Samuel James Newton Nguyen
Canterbury’s People: Sam, a young Vietnamese refugee, arrived in Australia in 1977 after a journey filled with turmoil and painful loss of loved ones. It is also a story of an extraordinary commitment and perseverance to help those most in need.
Growing up in war-torn Vietnam
Nguyen Dinh Duc, known as Sam Nguyen, was born in Hue, the cultural capital of Vietnam in 1961. He is the seventh of 14 children. As his father was a high-ranking officer in the police force, his family was posted to several different towns across Vietnam. From Hue he moved to Honea, the heritage town of Vietnam and then in 1974 to Cantho, a town 168kms from Saigon.
Schooling was an important consideration for many Vietnamese people and an university education was highly valued, not only for economic opportunities, but also because university graduates were exempt from National Service. Fearful of their children being conscripted and concerned for their future safety, parents urged their children to work hard and excel through their primary and high school years.
Sam’s childhood was very disrupted. His father, a police officer in a time of instability, was vulnerable to threats against his life. Consequently the family was forced to move from their home to safe havens on numerous occasions. This made it difficult for Sam to establish friendships, and he played on his own for much of the time, making fortresses and tanks from boxes and bottle tops.
As he grew up, the war in Vietnam intensified, leaving Sam with a series of disturbing and sad memories. He witnessed his father arriving home in 1967 bandaged up from an attempted assassination on his life. In 1972 when the North Vietnamese tried to take over South Vietnam, he and his brother and sisters were taken to the police headquarters and his father narrowly evaded the Communists while they destroyed their family home.
Many other families were severely affected by the war as well. In 1968, when the North Vietnamese conducted a massive offensive into South Vietnam – the Monkey Year Offensive – everyone left their houses and moved to safer places. In retaliation, the Americans, using fire guns, burnt all the houses and killed people who were suspected of being communists.
After the fall of South Vietnam, Sam’s family home was taken from them and he and his family could no longer work legally. Sam’s father had been sent to a concentration camp and his mother had to report daily to local authorities. The family struggled to survive and had to resort to smuggling and selling goods illegally to earn an income.
Escaping Vietnam on a boat
In 1976, at 14 years of age, Sam escaped Vietnam with two of his brothers, his sister-in-law, two nieces and two friends. They fled on a barge his brothers had bought from a village 14 kms from their hometown. They set off down the Mekong River with enough water and food for the two day trip to reach Thailand. It wasn’t long before trouble struck the escapees. They were only four hours into their journey when the barge’s engine broke down and as there weren’t any tools to fix it, they could not restart the engine.
They drifted on the barge for 15 days down the Mekong River before they saw land. As the barge was propelled towards the land by the tide, all the passengers climbed onto the roof. The barge was tossed around from all sides and then suddenly broke into pieces. Sam was thrown into the water.
“I was being pushed in and out of the beach by the waves, but I wasn’t fearful. Just as I had given up all hope of survival, a nail sticking out from part of the roof of the boat dug into my wrist and floated me onto the beach. We were all so tired and were staggering around. That’s when we discovered that my brother and niece were missing.”
The boat had been washed up on a beach called Ban Nge Nge in the southern part of Thailand near the border of Malaysia. Sam still feels a lot of grief about the loss of one of his brothers and niece, particularly as their bodies were never found.
The weary group were taken to Song Khla Refugee Camp about 100kms from the coast where they were washed up. There were 500-1,000 people at the camp and sanitation was very poor. Each family was allowed only two buckets of water a day and they had to bathe in the sea. Sam regularly jumped the fence of the camp and went to the markets and to the fishing boats to beg for food to supplement the limited food rations that the United Nations was handing out.
Coming to Australia
Initially only 24 people were accepted into Australia from the Song Khla. The United Nations interviewed families to assess their refugee status and Sam’s family was one of the first two Vietnamese family groups accepted to settle in Australia and to stay at Villawood Hostel.
