Australians & The Vietnam WarThis article was written in 1982 from the perspective of being the director at that time. Now, more than fory years later I hope to review the experience in the light of what I learnt then and since. The experience certainly radically changed my life and that of my family.


 Lee Borradale (Director of the Hy-Vong Community)

Having experienced a war, the trauma of escape from Vietnam and separation from their parents to be confronted by a new culture, a new language and an uncertain future, the young people of the Hy-Vong Community have a great deal of pressure to deal with. Adults have difficulty dealing with such pressures, so it is little wonder that at times the pressure becomes too much for the these young people.

This article is intended to offer one experience and the insights gained from living day to day for fourteen months as the house father/director for twenty five Indo-Chinese refugee minors in a group home called the Hy-Vong Community. Father Bryan Strangman, M.S.C., with the approval and support of his Superior and Provincial, commenced the work in 1980, answering a need he had discovered in his wider apostolate to South East Asian refugees in the Wollongong Diocese. The Society appointed Father Denis Murphy and then Brother Gerard Burke in charge of Hy-Vong after the death of Fr. Strangman in December 1980. My wife, three young children and I came to the work in January 1982. The task was to build a community atmosphere which would prepare unaccompanied refugee children for life in Australia and heal the effects arising from separation from their families, and war-torn country. Most of the boys have had horrific escape experiences.

That there exist in Vietnam the conditions which cause parents and their sons to choose this way, must be undeniable for so may children have been put at risk.

The oppression in Vietnam is very real. I see more concrete evidence in the fact that the boys send home medical supplies because they are not available to their families in Vietnam. The boys send the supplies not in one parcel, but in several parcels in the hope that some of it will reach their parents without confiscation by the communists. I cannot remember a month in which one of our community has not received bad news from Vietnam. News of imprisonments of members of family is common. I was at Hy-Vong only a few months when one of the boys asked if I could help him to trace his sisters. He had received news some six months previously that they had escaped by boat from Vietnam. He had few details to work from, but I wrote to the Red Cross Central Tracing Agency in Geneva and we waited in the hope that they may have survived. The search was unsuccessful. Five months later we received news that they had been located in a prison in Vietnam. The eldest girl was twenty-five years old, while the youngest sister was only ten. Late in 1982 another boy received news that his mother was very ill and needed an operation costing $800.00 if she was to have any chance of surviving. Can you imagine the pressure that this creates for the boy in the 'freedom country'? His parents created his chance and now they need help but he is a student without resources. The boys in the community helped from money they had earned on their holidays and friends from out-side the community came to the rescue. The problems were not over, however, as we had to find a way to get the help into Vietnam without part of it "going missing" and we were working against time. The method that evolved was successful. A few weeks ago one of the boys received news that his father had died and as yet he does not know the cause, he knows only the pain. His mother is in Vietnam now without his father and without him.

It is the freedom in Australia to which I want to address this article, because so many of the boys here are imprisoned by pressure. Some of these young people cope but for others the results of this can be very harmful.

Firstly it is my belief that the greatest single pressure that these boys face stems from a sense of responsibility for their parents still trapped within Vietnam. The immigration department calls these children "anchor cases". Sometimes when the term has been used, it seemed to include a suspicion that the parents were cunning in having their sons escape, in the hope that, somehow the son would help them to follow at a later date. I believe that the parents' first concern has been to ensure freedom for their children. This is a sacrifice that has brought immense sorrow and worry to the parents. It is difficult for Australians to imagine what pain there must be in having children leave home, run the risks of an escape and an uncertain future in a new country. To risk of loss of contact for all time and even the death of their children. The hope of joining their children in a 'freedom country' is a natural part of their love for their children. This deep mutual bond between parents and children is sensitively expressed in the following poem by one of our members.

Dau Thuong Va Hy Vong: Pain and Hope

As I sit under the shade of a tree
And view the clear sky as the sun rises in the morning
I am reminded of the motherland that I have left behind.

