In an ordinary suburban house in an ordinary Australian suburb, there’s a home with an extraordinary story of welcome and love that transcends national and cultural boundaries. Peter and Carol have taken an asylum seeker named Duc into their home and hearts.
Apart from the common humanity they share, the three are joined by their strong faith in God. Before I spoke to Peter, Carol and Duc (not their real names), Peter asked if we could pray together. We prayed for wisdom in my telling of their story. It is clear that prayer is an integral part of this family. Peter and Carol are parents of four children and grandparents of seven, but they had been empty nesters for six years when Duc, a 20 year old asylum seeker from Vietnam, entered their lives.
“When I was in Vietnam I was a student and went to school,” said Duc. “My parents are rice farmers. They work on land which is owned by the government. I am a Catholic. All the members of my family are Catholics. There are about 5,000 people in my village. Most of them are farmers and almost all are Catholic.”
For Australian tourists visiting Vietnam, that life may sound idyllic, but Duc’s world was not a free or just one. Just over three years ago, he and some friends were invited to a house in another village where Mass was being celebrated, but the service was raided by police and border guards.
“They ran towards us with wooden batons and Tasers,” Duc said. “I do not know exactly how many police there were, but there were a lot. People fought them and my friend and I ran away and out of the house in fear. The police chased us and I saw them hit my friend and he fell over. I lost sight of him. I ran for as long as I could and then I hid and wait(ed) until I think it was safe.”
Duc never saw his friend again and held grave fears for his own safety. His strong Catholic faith, however, means so much to him that he risked his life to find freedom. Yes, he was a ‘boat person’ and admits he was very frightened, as many of those who travel by boat to find refuge die during the voyage. “No one”, he said, “would take such a risk if they haven’t been in danger of their life.”
Prayer kept him going through the horrendous journey. Duc ended up in an Australian detention centre and because he was under 18 at the time, the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection allowed him to attend the nearest state school. Because of his love of learning he took the opportunity to study as much as possible. At the school he met Peter, a teacher, who was also a volunteer mathematics tutor at the detention centre.
When Peter found out Duc would soon celebrate his 18th birthday, he offered to buy him a cake. Duc chose a cheesecake, but was puzzled that someone cared enough to make such a kind gesture. A short time later Peter was devastated when he heard this vibrant, fun-loving young man was to be moved far away from friends to live with older men at an adult centre.
Peter felt a real connection with Duc, and despite Duc being moved around various centres, including Christmas Island, the pair stayed in touch. Peter felt God’s guiding hand as he campaigned to get Duc out of the centres, where he lived in constant fear. After 17 months in detention, Duc was released at short notice and late one night arrived at Peter’s and Carol’s home and walked ‘right into their lives’. Carol said, “I think God had it all (the reunion) sewn up.”
Now part of the family, Duc feels very fortunate to have a home, someone to call mum and dad, four siblings and seven nieces and nephews. For her part, Carol says that knowing Duc has given her a new insight into her relationship with God.
“Once Duc lived with us he began talking about ‘our home’ and ‘our family’. He found it culturally disrespectful to call us Peter and Carol,” said Carol. “At his request, and with the consent of all our children and his parents, he began calling us mum and dad. I love our children calling me mum – but we grew up with that expectation.
“I can’t express the joy I feel when Duc chooses to call me mum. I’m left pondering whether the joy I receive hearing Duc call me mum is a small reflection of the joy it gives our Creator God to hear us, his children, call him Abba Father?”
Duc admitted to being a tad nervous when he first arrived at Peter and Carol’s house. He was too shy to even ask where the toilet was, but he soon felt at home and began to ask many questions. One of those questions was, “Do you do anything before you eat?”
Carol replied they always said a prayer or grace. Duc’s face lit up because he comes from a family that always prays, talks about God and attends Mass. Now he’s with a family where God and prayer is an integral part of everyday life.
“Duc’s arrangement with us quickly changed from that of guest to family member,” said Carol. “Initially I wanted everything to be perfect. I tidied up around him, resisting his offers of help, wanting to be the host. Soon we found ourselves relating differently, and I relaxed.”
With the help of his parish priest, Duc has been accepted at a local Catholic college, something that would have been out of the question in communist Vietnam. His happy and caring nature has already made a big impression on both staff and students. He is revelling in his studies, especially maths, and wants to become a farmer in Australia. Recently, he was voted 2016 college captain. His progress is testament to his ability to ‘have a go’.
He spoke at the college graduation ceremony last year and quipped, “I speak very good Vietnamese, but when I speak, no one listens; I speak very bad English, but when I speak English, many people listen.”
Duc and his Australian family and friends concentrate on the positives, yet Carol is quick to point out that Duc’s story is “no fairy tale”.
“Duc had to leave his much loved family under extreme circumstances; he has experienced trauma and a dark cloud hangs over his future,” Carol said. “His entry into our home/lives unexpectedly jolted the two of us out of a comfortable, somewhat selfish rut as ‘empty nesters’, opening our eyes and hearts. Life with him has been a rollercoaster of great joy and love, but also times of deep sadness and helplessness.”
Peter said that Duc could be deported back to Vietnam at any time, but says he trusts in God. “Amid the immense uncertainties, there is room for a miracle,” said Peter.