Refugee finds her voice in giving a voice to others

18/Jun/2018     HealthMater Group

This week is Refugee Week (17 to 23 June), which aims to raise awareness about issues affecting refugees and acknowledge the positive contributions made by refugees to Australian society. As part of Mater’s celebrations of Refugee Week, we chatted to My-Linh Do, who reflected on her own experience as a refugee and how it informs her work as a Mater Vietnamese Interpreter.

When My-Linh Do was 12 years old she went on her first boat ride. She spent five days at sea, huddled in a small boat with 60 strangers, with no food or water, not knowing where she was being taken, hoping she would survive. 

Her mother had made the heartbreaking decision to send My-Linh and her 15-year-old sister on a boat from Vietnam in the hope that it would take them to a refugee camp on foreign shores, though to which country she did not know.

“Even though our future was uncertain, our mother thought wherever we were going had to be better than the life we had in Vietnam—leaving meant freedom,” My-Linh said.

“My father had been an officer in the army. After the fall of Saigon at the close of the Vietnam War in 1975, the communists took over and put my father and other military personnel in prison. 

“I was six years old when my father was imprisoned and, after that, our family was under constant monitoring by the communists. 

“At school, I was made to do a half day of community service several days a week. Community service was essentially labour work, even at six years old.

“We were also closely monitored because we were Catholic. We were prevented from attending church and were basically told that we shouldn’t be worshipping anyone except Uncle Ho.”

The boat carrying My-Linh and her sister landed at a refugee camp in Malaysia, where they spent 15 months.

“Food, shelter, clothing—everything was very limited in the refugee camp. We were on a remote island and had no access to the community. We studied a bit of English when we could, but mostly we just waited.”

When My-Linh was 14 years old, she went on her first airplane ride. Having been formally accepted as a refugee, she and her sister were on their way to freedom and a new life in Brisbane.

They were placed in a home with another refugee family and their extended family. 

Because she was under 16 years of age and without a legal adult guardian, My-Linh was not entitled to financial support from the government. So this determined young woman worked several jobs in the evenings and weekends to support herself while completing school.

My-Linh experienced more hardship following an arranged marriage at 16 to a member of her refugee host family. Her husband was abusive and, at age 19, she found herself a single mother of two daughters after escaping with them to a women’s refuge.

“I encountered many obstacles and life was a struggle, but I got through it with strength and determination. I continued working in different jobs and I continued my studies; my highest achievement was a Bachelor of Sociology.”

My-Linh was also empowered by a passion for community work, particularly in relation to assisting other refugees and new migrants to Queensland.

“I’ve always been passionate about using my life, my culture and my language to assist others,” My-Linh said.

My-Linh became a well-known leader within the Vietnamese community in Brisbane. Her volunteer positions have included General Secretary for the Vietnamese Community in Australia – Queensland Chapter, Vice President of the Vietnamese Catholic Community, President of Pathway to Harmony Vietnamese Youth Group and Vice Chair for Ethnic Communities Councils Queensland.

In her professional life, My-Linh also was attracted to roles for which her culture and language skills were an asset.

“I’ve had many jobs, but three are highlights in my career. As a teacher’s aide and parent liaison officer at Education Queensland, my role included assisting at parent and teacher interviews, and producing a bilingual newsletter for the school.

“I was also a police liaison officer at Queensland Police Service, which required me to use my cultural skills as well as my Vietnamese language.

“Then I was an industrial inspector with the Department of Justice and Attorney General. Part of my role addressed the problem of Vietnamese people employed in ‘sweat shops’ in Queensland. Through a variety of community education initiatives, I raised awareness of employers’ obligations and employees’ rights. Over the years, I helped to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages for the Vietnamese community.”

As using both Vietnamese and English was the common thread to all of My-Linh’s paid and volunteer work, she obtained a formal qualification as an interpreter.

Earlier this year, My-Linh joined Mater as a Vietnamese interpreter, and says Mater’s interpreting service is vital to patients of a non-English speaking background.

“For patients who are refugees or newly arrived in Australia, the language barrier can be the biggest difficulty they encounter when coming to hospital. I enjoy being able to assist both the patient and Mater staff, so that everything is clearly explained and there are no misunderstandings.”

As a refugee herself, My-Linh has great empathy for the challenges that refugees face, whether in hospital or in the community, and remains determined to use her experience to help others.

“In a sense, I consider myself to be very lucky. I find it a blessing to have gone through what I’ve been through and to be able to share my experience with others and to assist others who are in the same situation.”

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