Bishop Vincent Long, OFM Conv, Bishop of Parramatta, tells his own story of seeking safety as a refugee, and urges Catholics to challenge anti-refugee attitudes evident in our current government policies.
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I was born in 1961 in Dong Nai, Vietnam. Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, my family fled Vietnam.
I left on a very small boat, only six or seven metres in length. We had over 100 people on board, so it was extremely overcrowded.
I am a second-generation refugee. By that I mean my parents themselves were refugees before me. In 1954, following the Geneva Convention that divided Vietnam into two ideologically opposing sides, they –a young couple in their 20s with a toddler, my then 2-year-old eldest sister- uprooted from their home near Hanoi and ventured to the south. They escaped by a small boat and went to a part of the country they knew nothing about.
It was by the twist of fate that I would later follow in their footsteps, only this time it was a farther and riskier journey. My two older brothers escaped first and settled in Holland. I myself escaped by boat in 1980 with my sister-in-law and her two young children an 18-month-old boy and a baby girl barely 6 months old. I ended up holding her for the most part of the journey. It was the most distressing experience I ever encountered. And I am not talking about the lack of food, water, and exposure to the elements. It’s watching a young child suffer and you are totally helpless to do anything about it. One study estimates that up to 500,000 of the 2 million Vietnamese refugees died in the pursuit of freedom. Without a doubt, this was the darkest episode in the history of the Vietnamese people. It is something that we will never forget.
Our boat quickly ran out of food and fuel but a passing ship rescued us.
We were taken to a refugee camp in Malaysia and after 16 months living there, I was resettled in Australia.
When I picked my motto ‘Into the Deep’ I went into my past. The challenges that faced me then, including being a refugee have shaped me into the person I am today.
With millions of people in the limbo of refugee camps, and with Australia taking so few refugees proportionally to other countries, we can take more. We used to be a country that was generous towards those seeking asylum, but that attitude has changed. In a generation, we have gone from the universally admired, generous, hospitable, daring, courageous country to one of the most pilloried nations in terms of our policy towards asylum seekers.
I would like to see a change in attitudes and policies in Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. It will come, I believe, with a movement from below that challenges the anti-refugee racism from above. Renewal and creativity often come from the grassroots and the margins.
As Christians, we cannot remain content with the status quo, especially when that status quo is less than what God wants for us as individuals and as a community. Australia is a wonderful country, but where it is in terms of its treatment of asylum seekers should galvanise us into action.
Migrants and refugees need support to settle into their new home. Here, both the community and Government have a role to play. In an example that is close to home for me, the experience of the Vietnamese boat people provides clear evidence that even a highly traumatised group can be integrated into our multicultural society and can make a positive contribution. The fear that our social cohesion might be undermined by newcomers has been proven unfounded again and again by successive waves of migrants and refugees. By embracing new arrivals, Australia has evolved to become a much more dynamic, diverse, and prosperous nation.
The Catholic community, through its various organisations and structures, is very active in visiting people in immigration detention, and in supporting asylum seekers and refugees in the community. Those who are on bridging visas or temporary visas are not eligible for a range of government supports for people facing economic hardship due to the pandemic. Along with other charities and community-based organisations, we are working hard to assist these vulnerable people.
Refugees and people seeking asylum in our Diocese need your help now. You can be part of our Diocesan Food Drive Roster. Details here.
This article highlights a story from the “Diocesan Journey… Walking with Refugees and People Seeking Protection”. Learn more about this initiative and to follow our 14-week campaign from Refugee Week to World Day of Migrants and Refugees.