Motherland. Oh! Motherland.
I recall a scene of rows of beautiful trees,
With children frolicking under the shade.
The river passes near the trees,
The fish swim here and there.
How lovely when this country has the sunshine of freedom.
Suddenly a shadow is cast over that freedom.
The devil comes and obliterates the sunshine,
And covers it with darkness and sorrow.
The rows of trees become withered,
The children are quiet under the trees.
The rivers turn dry,
The fish have no where to swim.
How awful when the country changes!
How hard that people live in the darkness.
They try to hide and to escape.
Not just for a better life but for freedom.
How many die when they try to escape?
How many have been caught when they try to hide ?
But still they try to escape and hide.
They do not care about their lives,
Unless they are lit by freedom.
They hope they can escape the darkness.
There are two ways for them to choose,
One is Death the other Freedom in their lives.
Which one do you think is better?
So they try to leave the darkness.
And search for Sunshine in their lives.

It all brings back to my mind
The awful things that happened in my life
But now it has all passed.
And how lonely I am now for my parents
Staying in this foreign country
Without parents beside me.
So I need to share the love and care
With others round me.
To warm my heart and my life
And to share my loneliness.

Duc Vi Lam

These refugee boys need to be able to tell the immigration Department that they have a good job and can provide for their parents, if the sponsorship as immigrants under the orderly departure programme is to be approved. We hear about the boys who do succeed, but the reality is that the majority do not. Even if a boy is above average intelligence his chance of success in the HSC is not good, especially if he begins Australian schooling in year 11. The majority of these boys need three years to complete the two year HSC course. The pressure to be through school and earning is a factor that works against this. The fact that they will not receive the Secondary School Allowance for any year repeated is a government disincentive which needs to be changed. Many boys go on after a poor year 11 in the hope that long hours spent in study will solve the problem. The superhuman effort does have an effect, but does not ensure the success so desperately needed.

The report by Mrs Jean Reid who surveyed the school on behalf of the MSC Education Committee provides evidence of the magnitude of the educational problem.

"The following are the results of the reading age test on some of our members:





















































Extracts from the report by Mrs Reid as they apply to the Vietnamese students of Hy-Vong include:

* Vietnamese and other ESL (English as Second Language) students:
Number experiencing difficulty: 24
* In year 11, six Vietnamese students have reading ages less than ten years."
"Suggestions for remediation:
1. Intensive English as a second Language Course both at Chevalier College in school hours and at Hy-Vong at night.
2. Such students to be withdrawn from subjects (except for maths, science, workshop, art and music) to attend intensive E.S.L. classes until they achieve a reading age of 9-9.6 years."
3. "A more suitable syllabus be designed for lower levels of year eleven. (e.g. The inappropriateness of Vietnamese students attempting to study Shakespear.)"

What can the boy who is not coping do?

The boys work very hard to do well at school, and gain the reputation of people who a very ambitious, and possessed of an inordinate determination to do well. The motivation for this effort comes from the need to do well in order to save their parents from persecution in Vietnam.

One, unhealthy, manifestation of pressures is the all-work-and-no-play study routine that these boys sometimes impose on themselves. It can have disastrous consequences. A case in point is of a boy who studied continuously, stopped playing and so alienated himself from others even here within the community. Any difficult social situation would see him escaping to the excuse of study. In the face of any difficulty with his peers he would explain that they were not serious enough so he said he had little time for them. The counselling that he was given improved things but its effects were limited. Part of the aim of our recent holiday in Queensland was to remove the possibility of escape to the study books and to provide the conditions in which all would participate in various forms socialising. After our return from the holiday one boy wrote to me saying that although at first he had not wanted to go now he realised that it had been good for him to come to know the other boys better.

It is easy to understand how this pattern develops. As I have said previously there is the motivation to do well so that they can be in a position to help their parents. Another pressure comes from within the school. The boys feel isolated, even rejected. This evolves, among other things, from integration problems stemming from language difficulties. The boys feel conspicuous at lunch time and the library becomes a place to hide; books become an escape. It is difficult for the young Vietnamese student to walk into an established Australian group during the lunch break and it is equally difficult for an Australian boy to walk into the Vietnamese group. Clearly a catalyst is required. Encouraging the members to play sport, take part in the school play, go on the retreats and school excursions are among the avenues that are obvious. Inviting Australian students to Hy-Vong for a meal or social night has had an impact. Competition volleyball and soccer games with the boarders at Chevalier provided other opportunities especially if they were followed by a social activity.

