A new generation of boat people
I write from the hospital. My son is wrapped up in swaddling. He’s a day old. We’ve named him Isaiah Seraph Chung. His namesake comes from that beautiful moment between the prophet Isaiah and the Seraph in the Bible. The sky is blue outside. We’re in beautiful Sydney, Australia. The hospital staff are incredibly warm and friendly. We’re Australian citizens with medicare, private health cover and the benefits of being at the SAN hospital, one of the best hospitals in the Southern Hemisphere. For my son, we’re thankful, it’s been smooth sailing.
I am conscious even in Australia today, other expectant families will not be so fortunate. I’ve been watching the news that’s been screaming “Turn back the boats”. That’s the kind of hospitality many will be shown regardless of which of the two major parties get in. I’m glad for my baby, wife and I that we are not on a boat heading to Australia.
34 years ago my wife was on a boat heading to Australia. She travelled first class, in her mum’s belly. She was going to be called Sydney because she was born here. Her family had fled Vietnam. I’m glad that 34 years ago, the Australian Government did not “turn back the boats”.
I love boat people.
Less heat, more warmth
There is too much heat in the current conversation. We need more warmth. So I would like to tell our story of the warmth and kindness of enterprise, education and the difference it made to boat people.
Family stories are what we pass to our kids. They are a part of our family memories even though we are too young to remember. Australians have a saying “Lest we forget”. We who are from migrant families have been given these stories from our parents “lest we forget”. Lest we forget the kindnesses and privilege that we have been given. Lest we withhold the same kindness from others that we have been shown.
The power of Enterprise and Education for Boat People
I am going to tell our family story of:
– The power of Enterprise that was used for kinder and gentler things in life
– The enduring value of Education
– The value of boat people to hospitable countries
The power of Enterprise that was used for kinder and gentler things
Power is a tool. In the hands of careless people it can do great damage, but in the hands of the right people, it can be used for kinder and gentler things. As we approach the coming election, collectively we are choosing the hands of those who shall wield great power. Let me tell you a story of the power of enterprise for kinder and gentler things.
In the 70s, many would know a lot happened in Vietnam. It had become increasingly dangerous for many people. My father-in-law, a young man, married with kids and an expecting child – he made the call – they had to flee Vietnam. They tried twice. The first time they were caught, the second time they made it past the police.
Fleeing from Vietnam, they barely made it to the coast of Malaysia where their boat was shipwrecked on the coral reef. When my father in law was in the refugee camp, he wrote to IBM Australia. He had done software work while he was in Vietnam. Like many other boat people who can be very well educated, being on a boat can tell us nothing about their ability to contribute to our economy. The boat is only an indicator of the fears that they are running from that would make them take such risky journeys. My father in law wrote to IBM. They could have washed their hands. They didn’t have to “turn back the boats”, all they needed to do was “return to sender”.
34 years ago, IBM and someone there also loved boat people.
When my wife and her family arrived in Australia, IBM flew a representative across to meet them and showed them hospitality. IBM gave them money to buy furniture that they needed and set them up in Tempe. My wife was going to be called Sydney, because she came out here. They lived in Tempe and then finally moved to the Hills area where I met my wife in highschool.
Kindness cannot be repaid. A love debt cannot be easily covered by a mere finite repayment of time or money. Kindness is however a fuel that drives loyalty long after the initial spark. IBM showed a kindness to my wife’s family in a way that we will always remember. My father-in-law was a loyal worker of IBM for many many years. He worked there until he was of retirement age. Even after he has retired, I write of the workers in IBM three decades ago with a great fondness and respect.
As I sit on the hospital bed next to my son who is a new generation of boat people, I am inspired by that story of kindness and value the power of people in enterprise to be used for greater and kinder things that can make a difference for others and their children after them.
The Enduring Value of Education
My wife’s parents have always told her “Education is one of the most valuable things that we can give to you”.
Having fled Vietnam during a time when the currency had devalued overnight, they knew well that even real-estate and money, others can take from you. However poor they were as they travelled across the seas, education was their precious cargo and the one that they wanted most for their kids on these new shores.
When my father-in-law was in the Malaysian refugee camps they were allowed to ask for simple items. He asked for a board. At night, his pregnant wife slept on the board. When day time came, he would flip the board around and run an entrepreneurial English teaching school within the camp.
Even in the micro-economy of refugee camps, education retains its premium. Better education in English meant that people could increase their chances for being accepted in the countries they were applying to. My father-in-law was a programmer, but the entrepreneurial spirit always knows how to pivot. This kept them going while they waited for IBM to reply. Though waiting, they still had a way to contribute to other people’s lives in the micro-economy and society of a Malaysian refugee camp.
I was speaking to an Economic development policy advisor a few days ago. He spoke to me of significant skills shortages within Australia and of how hard working and motivated migrant workers can be. He is not convinced that Australia does not have jobs for refugees for he is conscious of two things.
1. Australian skills shortages
2. The willingness of refugees to retrain and work hard so that they can contribute to our economy
The desire that refugees have to be included in the dignity of contributing to our economy is not to be underestimated.
Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “To crush, to annihilate a man utterly, to inflict on him the most terrible punishment so that the most ferocious murderer would shudder at it beforehand, one need only give him work of an absolutely, completely useless and irrational character.”
A mini-english school was a way that work even within refugee camps could be meaningful. I’m glad that when my father-in-law came to Australia, IBM didn’t use this as an opportunity to make him a modern day slave but gave him meaningful ways to contribute to their enterprise and the Australian economy.
