in the Curtin Law School. She is due to commence her Doctorate at the University of Western Australia next year.
It has been a truly amazing journey to date for the Do family and those who have been involved in the whole process. It is a story of how a little kindness goes such a long way, if we only dare to care.
There is an old Chinese proverb that: “When the winds of change blow, some people build walls, others build windmills”. The Do family would like to publicly thank the Wembley Downs Church of Christ and all our church family for their unconditional generosity, kindness and love. Kiem says;
Thank you for building windmills and not walls. Your kindness gave a little refugee family hope and a future where there was none. We are forever grateful that you chose us and we found you!
Ky-Anh and Kiem Do in October 2016.
*Postscript – At the time of publication there are 1233 people in Australia’s off shore detention centres Nauru and Manus who have been told there is no hope of ever placing their feet on our great land. I wonder if there are families with stories like our friends – The Do family, amongst them? I’m sure there are. I wonder if there are any churches and community groups in Australia who will ‘carry’ refugees (no matter how they get here) through the tough years of settlement in a new land? I KNOW there are!