Image: Huynh’s family at the airport to leave Japan to go to Australia, with the sending party of the nuns and priest who looked after them.
I was born in Vietnam in 1977, two years after Saigon fell to the Communists. My family were middle-class, had ties with the government and were of nationalist royal descent, so the communists didn’t look kindly on us. Knowing he would be killed for his political ties, my grandfather committed suicide when the communists won the war. Many of my family members were thrown into gaol as the Viet Cong came into power. My father saw no future for his children in communist Vietnam. He chose to put the fate of his family in the boats that would flee Vietnam after the war to seek refugee status in another country. It would be a dangerous and highly risky enterprise to escape Vietnam. Travel on the open sea had its own dangers, but the risk of getting caught meant certain imprisonment and probable death. My sister and I were whisked away in the middle of the night with my pregnant mother and father, without even my grandmother knowing.
We left in 1978 and I was a refugee at the ripe old age of one year. Our boat did not last long out at sea. After three days of travel we met bad weather and all our supplies were lost. By the grace of God, a Greek oil ship responded to our distress, picked us up and took us to Japan. The Japanese government did not like to take in refugees, but because of some Catholic missionaries working in Japan, my family remained in the refugee camp for some three years before being able to apply for immigration to Australia.
My parents have never found Jesus or the church since leaving their native country. They held onto their heritage strongly everywhere they went. But being refugees-helped-by-Christians meant they looked favourably upon Christians, especially Catholics. This opened the door for my sister and I to know Jesus. At first it was just the opportunity to hear the name of Jesus, and experiencing Jesus as a good God. It was not until we came to Australia and I got to go to Scripture classes and Inter School Christian Fellowship that I understood who Jesus is and what he did for me. These opportunities would have been closed for me if my parents hadn’t looked favourably upon Christians. It was truly the disruption of being removed from all that felt secure—which refugee life is—that made the opening in our lives to receive Christ as Lord. It’s unfortunate to think that it was the instabilities of family life that made me long for a Saviour, but these were God’s means of grace to me. As an adult I was able to find fellowship and go to church, but I am thankful to ministries like PSSM (Postal Sunday School Movement) and roaming evangelistic campaigns that reached out and fed me spiritually as a child when I wasn’t allowed to go to church.
Once I started attending church, not having grown up in the church, I quickly felt alien from most Christians. The way I had come to know Jesus was so different to that of most Christians in church I knew, so I wasn’t altogether sure my own experience of God was valid. For a long time as a young Christian I was very private about my faith and my life. The refugee experience added many stresses to family life. Assimilating to a new culture, and growing up bi-culturally as well as in poverty destabilised our family unit. This in turn lead to dysfunctional relationships in and out of home, and resulted in domestic violence, sexual abuse and drug issues being part of my growing up experience. I never spoke about any of these things as I was going through them to my church or to my Christian friends. I always hid them because of the shame. On the rare occasion I would expose myself in this way, there was so little understanding, and a lack of ability to know how to speak to me or what to do, that my fears that people would not accept me were reinforced.
When I’m asked now what churches can do better to help people in situations like the one I was in, I encourage them to see how the gospel exhorts Christians to go beyond their own experience and culture of church by standing on the truth of Christ. Christ transcends experience, culture and time. Christ is the truth that refugees need. Whether it’s issues of belonging, identity, conflict or homelessness, Christ and the gospel speak directly into these areas, if the church is convicted and has understood truly that they have the message of eternal life for the refugee as for anyone else. The gospel has widespread implications for every difficult situation in life. Where it is truly convicted in this, the church will be effective in ministering to those who are different.Again, by the grace of God at the right time and in the right way, God eventually brought the right Christians into my life to help me through the pain of my past. However it is truly God himself, with the truth of the gospel, which has reconciled me to my life and to Himself. I do not consider myself a victim of my circumstances, but a sinner saved by grace. The God who knows me and has suffered more than I have, has paid for my sins. He now owns my life and lives in me so that I can be to the praise of His glory. To understand that my life is about Him has given me a place to put all my experiences. I may have begun my life as a refugee but I know I will not end as one.
 Name has been changed.
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