I dread to think what would have happened to him and my in-laws if they were only allowed to do menial tasks. I also dread to think if they were given “temporary protection” which could be revoked at any moment through a limbo state that stretched out for years.
Hope deferred makes the heart grow sick.
If there is a monster that you have run from, not being able to see it, and feeling powerless that you are only protected temporarily until you are thrown back into the non-safe zone, and then with no right to appeal. I think no politician would ever want that on their family if they had to flee Australia in the future.
Dostoevsky described the same methods concentration camps employed by getting people to dig holes and then fill them up and then repeat it. Meaningless work and also not being able to work will slowly work away at one’s mind and soul.
I heard from a Christian theologian the other day that a basic understanding of humanity is that humans are meant to be workers. Being able to work, cultivate and contribute to society is an essential dignity of being human. I have spoken to an Iranian friend who will do his eLearning PHD in 2015, he tells me that the thing that his asylum seeker brethren find the most difficult is not being able to work.
IBM gave my father-in-law meaningful work to do. Work that was a good match for his skills and work that they valued. More than the money to buy furniture, it was the opportunity that the enterprises gave individuals like my father-in-law that had a lasting impact on him, his family and the generations to come.
The value of boat people to hospitable countries
My wife’s parents prized education and that’s what they gave to their kids. My wife jokes that I probably wouldn’t have been able to date her until she had finished her doctorate. The story of the opportunities that hard working refugees give to their kids is not uncommon.
As a result of the kindness IBM and others showed to this family of ‘boat people’, the kids grew up to be doctors in dentistry, psychiatry and clinical psychology, marketing research SAP programmers and the youngest has worked over these past 6 years with the Red Cross asylum seeker community detention program.
The dentist works in a region that doesn’t attract a lot of practionners. The psychiatrist has worked to care for those within the Australian prison system. My wife cares for those with depression, bi-polar and other mental health issues. The enterprise research programmer most are more familiar with how business intelligence helps leaders in enterprise. And the youngest was sent to Geneva last year to represent a new generation of Red Cross social workers caring for Asylum seekers.
I have an enormous respect for the work my wife and her siblings do in Australia. There is a tangible value that it brings to improve and change the lives of many in the society that we live in. Even as I appreciate their story, I also know that many other similar stories can be told, of hard working families from refugee backgrounds whose kids end up making positive contributions to Australian society. Stories like these remind me of the value of boat people to hospitable countries when ‘boat people’ are given a fair go.
The messages that we send to the families and countries of ‘boat people’
It is easy to generate fear in others. It is the very reason why people flee from fear to seek refuge in Australia. It is costly to show love and kindness to ‘boat people’ and their families.
Boat people are not isolated individuals. They are people with families and communities that they leave behind. They are people with immediate family and future families.
If we as Australians use our power to scream “turn back the boats” and say “send this message home to your families that you will never touch our shores”. We will be successful. They will take this message home that we are an inhospitable nation. They will take this message home and if they survive the very countries that they fled from, they will surely tell their kids and their kids after them.
However, our family has experienced the powerful use of Enterprises for kinder and gentler things. Power used with an open hand to welcome and give families a ‘fair go’. The power of kindness that generates loyalty to a country and their places of work. The power of kindness that can let people on the edges of society participate in meaningful ways that they can make a better world for their kids and the generations to come.
Regardless of who is voted into power next month, these are the stories I will tell my son “lest we forget” that there have been many Australians that have shown love and kindness to boat people. I want him to grow up knowing that we only enjoy these “riches and wealth for toil” because others gave us opportunities to ‘toil’ and take part in contributing to this society.
The dangers of “forgetting” how we got here
Now that we are Australian Citizens, I never want my son to suddenly start defining himself against “them” and treat “boat people” as some sort of “other” category of human being. Lest we forget the Australia that we have been, and the Australia that we could be.
It will be so easy now that we are Australians, to start viewing the right to have a “fair go” as a scarce resource. Now that the tide has turned and now we are on the shore and no longer on the boat, we can become self centred and fear the “competition” of other people arriving on our shores. We could lobby the government to exercise a form of protectionism and economic disincentives to dissuade others from competing in our market/country called Australia.
Even more than “turn back the boats”, there is a much more effective message that could be sent back across the seas as a disincentive. We could make sure that even though people have ‘the right’ to a ‘fair go’, by the time they leave the processing system they will be too defeated, depressed, disheartened and ill-equipped to even find a job. Surely, this could be an effective disincentive to then communicate to future competitors that could encroach on my families ability to have a ‘fair go’.
Lest we forget
I would be deeply ashamed having been the recipient of a great kindness that has been shown to our family, if I or my son were to be such irresponsible stewards of the kindness and opportunities given to us. These are the stories I will continue to tell myself, my children and others, lest we forget that a fair go is only a fair go, if it is a fair go for all.
We can tell each other stories of competition and scarce resources. Stories with narrative arcs driven by fear. Such stories generate tidal waves that can only crash all boats.
However there are other stories that we can tell of dynamic equilibriums. Where we can increase and recognise both demand and supply. A story where participation and having a ‘fair go’ in this market is welcome rather than dissuaded. A story with narrative arcs where power is used for kinder and gentler things. Only such stories can lead to a rising tide that floats all boats.
Which stories shall we tell our children? Lest we forget.