Melbourne pastor and ex-refugee drags model boat to Canberra

A Melbourne Baptist minister is walking from Melbourne to Canberra hauling a model of the wooden asylum seeker boat that brought him to Australia.

The boat, with the words ‘Thank You’ inscribed on the side, will be delivered to Parliament at the end of the five-week journey.

When Eternity spoke to Tri Nguyen from Brunswick Baptist Church, he’d just begun his second day of walking. He huffs and puffs on the phone as we speak, saying the journey is to express his gratitude for the life he’s found in this country, arriving as an asylum seeker in 1982 from Vietnam.

Gift of Refuge 1

“It’s about appreciation. I want to say thank you to Parliament for giving the gift of refuge to me and my family.”

Tri arrived here as a 10-year-old child, who together with his father and sister, had spent three years trying to make it to Australia. After the Vietnam war, Tri’s father Nang who’d been in the South Vietnamese navy, was sent to a re-education camp set up by the northern communist regime to intern those deemed in opposition to communism.

Escaping the camp, Tri’s father took his family and attempted to flee post-war Vietnam.

“We had several attempts to get out. We’d make a whole-day journey to the coast. We hid in swampland in the middle of the night, waiting for a promised boat. But the boat never came, and we had to go home again. There were three or four attempts like this. My mum didn’t want to keep taking such risks with the whole family. So, the fourth time, we split up. I went with just my dad and my sister.”

“We were weary and overwhelmed, but the care and generosity of people filled us with great joy. We were free and we were welcomed.”

This time, the boat came. But on the crossing, the boat was caught in a storm and shipwrecked somewhere on the coast between Thailand and Malaysia. They were terrorised by pirates, but were soon released to the UN when it became apparent that the boat’s 68 occupants lost everything of value in the storm. Tri and his family were then taken to a refugee camp in Malaysia, and after three years, they were accepted into Australia.

“We were in Midway Migrant Hostel in Maribyrnong, and the local church- Moonee Pond Baptist- took us in,” Tri told Eternity. 

He writes of that experience on his website: “We were weary and overwhelmed, but the care and generosity of people filled us with great joy. We were free and we were welcomed.”

Tri says his first Christmas in Australia was spent on a “stranger’s farm”, a large family gathering to which Tri, his father and sister were invited. The church community “worked tirelessly for eight years” to reunite Tri with his mother and the two brothers they’d left behind in Vietnam.

He says when his mother and brothers arrived in Australia, they were not just met by their Vietnamese family, but by a church family with “tears in their eyes”.

It’s this story of welcome that Tri is so passionate about sharing, as he makes his way to Canberra. Over the next five weeks, he and his team of five—including two recent arrivals who’ve spent time on Christmas Island—will be billeted by Christian brothers and sisters from the local churches.

“We’re sleeping in people’s homes and in church halls. We wanted to use the idea of hospitality and welcome, that is demonstrated to us [on this journey] by local churches.”

Tri is sharing his own story of arrival in Australia as he speaks at churches and community meetings along his journey. But he is also starting a conversation for others he meets, who also have positive stories of welcome as a migrant or refugee.

“Last night, we heard from the pastor at Hume Community Baptist Church [in Dallas, Victoria], who shared his story of coming to Australia from Romania,” says Tri.

It turns out that pastor, John Izvernariu, had been at the Midway Hostel in Maribyrnong three years before Tri and his family arrived there.

“We need to say thank you to the government for giving people around the world the gift of refuge. We hope that in engaging in a more positive conversation, you’ll find out more about the people who are arriving here. It’s not just an “issue”. Meet the people behind the stories; hear that they have families. It’s the human side that gets lost in the debate.”

To find out more about Tri’s walk from Melbourne to Canberra, visit his Facebook page.