As a former refugee herself, Tonii Tran had always wanted to support people who found themselves in a similar situation.

But as she concentrated on building her early childhood education business, as well as raising three children, the opportunity had never presented itself.

That is, until she heard Boost Juice founder and Leading Women Fund ambassador Janine Allis talking about the Leading Women Fund at an online Business Chicks event in June.

“I loved the fact she was talking about helping refugee women on the ground, and helping them to lead,” says Tonii, 45, from Melbourne. “I’m a big supporter of feminism and I just thought this was a great opportunity to make a difference.”

The next morning, Tonii became the first of the Founding 50 donors to the Leading Women Fund – the key group of women who will have the opportunity to trial the ground-breaking Connecting Worlds app.

The app enables the Founding 50 to connect, via texts and photos, with Syrian refugee women in Jordan.

Tonii already shares a connection with these women. Although she was only three years old when she left Vietnam with her family, she understands the desperation that drives people to leave everything behind in search of a better life.

“It was 1977 and the communist government from the north had taken over the ports, which is where my Dad ran his business,” she says. “Trade stopped, businesses were under state control and Dad had no way of making a living. There was a lot of oppression and danger for academic people like him. So a few of our family and friends bought a fishing boat together and decided to leave.”

Melbourne businesswoman and Founding 50 donor, Tonii Tran. © Image supplied

They set off in the dead of night with about 70 people crammed onboard. Then, the unthinkable happened: the boat’s motor broke down, and they drifted for 16 days in the open sea. “Our rations were running out,” says Tonii, whose parents later told her of the terror they experienced. In a stroke of luck, their boat was spotted by people aboard a Malaysian fishing boat who towed them to Malaysia where they were transferred to a UNHCR-run refugee camp.

The UN estimates that between 200,000 and 400,000 Vietnamese ‘boat people’ were lost at sea in the late ’70s and ’80s.

The boat that Tonii’s family bought to flee to safety. © Image supplied

“People ask, why would you risk your children’s lives to board a boat like that?” says Tonii. “The thing is, you can live in a place where you’re oppressed, with all your human rights taken away from you, which is almost a form of living death. Or, you risk everything for the chance to give your children a better life, knowing that by taking that risk you could die. My parents took the risk.”

After three months in the refugee camp, Tonii, her brother and their parents were accepted for resettlement to Australia.

“One of the proudest moments in my Dad’s life was being flown to Australia by Qantas,” laughs Tonii.

Initially the family stayed in a hostel for recent immigrants in Melbourne’s Springvale, moving into their own home once Tonii’s parents had secured jobs in a manufacturing factory. Entrepreneurial and hard-working, they later established a successful food business.

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