How long would it take to tow a boat from Melbourne to Canberra? Thirty-five days, according to Tri Nguyen and his friends, who set out on 16 March for a journey that will end at Lake Burley Griffin on Easter Sunday.
Tri is the pastor of the Brunswick Baptist Church in the City of Moreland, 6km north of Melbourne's CBD. The wooden boat he is taking to Canberra is a large model of the one he and his father and sister used to escape Vietnam in 1982, when Tri was ten years old.
I was at the boat's launch and saw Tri wheel it onto Sydney Rd. About 200 people joined him on the first leg of the journey, to Coburg. Some carried cardboard boats they had made — a symbolic flotilla of farewell.
At the launch, Moreland Mayor Lambros Tapinos referred to the somewhat larger boat that his family sailed in to Australia. There was applause from the crowd when he said that many of us had ancestors who arrived here by boat. We knew the history he referred to — of people who were often escaping poverty, hardship, the aftermath of wars and sometimes persecution; people looking for a better, more secure way of life.
Tri's boat has 'Thank You' painted on it. He will present it to members of Parliament in thanks to the nation for the gift of refuge and the welcome given to him and his family. 'The Gift of Refuge' is written on T-shirts worn by him and his three companions on the walk. They will stay overnight in country towns in Victoria and New South Wales and their journey can be followed on their webpage.
'The Gift of Refuge' is also the title of an inspiring song written by Kim Beales and sung at the launch. It speaks of Tri's carrying the boat to Canberra in the hope of seeing 'the nation's discourse change from fear to words of hope' for asylum seekers. It speaks of 'the wisdom that grows from compassion'.
A police escort accompanied the start of the journey and marshals carrying police crime-scene tape walked between the crowd and the trams and oncoming traffic. The irony of walking beside crime-scene tape struck me as significant in the current asylum seeker debate. Among other things I thought of similar tape used recently at Australia's detention centre on Manus Island.
Transcripts and interviews on the webpage describe Tri's journey from Vietnam. After three failed attempts, three members of his family made it to the open sea in a wooden boat with 65 others. They speak of storms and the wrecking of the boat; of pirates who captured them, raped the women and tortured and robbed the group. Eventually the pirates handed them over to UN troops who took them to a refugee camp in Malaysia.
Tri's story is about trauma, but mostly his emphasis is on the welcome and kindness the family received in Australia. They initially stayed in a refugee shelter, which was not a detention centre but an open place where members of the local community visited them.
There is an enormous gulf between government and community attitudes then and now. Mostly these attitudes, and the policies that follow, result in punishment for asylum seekers who arrive or attempt the journey by boat. These policies are justified as a means of deterring people smugglers and preventing the tragedy of deaths at sea. They also entail a questionable obsession with sovereign borders.
Rage and ridicule is heaped on the heads of those who question the policies. Alternate propositions such as setting up processing centres in Indonesia are dismissed, even though such centres would give hope to asylum seekers and provide a real queue for those deemed refugees. The fact that European countries, where people also deplore people smuggling, do not punish asylum seekers who arrive safely is also conveniently ignored.
While Tri Nguyen and his 200 or so supporters walked along Sydney Rd in Brunswick, thousands of people were taking part in the 'March in March' across Australia. Many among them were opposed to the policies and punitive treatment of asylum seekers who seek refuge here. When I watched the TV news that night, one poster carried by a protester in central Melbourne took my eye. It read, 'It's not a crime to seek asylum'.
Maureen O'Brien did research and writing for the Penguin reference book, Chronicle of Australia. She has had articles published in The Swag, the quarterly magazine of the National Council of Priests of Australia.
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03 April 2014
Thank you Eureka St and Maureen for bringing Tri Nguyen's venture and the work of Sanctuary House, to our attention. A ray of hope that I've shared via Facebook. A ray of hope as I email Scott Morrison about our government's latest act of inhumanity in transferring seekers of asylum to Curtin.
04 April 2014
Great to give Tri's project more publicity, Maureen- well done!
04 April 2014
Tri's story is a powerful, and heartening, one. It sends a powerful message to arrive on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin on Easter Sunday. I'm currently reading David Malouf's collection of essays "a first place". The son of Lebanese/English migrants, his opening story in the book is titled "The Traveller's Tale". Wonderful reading for all those deeply interested in this topic.
04 April 2014
Thank you for this inspiring story of Tri's amazing journey to find refuge and peace. We hope that we as a nation can open our hearts and ensure a similar outcome for the people who are currently knocking on our doors.
04 April 2014
Elaine Prest: Tri is keeping everyone up to date on his Facebook page. It's really moving to follow the ship's journey to Canberra: https://www.facebook.com/giftofrefuge
04 April 2014
Thank you for alerting us to this good story - which (amazingly!) has not been highlighted in Tasmanian media
07 April 2014
Thank you Maureen for telling of Tri's inspired journey and message. I shall follow his website and let Canberra friends know of his valiant group's imminent arrival