Some of our boys have emotional problems that have their beginnings in other disruptions in their lives. One lost his mother at a very early age and a father later in life. Another boy was separated by force from his parents. His father was shot by Pol Pot soldiers while he was taken to a forced labour camp to help build a dam. He escaped, found his mother who was dying from a broken heart, and lack of food. He nursed her for a month before she died. He was left to starve, while his ration was still going to the place he had escaped from. A Cambodian took pity on him and gave him work tending his water buffalo in exchange for food. He is ethnic Chinese. His education consists of two years in a Chinese school at the ages of five and six. Upon that school then being closed, he went to a Cambodian school for three months but, because of the persecution of Chinese in the school, he was taken away. His next formal education was in year ten in Australia at the age of nineteen! He knows no language well, but has some knowledge of Cambodian, Chinese and English. The task ahead of this young man is a daunting one.

It is important to say again that where there is an older relative in Australia to share the burden of worry the boy is far more content with himself and others. The pressures decrease with youth because no one expects too much from a fourteen year old boy; not even the boy himself.

For other boys to cope emotionally and so that all the pressures of the boy's history aren't channelled into excessive and non productive activity the boys need someone with time to listen. They need a person to share their worries with so that the load becomes bearable. The boys who have older brothers, sisters, uncles or aunts are lucky and the pattern is that they cope with pressure far better than those without relatives in Australia.

Sometimes a boy arrives from the refugee camps in the custody of an uncle of convenience. 'Freedom countries' are reluctant to admit boys who are totally unattached so a great many of these are left to vegetate in the refugee camps. Hence it makes good sense in a survival situation to change your name and age, if necessary, and enlist the agreement of an adult as your temporary 'uncle' in order to get out of the camps. Many of these arrangements have resulted in continuing care of the boy in Australia but it is equally true to say that many have not.

Some boys have unconsciously or consciously cultivated benefactors. The need is to find someone able to help them. For example they need someone with time and skill to help them with their educational problems. Boys who, having had contact with homes that they hoped would meet their needs more than they felt Hy-Vong was were wanting to move to these more appealing situations.

The following pattern has emerged when boys have felt the need to improve their circumstance by moving to a benefactor.

Very early in the relationship, the boy bestows a family title on the Australian couple. eg. Mum and Dad, Grandfather and Grandmother. Sometimes this has occurred within the first three visits to an Australians home. The boy is by nature polite and, helpful, and the relationship grows. The Australians see the boys emotional needs and become very fond of the boy but not to the degree of offering a fostership and the permanent responsibilities that go with it. They see the boy here being looked after educationally, and as regards clothing and food, and so offer part-time help. The boy can visit them and they help with his study and with presents of one sort or another.

But the boy needs more.

The boy's dissatisfaction with his present circumstance rises. Difficulties within the community are magnified in his mind and negativism and distortion grow in this mental climate. Given the nature of the community, these ripples affect, by degree, everyone in the community. The benefactors genuine concern results in the boy being accepted into his home.

So far during 1982/83 there have been a small but significant number of these cases. In one case the Australian family had a great deal of experience and assessed the situation very early in the relationship. They continued to help the boy but, because of their age and circumstances indicated that a fostership could not eventuate. The boy has since turned sixteen and moved into a foster type relationship elsewhere. This arrangement was the result of the boy's own work. In the case of three other boys they succeeded in having the benefactor agree to look after them. The unspoken assumptions on both sides and the boy's active manipulation to get certain results to fit his own special needs produces a great deal of misunderstanding and hurt for the boys themselves, their benefactors and the people within the home. The intensity of the struggle for survival that permeates all this should surely be seen as the result of the childrens' history, and inability to cope with an inordinate amount of emotional pressure stemming from it. Six months ago I had become aware of signs of this pattern of behaviour in the backgrounds of applicants to our community. In fact the following is an extract from the paper that I presented, at that time, to the Sydney conference 'A Fair Go For Ethnic Youth.'

