Dai and Vi Le: Sister Act

by Adrian Payne

While helicopters thundered frighteningly low overhead, a seven year old girl and her little sisters ran in sheer fright. But it wasn’t the first time. Young as they were, they had been scared before. This time a ragged but precious little doll fell spinning out of a small hand and into the mud… left behind in the confusion, their house and almost everything was gone, just left behind…

Their father had disappeared without a trace and they were just a family of four, his wife Tuyet Anh (Ann) Le and the three girls Dai,Vi and Thuy Vi. Dai, the eldest was only 7 and they knew no other life than war-torn communist Vietnam. Their father had worked with the Americans. But in those days and in that place, it was a risky thing for a Vietnamese to do. It is thought that this may have led to his disappearance. They would never see him again. Previously, both their grandfather and great-grandfather had been killed by the Viet Cong.

Anh Le and her daughters joined the Vietnamese exodus when Saigon fell in April 1975. With the news that communists had advanced into Da Nang, thousands of Vietnamese in Saigon began to flee.

Dai, the eldest daughter, remembered they had to scramble onto a large vessel, along with, what felt like, hundreds of people. That vessel took hundreds of Vietnamese refugees to an island in the Philippines. Anh and her daughters, along with the others, were placed in a refugee camp. They languished there for three years, waiting to be ‘processed’. But for reason only known to Anh Le till this day, she decided to take her young family on another boat journey; this time she took her daughters on a smaller boat with 35 or so other refugees and set sailed once again, on the treacherous sea, in search of freedom.

Dai was ten years old when she stepped aboard this doubtful vessel, but too young to question her mother’s decision. All she knew was that they needed to find a safe haven. The second boat journey almost cost the young family their lives.

One pitch black night the boat was tossed in a violent storm. Anh and her daughters were non swimmers so she knew that should the boat capsize, there was no way they would survive. Sitting through the storm, Anh clutched her rosary beads and prayed for their lives. The storm passed… and everyone on board was amazed that the boat remained intact.

A few days later, the boat struck a reef. By a stroke of luck, the reef did not penetrate the boat and once again, they were able to navigate their way safely around the reef.

Towards the end of their ten day journey, they came across another boat… they feared the worst… Pirates! But they were Thai fishermen who threw them biscuits and other food before pulling away. They were finally picked up by a Hong Kong patrol boat and taken to a refugee camp in Hong Kong. At first they were in a warehouse, among thousands of other refugees. They were moved from camp to camp around Hong Kong about every three months, until at last they came to a ’freedom camp’.

At the freedom camp towards the end of their year in Hong Kong, they applied for refugee status, and finally were accepted to go to America. But excited as she was about that, Anh had heard a story about an Island… far away from the war. She had heard about the great southern island continent… Australia. She told the girls that she thought they should go there. So hoping that she didn’t seem ungrateful for the offer to go to America, she again applied through UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) channels, and was surprised how quickly, they were accepted.

They arrived in Australia in December 1979.

Anh Le and her family were settled in a migrant hostel at Fairy Meadow near Wollongong. Here with limited English and a suitcase of meagre possessions between them, they began to rebuild their lives. In 1979, Dai remembers, she thought that Australia was very much a ‘white Australia’. They were among the first of many Vietnamese refugees who would follow to make new lives here.

The girls went to school in nearby Wollongong. They had to work hard, they had missed several years of schooling and they still had to catch fast up with their English language skills. Anh was working as a cleaner. For the three girls, they had to be self-sufficient and learned to look after themselves. Most of the time they’d come back home from school prepare themselves something to eat and get on with their homework. They remember that they were remarkably independent at that (very young) age. Occasionally Anh Le would give them the opportunity to earn some money of their own by cleaning a house together. She would give them the cash that she received for that service.

In the mid-eighties they transferred to Bossley Park in Western Sydney. The main reason for the move was that Anh had been diagnosed with a condition that meant she had to have open-heart surgery. This took place successfully at St Vincent Hospital in Darlinghurst. She felt that it may be important to be near the hospital in case in future years, she would need another operation.

During their time in Bossley Park, there came a fourth daughter Jaycie… an adopted Laotian girl.

Dai and Vi continued their schooling in Cabramatta and sat for their Higher School Certificates. Vi also sat the Commonwealth Public Service exam and as a result, secured a job with Telstra. Vi went on to establish a career with the telco, supervising teams of technicians and managing the implementation of contracts with outsourced contractors.

Dai wasn’t so sure what she wanted to do, but in 1990, almost by accident was offered a job as a cadet journalist at one of the local newspapers, the Fairfield Champion. Four years later having completed her cadetship and with some worthwhile journalism experience behind her, she made a move. During the years 1994 to 2008 she worked with The ABC turning her journalism skills to broadcasting and producing television documentaries… some of which were also broadcast on SBS and ABC TV.

In 2008 the Health Minister and Member for Cabramatta, Reba Maher resigned. Dai had had an interest in the community for many years so she decided to throw her hat in the ring and volunteer to stand in the by-election to represent her local electorate, which was regarded as the second-most safe Labor seat in New South Wales. So after years as a journalist where her ethic was to remain politically neutral, she jumped off the fence – to the right, having decided to stand as a Liberal!

