As we move from Refugee Week to NAIDOC week, it’s fitting that we listen to Academics Mark Brett and Naomi Wolfe as they explore the roles of guest and host in the Australian context. This piece is an edited excerpt from a NAIITS Conference paper. The full paper will be published in the NAIITS Journal later in the year.
Bright red lifejackets bobbing in the ocean. Drowned toddlers. Nameless and lifeless bodies washed up on the shore. As a journalist, they’re images I’ve seen and reported on every day since the summer of 2015, when Europe was confronted with the biggest migration crisis since World War Two.
Since then, I’ve visited hospitals in the Middle East that treat kids disfigured by war, who’ve had arms, legs and parts of their faces blown off. I’ve gone to several refugee camps across Europe where thousands live in limbo and fear deportation. I’ve listened to so many personal stories about wars and perilous sea journeys, people smugglers and death.
For months, I tried not to make the connection between what I was reporting and what my family went through when they fled Vietnam by boat after the war in 1979. It was still too raw. But when I heard reports that Libyan authorities were shooting at migrants at sea, I found myself numb and sobbing. I guess I finally cracked.
I remembered my family telling me that authorities also fired at them while they were on a Vietnamese fishing boat, off the coast of Malaysia. My mum gave birth to my big brother on the refugee boat, but faced with no options, she placed him in a bucket, and dodged bullets as she and her two little girls (my big sisters), my dad and granny waded towards the shore.
It always felt like a myth to me. Like a bad dream that never happened.
But it did happen, I thought, as I Googled ‘Vietnamese boat people’ and ‘Vietnam War’. The desperation. The overcrowded boats. The hostility they met. How history repeats itself so quickly.
My family lived in refugee camps in Malaysia and Indonesia for several months after their boat journey. They were eventually granted refugee status in Australia in 1980, and I became the first person in my family to be born in Australia.
I’m not proud to say that I spent most of my life embarrassed about my complicated background. (To add to the confusion, we're ethnically Chinese but most of my family were born in Vietnam).
I kept their stories hidden from everyone I knew, even my friends. It wasn’t easy being from a refugee family when you’re pitied by well-meaning people, made to feel like a problem to be solved, or worse still, turned into a side project for people to brag about at dinner parties. So it was better not to say anything. I just wanted to be treated like a normal kid who played Nintendo and handball.
But after decades of hiding, it’s funny how life has come full circle. My “embarrassing” background is exactly why I became a journalist, and I get to work on the frontlines of the refugee crisis in Europe to tell the stories of people who are in the same boat as my family once were.
It’s not easy taking a chance on strangers - a bunch of refugees who are disillusioned, broken, traumatised. But thanks for taking that chance, for welcoming my family many moons ago, and letting us call Australia home.
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Lin Taylor is a London-based Australian journalist covering humanitarian crises, conflicts, refugees, women’s rights, climate change, land conflicts, human trafficking and modern slavery, and other under-reported stories for the Reuters news wire. Photos by Phil Eggman and Terry Fincher used with permission.