"There has been a significant increase in the number of detached refugee minors seeking help in recent times.

My concern is the fact that we appear to be neglecting the option of supporting the family when some form of breakdown occurs. An example would be the situation where a boy comes to the group home asking for help because he says his uncle does not care for him any more. Yet it can so easily be the case that the uncle is exercising his care by limiting or modifying the boy's behaviour in some way. Because the uncle has not the same bond as he would have if he was the boy's father, the boy can be less loyal in the circumstance. The boy can opt to leave, especially if there are easy or even appealing options. Too often intelligent adults are being manipulated by boys who are under stress and ill-equipped for the decisions they make about their future."

It should also be borne in mind that it is the Australian experience that fosterships of Indo-Chinese children especially in the teenage age groups has a very poor success rate. The family bond between natural parents and the young person would normally have acted as a stabilising factor through difficulty.

The group home situation has proved to be the most successful of the possible types of alternate care, though it is obviously not without problems.

I cannot stress enough the importance of the mutual support elements of the group home. The boys need to be in homes where there is more than one of their nationality. Duc explains this in his poem "Pain and Hope".

"And how lonely I am now for my parents
Staying in this foreign country
Without parents beside me.
So I need to share the love and care
With others round me.
To warm my heart and my life
And to share my loneliness."

The needs these young people have are obvious and critical. The fact that some boys are looking for alternatives is sufficient indication that improvement is necessary. The stage of development of the Hy-Vong Community resources in 1982 is relevant. There have been insufficient funds to run the home in its three-year history. This has resulted in a need for me to teach a half teaching load at Chevalier College when, in January 1982, I was first appointed to the position of Director/House father of the Hy-Vong Community. The task of improving, or even maintaining the homes funding situation was onerous and time consuming. This, when combined with my teaching commitments at Chevalier College, and time commitment the twenty five members of the community required I failed to adequately fulfil the boys needs even with the enlistment of outside support. Some outside support in fact added to the difficulties and became time consuming in itself. My own wife and three young children suffered more than most with my time priority going to the tasks within the community.

The Youth and Community Services Department have responded to my submission for an increase in funding and the 1983 grant is at the annual level of $58,000.00 compared with $12,600.00 in 1982. The major benefit has been the employment of a Vietnamese assistant. Other benefits in terms of relief staff, increase in pocket money, clothing allowances etc., have also followed. I can see 'the light at the end of the tunnel'. When I suggested this to a friend they other day he suggested, light heartedly, it was probably the light on a train coming the other way.

At Christmas, as I've previously said, I took the community to Queensland for a holiday. We had acquired the help we needed to do this. The superior of Downlands M.S.C. community agreed to host us. Things looked really bright. While on the holiday I received news that the Minister for Youth and Community Services had signed the authority for increased funding. Many of the problems seemed to be dissolving. Then on the way back from Queensland one of the two mini-buses was involved in an accident. One boy was killed, seven sustained head injuries, and my good friend Brother Peter Curry, the driver, had to have his leg amputated. One of the boys may not have his sight returned to one of his eyes. The last few months have been extraordinarily difficult and the on going care of boys requiring out patient medical care adds to the difficulties we face.

During this article I have spoken about many, many difficulties that we face. I have spoken about problems that boys face. I hope that this article offers a stimulus to those in positions of responsibility to respond to the needs not just of this community but to the needs of all refugee youth in Australia. The reality is that at present there is only three funded half way houses in NSW for refugee minors catering for 39 young refugees (as at November 1982). In New South Wales alone there are 125 refugee minors without parents or close relatives and an estimated 1000 to 1500 refugee minors without parents but with relatives or relatives of convenience. The Hy-Vong Communities immediate need is for funding for another staff member and funding for tutorial assistance within this home. Australia's commitment to the war in Vietnam resulted in the loss lives of many of its citizens and the commitment of millions of dollars.

What is our commitment to be in the healing of the lives of these young new Australians?