World Refugee Day 2021: Interviews with Majak Daw and other refugees

Words | William Phung

June 20 is World Refugee Day, an international day designated by the United Nations to honour refugees around the globe and to celebrate the strength and courage of people who have been forced to flee their home country to escape conflict or persecution.

Since 1977, Australia has helped resettle over 500,000 refugees, with many fleeing countries like Syria, Vietnam, Sudan, and Afghanistan, embroiled in civil war and hardship.

Many refugees make perilous journeys by sea in hopes of a better life. At only 9 years old, Jenny Nguyen, sister to M.J. Bale Content Producer David, left Vietnam along with her father, her heavily pregnant mother, and her four sisters aboard a timber fishing boat with 71 other people. In 1985, adrift in the Pacific Ocean for 3 nights and 4 days, she recalls looking up at the stars, hoping that "we will sail to a peaceful land." She knew that she would never be able to return to Vietnam, but her father had shown her photos of what would hopefully be their new home: Australia.

The children hid in the cabin during the day. It was safer there, away from any pirates. On top of the cabin, her dad and the other men had stacked slabs of ice to keep any fish they caught cool.(“It was so cold.” she remembers.)

Jenny’s father was one of the ‘captains’ on the ship. “He had no navigation equipment, except for a little compass. He trusted the wind and the position of the moon in the sky to make sure we were going in the right direction.” It was difficult to stay in Vietnam and impossible to turn back now. Their house had been ransacked. Nothing was left, only scraps and shards of broken furniture.

When their boat came ashore an island in the Philippines, some families cried, other prayed, many were quiet. All were grateful.

Man Phung, the father of M.J. Bale Marketing Manager Will, found himself in an Indonesian refugee camp for over a year. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, like Jenny, he fled persecution by sea at the age of 22 in 1985.

During his time in the refugee camp, he researched where he and his family might resettle. Reading books at night in the camp library he understood Australia to be a “big country" with "a reputation to accommodate migrants and respect the underdog”. It was also warm all-year round (or so the photos had him believe) which he thought might make things feel more like home.

Man arrived in Sydney a year later. In the autumn of ‘85 it was cold and felt nothing like home.

During the day, Man pieced together telephones for Telecom (now Telstra). At night he strove to improve his English. It was the only way, he thought, he could put himself through uni and provide a better life for his family.

“I applied to study pathology which is what I had studied in Vietnam.” He found the mandatory English test challenging, even after four years. Still, he felt grateful for what Australia afforded him. The free education reforms of the Whitlam government, still in effect, democratised opportunity.

“One day I looked out at the factory grounds, and saw that all the workers were migrants… I realised then that the key difference between Australia and the rest of the world was the design and management of our workforce, not our labour. Other countries can have the labour. They [Australians] created an environment where people were happy to do the work. They were willing to work hard. They treated everyone equally. They discouraged discrimination and promoted people according to their merits… Multiculturalism was the key to Australia’s success. Migrant and refugee workers feel protected, respected and believe they have a fair chance in this country.”

Man would go on to earn his Bachelor and Masters at the University of Technology, Sydney. Nowadays, he even quite likes the cold.

In the 21st Century, many refugees still embark from places as far as the Sahara and Middle-East, where some conflicts have raged on for over 20 years. Mate of the Bale, Majak Daw, the first ever Sudanese-born player drafted into the AFL, is one of Australia’s most famous.

Majak arrived in Australia with his parents and eight brothers and sisters in 2003, fleeing civil war in their native Sudan when he was only 9 years old.

As a young boy, Majak was forced to abandon the life he once knew. For over three years, they were stuck in an Egyptian refugee camp. Settling in Melbourne’s western suburbs, his early days in Australia were confronting. Not only did he not know a lick of English, his family were also one of the first migrants in Werribee. Plus, he had no clue what the heck the locals were getting up to with their strange rubber balls down the road.

Today, Majak lives out every Aussie kid's dream as a professional footy player and finds meaning in helping the local community and raising his son, Hendricks. His is a story of learning from adversity, taking nothing granted, and finding (and refinding) your sense of purpose, character and integrity no matter what life throws at you.

To all our refugees, we thank you for the positive contributions you have made to Australian society. Together we can, as the UN says, "heal, learn and shine".