My refugee friend


TucMy brother Tuc died recently from kidney cancer. Tuc was not my biological brother, but adopted me as his brother 12 years ago. He was a refugee from Vietnam; a strong Catholic, proud father and great worker for the Vietnamese community through the St Vincent de Paul Society, which is where I met him. Although our lives had different starts, I found much to learn from his life.

Tuc was an officer in the South Vietnamese army. After the war ended in 1975 he was interned by the North Vietnamese for many years, locked up in a hole in the ground. I asked him how he survived. He smiled and pointed to his picture of the Madonna. 'She helped me.'

Tuc had a strong faith which helped him through the trauma of his incarceration and his separation from his family. I wonder if I could have survived such persecution and torture.

Tuc escaped to Thailand in the early 1980s. He spoke good English, so became an interpreter in the camp. He told international officials about US soldiers he'd seen living in villages in Vietnam, long after the war ended. The US listed them as 'MIAs', but Tuc said they had decided to live in Vietnam and had new families. He was puzzled when US officials denied that US soldiers would do this.

He could not understand why these intelligent foreigners could not accept facts that contradicted their preconceptions. I'm reminded of how, in the same way, many Australians do not believe the stories of refugees, because they do not fit with our ideas about how people act.

Tuc was offered resettlement in the US or Australia. He chose Australia because he was disheartened by the US leaving Vietnam to the communists he believed would destroy his country. He arrived as a refugee in 1983, and worked full time in order to save to buy a home for his family, still in Vietnam.

I met him in 1988, about the same time that his wife, son and daughter finally were resettled in Australia. Tuc had been separated from them since 1975.

It was not long before Tuc was calling me 'my brother'. At first I thought this was a cultural thing. But when he called my parents 'my father and my mother', I realised he had adopted us into his family.

A Vietnamese custom is to have a special gathering for the new year, or Tet, which is the same time as Chinese New Year. Tuc would call me every year and wish me happy new year in Vietnamese ('chuc mung na moi') and invite me to a meal to celebrate.

Tuc told me he was touched by the welcome he and other Vietnamese had received from Anglo-Celtic Australians. Once, he told me I was like an egg. 'How so?' I asked 'You are white on the outside and yellow inside,' was his witty retort.

When my mother first met him she asked him what he did in Vietnam 'Kill communists,' replied Tuc. Mum, who had moved from the DLP to support the Liberals, was not terribly shocked. This was his sense of humour, but it also reflected the seriousness of what it meant to be involved in a civil war.

I visited Vietnam a few times and told Tuc about it. I explained how busy Saigon was, and all the shops and businesses that I saw. I told him about the beautiful singing in the cathedral in Saigon during the mass I attended.

Tuc had not returned to Vietnam and I encouraged him to return to see some family there. Tuc said he was afraid to go back because of what the communists might do to him. I tried to reassure him that they would not touch him as he would have his brother the lawyer with him. Tuc smiled, but was not convinced. I learnt how the traumatic experiences of refugees can stay with them for years.

Over the years I attended the weddings of Tuc's daughter and son. He was very proud of them as they had both completed studies at University. He was also very fond of his grandchildren. Whenever I asked him how he was, he would tell me he was 'flat out like a drinking lizard'.

This year Tuc did not call me for Tet. I thought how slack I had been for not calling him, instead.

Then one day he called. I thought he was going to rouse on me in his kind way for not having our Tet meal. But he story was more serious. He was very sick in hospital with cancer.

I was shocked, and I went to hospital to visit him. He was clearly ill. I stayed for a while and then he told me I should go; astute enough, despite his illness, to point out that I needed $8 in coins to pay for parking at the hospital. His practical side never left him.

The last time I saw him I showed him some photos of Vietnam. It was easier than talking about his deteriorating health. I also took him a pair of mum's rosary beads that had been sitting in the back of a drawer since Mum died a few years before. Tuc held the beads as we looked through the photos. He told me 'our mother will be with me now'.

