The escape from Cambodia to Australia took Thida and her family eight years. Even though it was four decades ago, that journey is still fresh in her memory. The civil war and political unrest in Cambodia at that time made the country unsafe for her family.
Her dad was taken away in an army truck. They heard everyone in those trucks were killed. Thida and her family had to leave their home town and head to another province.
Through sheer luck, she was reunited with her Father after four years. He was desperately looking for them and had a hunch that they were living in this province and by chance her Uncle spotted her Dad cooking by the road one day.
Reunited, they returned to their hometown to discover that their house was occupied and they became homeless. With no valuables to exchange for food, the family starved for days. Their friends as well as strangers provided temporary accommodation and food.
Her family was told to go “west” for food. They headed for Thailand and moved from one refugee camp to the next for the next four years. An Australian volunteer at one of the camps suggested they try to apply for Australia as Australia has just opened its policy to accept refugees.
“We didn’t even know where Australia was, but we were desperate to find a third country to settle because we didn’t want to be sent back to Cambodia. Going back was death for us. We would be accused of being traitors for leaving the country and we had nothing left anyway. How could one survive?
“We arrived in Australia on 3 March 1983. It was 43 degrees. Everything was different. After spending ten days in a hostel, we found accommodation in Canley Vale,” says Thida.
Thida and her sister started school at the Cabramatta Intensive English class.
“It was so difficult. There was a lot of racism. Mum and Dad were working in the textile industry. Mum was sewing at home. Dad was doing ironing at a clothing factory. Mum had no access to education. Dad only got to the equivalent of Year 9 in Cambodia, so their priority was for us to go to school.
“My parents were isolated from the community and we had to do everything on our own. We had no relatives here. No English. No support,” says Thida.
After two months in Cabramatta Intensive Class, Thida started in Year 9 at Canley Vale High School.
A two-week work experience at a local chemist turned into a part time job for 17 years and helped put her through school.
During Year 10, Thida was recognised at school for continuous improvement and it encouraged her to keep following onto year 11. Her Father encouraged her “If we were in Cambodia, we wouldn’t be able to send you to school. The best we can do is to keep supporting you through your education.”
“Those words stuck with me, and I decided I needed to do my best, get as far as I could, even though the path was so hard.
“My biology teacher offered to coach me, and in exchange, I would babysit her child. That carried me through to Year 12. I went to Uni and studied a Bachelor of Business in accountancy. I was the first person in my family to complete tertiary education” she says.
After finishing Uni, she applied for a part-time job with the Cambodian community and that was her start in community work, including nine years at the Liverpool Migrant Resource Centre. She never ended up working as an accountant!
“Finding freedom means the world to me. We had to go on a journey that we didn’t choose and we found freedom in Australia. I can identify several moments of freedom throughout my journey. Getting on the bus that took us to the hostel after landing in Australia. Starting school in Australia and seeing smiling faces, open spaces. Dad buying the first car we had in our life two years after arriving. They are moments of freedom that are still in my memory,” says Thida Yang.
Contributing to give a second chance to others
“I came to Australia empty-handed and made a life here. I have my freedom, and now I want to help others find theirs. My journey allows me to understand the needs of other people, that’s why charity work is so important to me.
“In 2006, Dr Peter Wong AM approached me and asked if I would consider involving in a charity to help people in Cambodia. They wanted to purchase medical equipment and travel once a year on a voluntary basis to help treat and prevent blindness and provide basic medical healthcare. I was really reluctant as I didn’t want to face what I did as a child. In the end, I agreed because I wanted to overcome my fear and to help people. That’s how Cambodia Vision was born. 2007 was the year of the first trip.
“It was very difficult for me to go back. I had flashbacks, nightmares and my trauma returned. However, I realised the country needed a lot of help, and we have been back every year since then (except for the COVID-19 years). Now it feels good to go back every year,” she says.
“The organisation has grown and now has medical teams from Taiwan, Hong Kong, China , Finland and England and teams specialising in vision, hearing and general health care. Almost 40,000 people have benefited from our services.
“By helping one person, you give them more independence, and at the same time relieve their carer, who can dedicate time to work and provide a better life for the whole family. We also train eye doctors and medical students locally so they can keep working with the communities. It’s much more than medical, the feedback we always receive is that we are spreading love and kindness” Thida explains.
Busting myths about refugees
“Refugees didn’t choose to be refugees. They are looking for freedom and to live safely, like everybody else.
“We hear a lot about refugees ‘taking jobs’. Refugees work hard because there is opportunity. That vision of opportunity and freedom of speaking without fear drives us. Only the sky is the limit here.
“I’m very grateful to Australia because my family was welcome here. It was really difficult, but Australia has given us a second chance to live. We came empty handed, and we built our lives from scratch here.
“I’d like to think that I have contributed to Australia, actively participating, paying my taxes, working in the community to give back. Although I’ve been boxed into the refugee label for a long time, I’m proud to call Australia home,” says Thida.
Thida Yang came to Australia as a refugee with her family from Cambodia 40 years ago when she was an early teenager. She is a Senior Community Relations Advisor at Multicultural NSW. She works building engagement and resilience among communities, focusing on religious communities.