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Michael still giving back


During Refugee Week, 82-year-old Michael Nguyen reflected on his dramatic escape from Vietnam in 1977 and subsequently building a life in South Australia and his involvement in the local community.

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When Michael Nguyen speaks of this 20 odd years working for the South Australian public service he proudly adds that “I am still working for the government’ as he holds up his official identification lanyard.

That’s because since his retirement 17 years ago Michael has been volunteering for the Department of Correctional Services, visiting Yatala and Mobilong gaols on a weekly basis and assisting prisoners when they are first released.

It’s not like he needs to be kept busy either; the Croydon Park parishioner has plenty to keep him occupied thanks to his long-time hobby as a collector. Crammed into two rooms at his Adelaide home, with spillover into the bedroom much to the dismay of his wife Minh Chau, his collection comprises more than a thousand items related to Vietnamese culture, history, military life and more.

While the father of four and grandfather of six may have been forced to leave Vietnam 45 years ago, his birth country is still very much a part of him.

A child of the French Occupation, he and two of his seven siblings were forced to move to Cambodia with their father whose politics saw him imprisoned and facing execution until he asked to see a priest. “The French officer asked my father what was his last wish and when he said he wanted to see a priest he was so shocked he took him back to his post and one of the priests got my father released,” he explained.

Michael returned to Saigon when he was 16 and continued his studies for three years at a De La Salle school.

In 1960, he joined the Navy and went to the United States twice for training. When war broke out the Navy was supposed to organise his escape from Vietnam but by then he had a wife and three children. He was sent to a ‘re-education’ camp but in reality it was prison and  the Viet Cong “treated us like animals”.

They accused him of being a spy because of his time in the US and tortured him.

“Why you go to US, why you become a spy, they asked,” Michael recalled as he pointed to his mangled finger.

“It was very, very hard. I stayed in prison for one and a half years.”

Through a relative with contacts with Communists, he was released from prison.

“It was like a miracle,” he said.

“I had an image of Mary in my pocket for years. Every day I pray (in prison) because in the prison most of the time people die.”

This was the second time that the image ‘saved’ him. When he was an aide-to-camp to a general in the Navy he was ordered to leave his post at a base where a day later the Viet Cong killed “a lot of soldiers”.

The third time the image of Mary helped him was when he escaped by boat to Australia.

“People came to my house and asked me to help them to prepare to escape,” he said.

“We prepare everything for our family to come with us.”

But at the last minute, security police intercepted two small fishing boats carrying the women and children to the bigger boat to join their husbands.

The thwarted escape made headlines in The West Australian newspaper after the 25 refugees arrived in Broome.

The article attributed the boat’s successful voyage from Vietnam via Malaysia to Michael’s experience as a navy warrant officer and his simple navigation aids but said it had “come at a heavy price” because he and the vessel owner had been forced to leave their families behind.

Michael, who was 38, found his way to Perth and then Adelaide where he worked as a kitchen hand. Back in Vietnam his wife was visited by police regularly and struggling on her own with three children, one of whom was only three months old.

Fr Jeff Foale and Roger Fordham from the IndoChina Refugee Association SA offered to help bring the family to Australia but Michael wasn’t confident.

“Roger came to me and said he was going to see the High Commissioner for the United Nations in Canberra – I thought it was a joke,” he recalled.

“One month later, the police went to see my wife and asked her to apply to go to Australia. It was another miracle.”

Michael had been sending all of his $17 a week salary back to Vietnam and borrowed money to pay for the family’s accommodation in Thailand and flights to Australia.

The family rented a flat in Woodville and with the help of a Vietnamese Jesuit the two boys were offered free education at Saint Ignatius’ College.

Fr Laurie Bissett, an MSC priest, was another person who helped Michael a lot when he first arrived.

Michael Nguyen (centre) when he arrived in WA as a refugee in the 1970s.

“That’s why I said to myself when I arrived that I had to join the St Vincent de Paul Society to repay the kindness,” he said.

In 1985 Michael began studying graphic design at Underdale University while working at John Martin as a salesman.

After graduating he won a position as special relations officer with the Fisheries Department and worked in the office next to Premier John Bannon. “I worked with three premiers,” Michael added.

Highly regarded for his quick thinking, language skills and tactical approach borne from his Navy days, Michael was awarded Certificates of Appreciation from various departments and Premier Bannon appointed him to the Multicultural Arts Advisory Committee from 1989 to 1991. In 2016 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his contribution to the Vietnamese community.

However, his work was not without its challenges and he was threatened by aggrieved fishermen to the point where Premier Bannon agreed to transfer him to the Primary Industries Department to work with growers at Virginia.

Concerned about his lack of farming know-how, Michael suggested it wasn’t the job for him but was encouraged to study at Roseworthy Agricultural College and nine years later graduated with a Diploma in Agriculture.

During his time with Primary Industries he travelled to Israel, the United States, “everywhere”, for work.

“I am very lucky,” Michael said.

He also was involved in the creation of the Vietnam War Memorial at the Torrens Parade Ground, with his drawings used for the statue, and he has continued his long involvement with Vinnies, in particular its support of refugees.

“I like to help people because the Australian people have helped us,” he said.

Nor does he want to forget the sacrifice of the soldiers who fought for his country.

He acknowledged there were challenges for him as a Vietnamese refugee including people thinking he was coming to steal from them when he was providing them with Vinnies vouchers or customers refusing to answer him when he approached them as a salesman for John Martin.

But his faith and firm belief that “it’s all in God’s hands” has helped him to overlook the “little things”.

“I pray the Rosary twice every day, and I try to go to Mass every day but with COVID I have been going online.”

His special prayers at the moment are for enough funds to be raised for the Catholic Cathedral in Saigon, a project close to his heart.

As for his collection, he’s hoping to transfer many of the items to a new nationally-funded Vietnamese museum in Victoria.


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