The next morning he rang me and told me how he had had the best sleep for a long time and thanked me for the rosary beads.

Tuc died on what would have been Mum's 85th birthday. We never did travel to Vietnam together, but I was very lucky to have met him. Every Tet I will still remember him with 'chuc mung na moi'.

Kerry MurphyKerry Murphy is a partner with the specialist immigration law firm D'Ambra Murphy Lawyers. He is a student of Arabic, former Jesuit Refugee Service coordinator, teaches at ANU and was recognised by AFR best lawyers survey as one of Australia's top immigration lawyers. 

Topic tags: Kerry, Murphy, Tuc, Vietnam, refugee, st vincent de paul, vinnies



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Existing comments

A lovely story about a Vietnamese immigrant.

Marthese | 08 June 2011  

I often read information reminding Australians what present day Vietnam is like to live in. Consequently I am surprised that those who demonstrated in our streets and had a part to play in our abandonment of South Vietnam back in the late sixties still seem proud of what they did. History suggests they should be ashamed and reluctant to mention those idiotic anti Vietnam marches in Sydney and Melbourne, our two so-called intellectual capitals.

Grebo | 08 June 2011  

A very moving recount of a relationship that obviously meant so much to you, thank you for sharing it!

Jack O | 08 June 2011  

To Grebo, I have to admit that during the Vietnam War (or the American War, as they call it), I was on your side - even demonstrated on the side of the invaders. But when I saw that movie, The Fog of War, I realised that what I had been told so many times was true: that we were fighting on the wrong side of a civil war. What the Americans were supporting was an absurd reaction against the predominant wish to prevent Chinese communism from overcoming their Vietnamese culture. Exactly the same thing that the Americans said they wanted to do. So exactly why did the Americans bully their way into someone else's fight? Was it all just too complex for them to understand - just like Afghanistan?

Pat Mahony | 08 June 2011  

Thank you for the article. What a beautiful story about a strong individual.

Rose E | 08 June 2011  

I adopted a family called the Bakhtiyaris. They were my daughter, grand children and beloved for the short 16 months I was allowed to know them. They were beautiful, kids, Roqia was the gutsiest person I ever knew. Ali spent a long time in the Tarin Kowt prison which is now the army base for Australian soldiers. He was forced to build houses for the talibn and was chained to the walls at night and fed bread and water. He managed to escape the prison during an uprising in the north, got to Pakistan with his family and worked to raise the money to get to true safety. The family had to hide in terror from the Pakistani police. Australia jailed them, brutalised them, changed dad's name using false papers in the name of some other person and then kicked them out of the country to Pakistan where they nearly died in the snow. I miss them every second of every day and no Gillard wants to think she can do the same terrible things to other Afghan families fleeing a war we started. This country is morally bankrupt and led by pygmies.

Marilyn Shepherd | 08 June 2011  

Kerry, thanks for sharing your moving relationship. Our Blessed Mother delivered us from Vietnam in 1975 on strength of three Hail Marys. I considered the Most Holy Rosary WMD, Weapon of Mass Deliverance.

muleofChrist | 08 June 2011  

Very moved by Kerry's article on Tuc.
My Redemptorist priest friend from Sydney informed me re., Tuc's death this morning.
Inspired and encouraged by the generosity of Mr. Ted Bacon, a man from St.Vincent de Paul in Sydney, Mr.Tuc and I were involved with Mr.Bacon's Vinnies to assist Vietnamese refugees resettling in Australia.

Though I left Tuc and Sydney for missionary work in China many years ago, I never forget Tuc, a man of faith, a very catholic and very optimistic Vietnamese Tuc.
God bless Tuc and may he rest in peace.

Fr.John Le Dinh Cac_Redemptorist | 08 June 2011  

Thanks Fr John, it was the great Ted Bacon who started my involvement in this work with refugees.

Kerry Murphy | 09 June 2011  

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