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
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.