“One of my earliest memories of my mum is running in the rain with her and my sisters, and playing in the mud. I was four years old at the time, living in the Pulau Bidong UNHCR camp in Malaysia with my family. Even though we had nothing, my mum, Mui Huynh, retained a sense of playfulness. She wanted us to enjoy our childhood.

“We’d arrived in Malaysia after fleeing Vietnam on a boat. Now that I’m an adult and have two children of my own, I realise just what incredible courage it took to leave our country that way, not knowing what lay ahead. Mum had already been through so much. When Dad was away fighting with the South Vietnamese army, she had raised us alone; after the war, our family’s assets were seized, and Dad faced being sent to a re-education camp. Leaving was really the only option for a better future.

Yet despite everything, she instilled in us a sense of gratitude – that Dad hadn’t died in the war; that we’d survived this perilous boat journey, because other people had drowned; and that we were all together as a family. We had clean water and friends in the camp who had shared the same experiences. Mum was calm and balanced, and has always made me believe that we’re stronger than we give ourselves credit for, which is what I’m trying to instil in my children.

Australia for UNHCR board member Lynn Dang, with her sisters and mother. © Supplied

We lived in the camp for about nine months. At the time, the UN was working with regional governments to resettle refugees and we were really fortunate to get humanitarian visas to come to Australia. At first, we stayed in a migrant centre in Brisbane, where my sisters and I started school, and Mum and Dad took English lessons and learned how to navigate this new way of life in a new country. Then we moved to Sydney, where there was a much larger Vietnamese community of immigrants and refugees.

“We lived in public housing in Glebe, and my sisters and I attended local public schools, which has made me a huge advocate for public institutions that provide a safety net for vulnerable people. Mum didn’t work outside the home until we were older and my dad opened a bakery in Ashfield. (I often joke that my husband, who’s from country Queensland, only married me because Bánh Mì is his favourite food and he wants access to the family recipe.)

“Although they worked together and have been married for over 50 years, Mum and Dad are very different. Mum is very sociable, with a wide, open face and beautiful smile, as well as a booming voice – and she’s very extroverted. Dad is quieter and more analytical. Now they’re retired they’ve taken up ballroom dancing; they can foxtrot and tango, and dance much better than me in any discipline! Mum’s super inspirational – she’s taking computer classes and more English classes, and she sends me the stuff she’s written to her teacher. She showed me one of her most recent notes, in which she described her joy at having the family over to her house after been separated from her grandchildren during lockdown. It was beautiful.

I moved to Singapore with my family just before the pandemic, and this is the longest time I’ve been apart from Mum. I can’t wait to get back to see her.

But one of the lessons I learned from her was to ground yourself in the things you can control, which means working hard and giving back to society, because so much of what we achieved was thanks to the kindness of institutions, like UNHCR.

“She was also very intentional in asking us open-ended questions, to encourage our ability to think on our feet – I guess because she wanted us to be able to survive if our family ever got separated. My children’s situation could not be more different than my childhood, but I’m trying to follow Mum’s example in my own parenting. I try to encourage that curiosity, and sense of joy in living.”

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