From refugee to research scholar
PhD candidates Niro Kandasamy, Samuel Malak and Anh Nguyen are among the researchers working on a project with the University of Melbourne’s Professor Joy Damousi, Child refugees and Australian Internationalism from 1920 to the present. The three have a special link with the work – they were all child refugees themselves.
Niro Kandasamy was a young child when her family escaped war-torn northern Sri Lanka in the early 1990s.
Niro was born in Point Pedro in Sri Lanka’s Jaffna District. Due to its strategic position at the northernmost tip of the island, Point Pedro became the site of many battles – onshore and offshore – between the Sri Lankan Navy and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. With civil conflict escalating, many Tamils, including Niro’s family, were forced to flee the country in fear of their lives and livelihoods. Only a toddler when she arrived in Australia in the 1990s, Niro grew up in Western Sydney, a place she now calls home. After completing primary and secondary school, Niro studied Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, attaining a Class 1 Honours degree in 2013. Before joining the research team under the leadership of Professor Joy Damousi, Niro worked as a Social Research Officer at Western Sydney Information and Research. She is excited to be pursuing her PhD at the University of Melbourne and, in the process, undertaking invaluable research into the long-term resettlement outcomes of child refugees from Vietnam.
Samuel Malak is a former child soldier and refugee who has, since resettlement in Australia, worked within and for the Horn of Africa communities in western Melbourne. He is multilingual in English, Sudanese Arabic and other Sudanese languages.
Samuel migrated to Australia in the mid-2000s, eventually gaining permanent residency as a dual Australian-Sudanese citizen. As a child refugee from Sudan, Samuel endured a long and arduous quest for safety after fleeing civil war in his home country as a result of experiences we in the west can hardly comprehend. He had been conscripted into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army’s Red Division as a ‘child solider’, before being demobilised and gaining official refugee status in the early 1990s. Thus began his epic journey for refuge via the far eastern coastal regions of Africa, finally becoming one of the first wave of ‘lost boys’ to be resettled in western countries from the late 1990s to the early 2000s. In Australia, Samuel is an active member of the Horn African communities, working with many locally based organisations, most recently at the African-Australian Community Centre in Footscray as a Youth Support Worker for Wombat Housing. Using his extensive social networks, impressive organisational skills and encyclopaedic knowledge of refugee services across Victoria, Samuel has also been an effective social justice advocate and organiser for his community. Having attained both a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts from Victoria University researching the adult experiences of Sudanese migrants, he is now turning his attention to the settlement experiences of young Sudanese refugees to Australia for his PhD candidature at the University of Melbourne.
In 2001, after Anh Nguyen received a fellowship from Harvard to interview Vietnamese Australians, she lived and worked in Boston and New York for 10 years before migrating to Australia. Anh never imagined how her life would unfold as a child. She reckons that if she had, she may not have had the wherewithal to make the journey that eventually led her to undertaking a PhD at the University of Melbourne.
Anh was born five months after the fall of Saigon and only five years old when her parents made the momentous decision to flee their country. Anh explains that there is a saying in Vietnamese about the chaos in the aftermath of the war: “If the lamp post could walk, it too would leave”. As a child escaping a war torn country, Anh knew nothing about what was going to happen to her. This information was withheld in fear that at her tender age, she might leak information or cry. Anh’s grandparents paid the equivalent of the annual living wage for a fisher family to build a junk boat and find a passage to Thailand. The fishers sold the passage to 45 people. Anh’s family pretended that they were going to visit a family out on the coast and walked through jungle to get to the boat under cover of night. Her father sympathised with those hiding in the jungle seeking escape and let them jump on board at the last minute. So there were 101 people on a boat made for 45. They never made it to Thailand, but floated on the open sea for three days and two nights until Doctors without Borders picked them up. These 101 people were processed at a refugee camp in the Phillippines at Palawan. From there, Anh’s family moved to Texas in the United States of America where she grew up, where everyone was white, and people thought she was Spanish. To this day, Anh expresses amazement that she and her family ever survived at sea. Her life history informs her work on the PhD she is studying for at the University of Melbourne titled ‘Towards a New Historical and Psychological Perspective of Acculturation and Success: Oral History of Vietnamese Australian Child Refugees as Adults’.
Photographed in 1983 during her family’s first year in America in Dallas, Texas 1983, this picture was taken to be sent back to Vietnam to assure Anh Nguyen’s extended family, especially her grandparents and cousins, that they were alive and well. Looking at the picture now, Anh (far right) analyses the family portrait thus: “My parents and brother have eyes closed, future unknown, but we are all touching, connected and so happy and grateful to be together. I am holding a blond and blue-eyed doll that I love – it is the model for me of acculturation. Everything is strangely plastic and even our relative’s furniture had been wrapped in plastic (to protect from dust and wear) and taken off just before the picture was taken.”