How i make it work... CA­RINA HOANG

SPEND­ING CHRIST­MAS IN A REFUGEE CAMP IN IN­DONE­SIA AT AGE 16 TAUGHT THE FOR­MER VIET­NAMESE ASY­LUM SEEKER THE TRUE MEAN­ING OF THE SEA­SON

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Travel - Stel­lar picks The Aus­tralia for UNHCR’S No­body Left Out­side ap­peal is on now; un­refugees.org.au/shel­ter.

My fam­ily lived un­der the com­mu­nist rule in Viet­nam for four years be­fore I left in 1979. It was the hard­est time be­cause our fa­ther was taken away, our house was con­fis­cated and we be­came home­less overnight. We lived in fear; we never knew what might hap­pen next.

I was 16 when I boarded a boat with my sis­ter and brother, who were 10 and 12. It was packed with about 400 peo­ple, so we sat with our chins to our knees for the eight-day trip across the South China Sea. Along the way, we lost many lives and I saw bod­ies be­ing tossed in the ocean. What kept me alive was the fact I had my sis­ter and brother to look after.

We made it to an is­land in In­done­sia and the au­thor­i­ties took us to a place they called a “refugee camp”. It was, es­sen­tially, an un­in­hab­ited is­land. We spent 10 months there. The first three were hor­rific; we had noth­ing but the sky as our roof and sand as our floor. Peo­ple died from the con­di­tions ev­ery day.

I knew we’d sur­vive when a Red Cross heli­copter spot­ted us. A group from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) came in to help and pro­vided us with plas­tic tents and food. It re­stored hope. Peo­ple’s spir­its were so high we cel­e­brated Christ­mas even though we didn’t have any­thing. Christ­mas gave us a chance to give thanks to God for sav­ing us and to the peo­ple who came to help us. I joined the choir and sang a Christ­mas carol, and my sib­lings starred in the play.

One of the best mem­o­ries I have of that is­land is the Christ­mas gifts I gave to my sis­ter and brother. I got them a packet of chew­ing gum each, wrapped both in pa­per and drew a Christ­mas tree on them. I was so proud.

Liv­ing in the camp made me re­alise the most im­por­tant thing is be­ing alive. I learnt not to take things for granted and to trea­sure ev­ery­thing I have. Through the tragedy, I gained strength and com­pas­sion. I be­came an Aus­tralia

for UNHCR spe­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive in 2011 to be the voice of refugees.

This year I will cel­e­brate Christ­mas in Perth – eat­ing, drink­ing and hav­ing a good time. I like to give to char­i­ties and the less for­tu­nate, be­cause there’s noth­ing more pre­cious than re­ceiv­ing a gift at Christ­mas and know­ing peo­ple do think of you: that you are not alone.

Matthew Mcconaughey and Reese Wither­spoon de­light young and old in the an­i­mated mu­si­cal In cin­e­mas Dec 26.

A Belvedere cock­tail by the rooftop pool. Sun­days at IN­TERCON­TI­NEN­TAL SYD­NEY DOU­BLE BAY; ic­syd­ney­dou­ble­bay.com.

stars at MOON­LIGHT CINEMA. Now open in Bris, Melb and Syd; moon­light.com.au.

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