The Liberal Party was delighted to have Dai as a candidate, and she was quickly joined up. The by-election was due on the 18th of October and she only had 3 weeks to campaign. She was advised not to try too hard and burn herself out… after all “it’s a safe Labor seat!” they said. That simply presented Dai with a challenge.

She produced some home-made leaflets in Vietnamese and English. With a little help from a couple of local Liberal supporters, Dai started to campaign at local train stations and set up small streets stalls. In the second week, word was getting around that Dai was making some inroads into the security of that ‘safe’ Labor seat!
Vi was on maternity leave and came out with her baby daughter, to help her sister too.

First, prominent Liberal Charlie Lynn MLC came out to see what was going on. He was followed by Gladys Berejiklian, Shadow Minister for Transport at the time and in the third week, the (then) leader of the opposition Barry O’Farrell came West to lend support. On the 18th of October, the by-election result showed a huge 22.3% swing to the Liberal party, with a similar result in the other by-election in Ryde. While Dai had done a great job achieving a high profile in such a short time, there was obviously a mood of discontent in the air with respect to the ruling Labor model.

But even 22.3% didn’t swing Dai into the NSW Parliament. She went back to continue her work with the ABC. But the National Broadcaster had a problem. Dai had gained such a high profile as a declared Liberal, that it would be difficult for her to continue as a broadcaster with a neutral position. She was asked to make a decision. Renounce a political career and continue with the ABC, or follow her dream, and become a politician.

She had enjoyed the taste of the hustings and decided to take the path of politics, so she resigned from the ABC.

Now!… what to do?

Barry O’Farrell offered Dai a position on his staff to look after communications in ethnic communities. This was in the lead-up to the next State election which was then two years away in 2011.

Dai was embarking on a long journey of learning the political ropes and at the same time wrapping them around her own beliefs and ambitions for her community. She believes there is great value in focussing on what can bind different people together, highlighting the things that they share. This approach to Dai is better than pointing out people’s differences, which can be a more divisive way of looking at things, but all too often the way politicians and the media view the world.

As a story-teller herself, she observes that politicians don’t tell stories that help people understand what is going on around them. She believes that understanding empowers not only individual members of the community, but also politicians themselves. When people understand what’s going on, the quality of their feedback is constructive and useful.

She would like to be the kind of politician who says clearly what she means. Dai perceives that politicians today have a reputation for not being trustworthy. “It’s a sad thing that people are cynical about politicians” she says. “People go to the polls as if it is a job they have to do and just vote, hoping that the person they have chosen will do the job in the best interests of the community”. Sadly too often they don’t.

Currently she is progressing her political ‘apprenticeship’ working for the member for Smithfield Andrew Rohan, the first Liberal to represent the people of this electorate. In 2012 Dai was elected to serve on Fairfield Council. She is a commissioner on the NSW Community Relations Commission which looks at policies and funding for programmes in the multi-cultural endeavours of the state government. She also serves on the Ethnic Communities Council of NSW which is an advocacy body representing the different ethnic groups in the state. She acknowledges that she has a busy life that includes her partner Marcus, and their young child!

Vi, while initially having little interest in politics herself is firmly in the background supporting Dai’s political ambition. She has looked at and thought about the unique nature of the electorate of Cabramatta having so many residents who brought their cultural values with them from Vietnam. She can see that despite the many small businesses run by Vietnamese migrants, more often than not, surprisingly they support Labor. The word ‘liberal’ translates into Vietnamese as ‘freedom’ where she sees Labor values as being socialist, and therefore more ‘communist’ in philosophy.

Vi is fiercely defensive of Dai when anyone seeks to challenge her, but understands that it is the nature of politics. Yet she is very proud indeed of Dai’s resolve to be a force for beneficial change in Cabramatta’s future.

Despite her lack of political background, Vi now works for Charlie Lynn MLC as his Adviser and Researcher. In Charlie’s office she is in a working environment where it’s all about networking to gain the confidence of influential supporters to advance ambitions in the political world. Charlie is not only an employer and politician, he is a friend with whom Vi has trekked the Kokoda Trail within 2012 to commemorate the Anzac dawn service at Bomana War Cemetery in Port Moresby.

Vi is acutely aware of the need to foster and encourage young people in the Cabramatta electorate to become more politically aware and involved in the political process. She hopes to nurture future leaders to ensure the community benefits from strong and inspiring representatives. She currently mentors and provides work experience for those interested in pursuing a political career. She is also an active member of the Cabramatta Liberal branch, serving as the branch Secretary and assisting the branch President with membership drive.

Vi is quietly observing and learning the political ropes and at some stage in the future, may launch her own political career. For now, between supporting Charlie, Dai and the local Liberal branch, she also has three young daughters, a seventeen year old stepson and husband to keep her busy.

In the meantime, Anh Le lives quietly in Mount Prichard. Vi recently moved from Mount Pritchard where she has lived for the past 10 years, to a new home in the inner west in the same area as their sister Thuy Vi and Jaycie lives in Dai’s heartland of Cabramatta.

It is encouraging for all Australians to see someone from a distant and ancient culture wholeheartedly adopt their new country and throw themselves into the maelstrom of Australian politics, standing to make a difference. While both sisters have embraced the Australian way, they have not forgotten the values and the culture of their homeland.

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