During Lent I have joined some dear friends to lament Australia’s treatment of Asylum Seekers. I have prayed to find a way to encourage my fellow Aussies to re-discover our compassion. As I prayed I got this weird kind of idea about walking to the capital of our country, to appeal to the heart of the nation. And when I discovered that Tri Nguyen was already doing it, I asked him if I could walk alongside him, on the last leg of the journey.
In 1982 Tri Nguyen came to Australia as a boat person, seeking asylum, after fleeing the war and its aftermath in Vietnam. On his arrival he remembers being welcomed by Australians. His family ‘stayed at the Midway Hostel in Maribyrnong “where there was no barbed wire”. Locals ‘taught them English, gave them clothes and meals, and helped his father find a job at Australia Post’. And a group from Moonee Ponds Baptist Church helped bring the rest of his family to Australia eight years later. He says 60 Aussies went to the Melbourne Airport at 2am in the morning to welcome them!
Tri Nguyen walked from Melbourne to Canberra in 35 days towing a home-made wooden boat (an idea inspired by a Leunig cartoon of a man and a duck towing a trolley) as his own gentle plea for better treatment of Asylum Seekers. Tri says when we arrived ‘we were traumatised, but were immersed in hospitality’. I feel ‘very sad the [asylum seekers] coming now don’t experience the same welcome that (we) did’. Tri says we need ‘to change the national conversation about asylum seekers’, which is too negative. ‘We are at our best when we show compassion and work for justice for those who are oppressed’.
Over the Easter weekend I joined Tri Nguyen and three other asylum seekers, Linda, Daniel and Majid on the last leg of their walk from Melbourne to Canberra to take that message to the heart of the nation.
This is the message Tri delivered on the grounds of Parliament House:
‘Thank you Australia. Thank you for the gift of refuge that you have given me and my family. Thank you for giving this gift of refuge to generations of migrants who have sought asylum in this land.
“While I was a stranger, you welcomed me. While I was a boat person seeking asylum, you responded with compassionate hospitality. While I was vulnerable and without hope, you cared for me and welcomed me into a safe community where healing could begin.
“Thank you to all the elders, past and present, the traditional custodians of this land for your gracious welcome of all people seeking refuge in this land. In your vulnerability you call me your brother. In your suffering you call me your sister. You affirmed to me that together we are God’s family.
“Thank you Malcolm Fraser, it was your Government, which sought a bipartisan approach, working in collaboration with other countries, that responded to a generation of Vietnamese refugees. We are forever grateful.
“Thank you Australian Parliament for continuing to seek ways to respond to the great need of people in the world fleeing war, persecution, oppression, marginalisation … seeking asylum. For many Australia is their last hope.
“Thank you to my wonderful friends Linda, Daniel and Majid for walking with me from Melbourne to Canberra, sharing in the laughter, tears, the pain and the joy in our common humanity receiving welcome and hospitality. You are an inspiration!
“I too have a dream! That in thirty two years time, your children will walk from towns and cities to Canberra to thank the Australian people and the Australian parliament for giving their parents the gift of refuge.
“I too have a dream, that Australia will continue to be a nation that welcomes the strangers, that cares for the vulnerable and gives a fair go to all who are seeking refuge.
“That’s the Australia to be proud of.”