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Carina Hoang's extraordinary story

Carina Hoang on her own extraordinary story and why supporting refugee women is essential

At 16 years old, Vietnamese refugee Carina Hoang was living in a makeshift refugee camp with her younger brother and sister, then aged 12 and 10 respectively. After a perilous boat journey through pirate-infested waters, they had ended up on an Indonesian island with hundreds of other refugees.

There was little food or water, and no medical treatment for the malaria that struck down many refugees. Yet Carina’s situation as a young girl, alone, presented additional dangers. At night, she and her siblings slept in a tent with other families where she felt safer.

“Women are very vulnerable in refugee situations,” she says. “Often they’re looking after children, too, and sometimes that can mean making hard decisions in order to protect them.”

Today, Carina lives in Perth with her daughter and has recently finished a PhD that focuses on the experiences of refugees. It’s the latest chapter in an enviably diverse career that has encompassed everything from business and publishing to an acting role in the ABC’s popular drama The Heights.

Australia For Unhcr Special Representative Carina Hoang Returns To Kuku Island April 2018
Australia for UNHCR Special Representative Carina Hoang visits Kuku Island © C. Hoppen
Carina Hoang The Heights Promo
Carina Hoang for the ABC’s popular drama The Heights. © Supplied

Now a Special Representative to Australia for UNHCR, she is one of the stellar panel of speakers at the Leading Women Fund’s International Women’s Day event. “I’m humbled to be taking part,” she says, with characteristic modesty.

Carina’s refugee experience began when her mother paid for her and her younger siblings to leave Vietnam. Carina’s father had been imprisoned by the government for the previous four years and young people were being conscripted to the army. Many never returned.

Conditions on Carina’s boat were cramped and squalid. "The smell was overwhelming," she recalls. "We were nearly 400 people and there was nowhere to lie down."

"I don’t think I could have survived if I was alone. Having my brother and sister meant having not only love, but someone to care for. I had a purpose to fight to survive.”

Yet life in the camp also proved difficult. “Over 200 people died in the three months before UNHCR and the Red Cross found us,” says Carina. “I don’t think I could have survived if I was alone. Having my brother and sister meant having not only love, but someone to care for. I had a purpose to fight to survive.”


Some women in the camp had been raped by pirates who boarded their boat on the way to Indonesia, says Carina. “UNHCR reported that two out of three boats encountered pirates,” she says. “Some of these women became pregnant.” 

UNHCR brought medicine, food and other supplies to the island, and eventually established a clinic where Carina volunteered to work. Representatives from different countries also conducted resettlement interviews, and Carina and her siblings were accepted by the United States, where an older sister and a younger brother lived.

“It was such a relief because not knowing your future, whether you’d ever get out of there, weighs heavily on your mind,” she says. “Once I knew where we were going, I could concentrate on other things, like making my brother and sister learn English.”

Carina used a bible donated by missionaries to learn the language, as it contained both English and Vietnamese (although, she notes drily, some words were more useful in everyday life than others). After spending 20 years in the US, she moved to Australia with her husband and settled in Perth.

Conditions for refugee women have improved since she lived in a camp, says Carina, noting the introduction of initiatives such as personal-care kits. “Having the necessary medications and sanitary items makes life more bearable.” But refugee women remain vulnerable.

“It’s so important that we have funding to support women and educate them,” says Carina. This is why cash assistance  is vital for refugee women, as it gives them the opportunity to purchase exactly what they need for themselves and their families.

Her own experience as a refugee has taught her the power of acceptance. “I go through life with open arms, and whatever comes my way, I deal with,” she explains. “If you accept what you can’t control, you don’t blame yourself for being incapable. Nothing is permanent and whatever you plan can change in a moment.”


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