Sam knew nothing about Australia before he arrived here in 1977. This was a time of great fear for him and the other refugees. Many worried about coming to live in an unknown country and on the plane trip to Australia some refugees believed they were being flown back to war-torn Vietnam.
It was not long before Sam’s brother found work and moved from Villawood Hostel. Sam stayed at the hostel without his guardianship. He enrolled at the Intensive English Centre at Chester Hill High School and began looking for work at the same time. Soon he managed to secure a position with a company in Revesby as a solderer by telling his employer he was older than his 15 years and he left the hostel to move in with a Vietnamese family in Bankstown.
“It was no fun. I got up at 6am and worked all day. Then at night I went to learn English. I didn’t want a life in a factory.”
What Sam really wished for was to go back to school.
He quit his job and from his abode in Bankstown, he moved to Blacktown Youth Refuge and fulfilled his dream of going back to school. While at the refuge, he met his foster mother for the first time and she used to invite him to spend some weekends with her family. He was transferred from the refuge to Charlton’s Boys Home in Ashfield but was later moved to Saviours House in Stanmore due to being physically abused by his roommate at Charlton’s. By the end of 1977, Sam reluctantly accepted to move in permanently with his foster family as they offered him a home.
A passion for studying and helping others
After completing his HSC, Sam first went to Wollongong University and then transferred to Wagga Wagga to complete a Bachelor of Community Social Services. It was there that he first met his wife, Debbie. She was not interested in him initially:
“She thought I was a big mouth and asked too many questions.”
After a period of two years, when Sam was working back in Sydney as District Officer with YACS (now Department for Community Services) they met up again and their relationship developed. They were married in 1988 in Debbie’s hometown of Coraki in northern NSW. By this stage the couple had bought a unit in Lakemba.
Still not feeling completely settled in his occupation, but committed to working in the community sector, Sam went back to University to study social work. To support himself he worked in a bar and did voluntary work for community organisations.
Explaining his passion for this type of work Sam says:
“My foster parents were very committed to voluntary community work and this attitude rubbed off onto me. I like helping people less fortunate than myself. My real father was also a leader in the community in Vietnam.”
In his professional life, Sam has continued to work in the community sector. In 1989 he was employed as a Community Youth Worker with Canterbury City Council. Being an incredibly committed and active worker, Sam took on a lot of responsibility with this position. However, feeling a bit frustrated with Council’s bureaucracy, he left the position and became a Co-ordinator with the Vietnamese Community Welfare Centre in Bankstown. Here he felt he was able to make a worthwhile contribution to the Vietnamese community in Sydney.
In 1993, Sam went on to work with the wider migrant population as a project officer with the Migrant Resource Centre in Canterbury/Bankstown. Here he realised that emerging communities, the smaller minority groups such as the Ethiopians, Iraqis, Koreans and refugees in general were in need of support. Sam found this work most rewarding.
In the mid 1990s, to accommodate their growing family, Sam and Debbie sold their Lakemba unit and bought a house nearby. They are the very proud parents of two children.
A busy life in Canterbury
Sam continues to be a dedicated community worker. His strong commitment to helping people is evident. He is involved with the Vietnamese Seniors Group in the area and continues his membership with the Canterbury Multicultural Youth Health Services. He serves on the Canterbury Hospital Multicultural Advisory Board and is an active member of the Vietnamese Australian Prisoner Association. Sam is also a migration consultant, a marriage celebrant and runs martial arts classes for local children. Due to the lack of free services in the area for children, Sam started running these classes some years ago. He doesn’t charge the children and has laid concrete in his backyard just for the purpose of holding classes.
“Welfare work is not a profession, but a commitment to improve others’ lives who are less fortunate than you. I have spent endless hours in bed crying in refugee camps, hostels and youth refuges and there has always been someone there to help me. I feel I have a debt to repay to the community for all the help I have been given and I can’t turn my back on someone who needs help.”