Calling Australia home: stories of Australia's boat people
In April 1976 a battered 15-metre fishing boat docked in Darwin, carrying five young Vietnamese men who would become Australia’s first boat people.
Forty years later, 57-year-old Lam Tac Tam still calls Darwin home.
Lam Tac and his brother Lam Binh planned their escape from South Vietnam for six months before setting off in January 1976. In their quest for asylum they were turned away in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah.
The Lam brothers began working as labourers within four days of securing refugee status, before the Australian government had time to help them seek employment. They were supplied with food for a few days, until they received their first salary. “After that we pay ourselves.”
By 1980 the brothers had saved $45,000 to buy a fishing boat, a feat Lam Tac helped accomplish by working three jobs. Before long, he was the owner of a successful Chinese restaurant.
Lam Tac can still be found in Darwin where his first boat docked. “I was the first generation to come to Australia”, he says proudly. Now there are three: a daughter and granddaughter, his Australian legacy.
“They are more like Australian people, like one hundred percent, pure Australia now. Australia is my country now, my home now. I stay here longer than in my country. I am refugee, I am Australian now.”
Lam Tac’s story forms part of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) new Human Lives, Human Rights campaign, which highlights the contribution of refugees to Australian society while advocating for the protection of their rights.
The campaign launch comes as parliament is set to debate a bill that would prevent asylum seekers resettled from Manus and Nauru ever being able to visit Australia — even for business and tourism.
Najeeba Wazefadost also sought asylum in Australia, arriving by boat as an Afghani refugee when she was ten years old.
“Things were escalating in my country where there was no longer peace,” she recalls. “We could not see that security, we were not feeling secure. Continuously we had that fear of being killed at any time.
“I remember, you know, when my father was going out of home, and every time he was leaving home we were saying goodbye to him in a way that he was never going to come back.”
Najeeba Wazefadost fled Afghanistan with her family when she was 10. Photo: Fiona Morris
Wazefadost had little knowledge of Australia as she and her family made the sea crossing. She had few expectations beyond the prospect of safety. She did not know of Australia’s immigration detention.
Yet her surprise and jubilation at the welcome she received upon her release is still vivid in her memory.
“The first amazing Australian woman that I met at the airport, she smiled, she grabbed my hand and said ‘Welcome to Australia!'”
After being denied access to education during her youth in Afghanistan, Wazefadost graduated with a Bachelor of Medical Science. For her parents, watching her among a sea of graduates underlined why they had braved the treacherous sea journey.
Now working as a youth advocate and refugee settlement case worker, Wazefadost is determined to help asylum seekers like herself.
“They are not an issue,” she says firmly. “They are people.
“I think at the moment the whole issue of refugees has been dehumanised. Australia has a shared responsibility of looking after asylum seekers.”
Wazefadost told Fairfax she was “disappointed” by Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s remarks last week which linked Lebanese-Muslim immigrants to acts of terrorism. She takes issue with the tendency of current political discourse to conflate issues of asylum seeking and religion, which are not always related.
“Australia is a signatory of the UN convention and part of the international community,” she argues, restating that seeking asylum is a human right.
“Australians have done so well in their history and they can do better.”
Reconstructive surgeon Dr Munjed Al Muderis arrived from Iraq in 1999. He fled after his hospital department was presented with three busloads of army deserters and ordered to cut their ears off. He couldn’t do it.
“In the blink of an eye, I turned from a spoilt brat that’s living a very privileged life to an escapee and a traitor to Sadam’s regime.”
Surgeon Dr Munjed Al Muderis. Photo: Tim Bauer
Fortunately, Dr Al Muderis was able to secure work as a doctor two months after his release from detention. His passion for reconstructive surgery was fostered by the horrific injuries his patients had sustained in war-torn Baghdad. He now specialises in fitting amputees with prosthetic limbs.
Saeid Safavi landed on Australian shores in 2001. He ran a fabric business in Iran for 12 years before its assets were seized by the government and he was forced to flee.
While being processed though a Woomers detention centre, Safavi was persuaded by a friend to meet a woman visiting him. Safavi was nervous about the encounter as he spoke no English.
Former Iranian asylum seeker Saeid Safavi. Photo: UNHCR
“And I saw her, and she looks like my mum,” he remembers. “She hugged me and I’m [in] tears, I’m crying, and she said to me, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll look after you.”‘
Upon release in 2003 Safavi found a home in Port Pirie. His warm reception after years of uncertainty made him vow never to leave.
Today, Safavi owns a cafe with 25 employees. He has two sons. His philosophy of life is simple: “Work hard, positive thinking, and definitely [you’ll have] a successful life.”
The story Calling Australia home: stories of Australia’s boat people first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.