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Sonder Celebrates Refugee Experiences in Refugee Week

Refugee Week (14-20 June 2020)

Since 1986, Refugee Week has been celebrated to highlight the importance of refugees in our society and acknowledge positive contributions made by refugees to Australian society. For Sonder, Refugee Week provides an opportunity to promote positive images of refugees and create a culture of acceptance and welcome in the community.

Refugee Week aims to:

  • Educate Australians about who refugees are and why they have come to Australia
  • Help people understand the many challenges refugees face coming to Australia
  • Celebrate the contribution refugees make to the community
  • Focus on how the community can provide a safe and welcoming environment for refugees
  • Encourage community groups and individuals to take positive action that supports refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people, within Australia but also around the world
  • Encourage service providers to reflect on whether they are providing the best possible services to refugees.


Sonder Employment Solutions

Sonder has taken great steps in the last year to ensure that the organisation can provide the best possible services to migrants and refugees. Sonder Employment Solutions was started in March 2019, and is based on a modified version of a successful evidence-based model known as Individual Placement Support (IPS) which has been implemented in Australia and internationally with outstanding results. This program is the first in the world to customise the IPS model specifically towards helping migrants and refugees, and has so far helped hundreds to find meaningful employment.

Career Coaches provide support to clients along the entire journey towards employment, including help with job searching, writing resumes and preparing for interviews. Clients are also able to access support from Wellbeing Coaches who help them to overcome some of the barriers and difficulties they may have experienced with migration.


Celebrating and learning from narratives of resilience, change and hope during Refugee Week 2020

At Sonder, employees are highly valued and great care is taken in hiring people who understand clients’ needs through their own personal experiences.

Emmatien Tran works as a Career Coach at Sonder. As a second-generation immigrant, Emmatien’s experiences led her towards wanting to help other migrants and refugees to find belonging in a new community. Emmatien’s mother, Dr Xuan-Linh Tran, was a refugee born in Saigon, South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

To celebrate refugee stories and raise awareness about their experiences, Dr Xuan-Linh Tran shares how she escaped Vietnam and came to Australia.


Dr Xuan-Linh Tran’s story

“In 1980, I took a life-threatening journey that transformed my life forever,” says Tran. The journey began on a warm June evening in Saigon, South Vietnam, when Tran’s sister came to collect her from choir practice due to an ‘urgent family matter’.

“I knew that it was an excuse for me to get ready for my 6th attempt at escaping from communist Vietnam. My parents had fled from the Vietnam Communist regime once before in 1954 and we were Catholic, so our family was condemned and we could not have any future and freedom under the new government.” Tran’s parents had saved all their money, hiding it until another opportunity came to smuggle their three children out of Vietnam. The money had almost run out, so this was the final attempt at an escape, and Tran’s mother and father would not be completing the journey.

“I was nervous. We had been caught before. The failures in previous attempts were due to various reasons. The people-smugglers took our payments and then disappeared. Or they failed to sufficiently bribe the authorities to ignore our attempts, resulting in us running for our lives from the police. Worse, once we successfully boarded a boat but there were too many of us on the boat that it got stuck on the sand,” explains Tran. Previous escape attempts had led to Tran’s capture. She recalls as a child being placed in a room packed full of other women and no windows. Tran did not know how long she was in that cell until after three days when they let her go home. Prior to her release, her head was shaved and smeared with lime (the material used in lime mortar) to slow down the regrowth of hair “so that when I got home, everyone would know that I had attempted an escape. I remember the burn of the lime on my skin, but I remember the humiliation more.”

Tran and her sister arrived home. She quickly gave their mother a hug and casually said, “bye Mum”. As all other five attempts had failed, Tran had assumed that this one would too, “my father walked my sister, my brother, and myself to the river. We bid him goodbye and then quickly hid inside the canopy of a tiny rowboat. As we rowed away, I looked back to see my dad at the bank and was struck with the realisation that this might be the last time I would ever see him.”

“After a day and a night of continuous rowing, we reached the sea, and the fishing boat that would take us to freedom.”

The boat was about seven metres long and three metres wide. We were shuffled down to the fish hold, which smelt so strong that it made me sick. I felt like a sardine and could hardly breathe.” 99 people were loaded onto the boat before it started moving. Tran recalls, “the realisation that I was leaving the only home I’d ever known hit me. I’d never felt so much regret and sorrow before – I hadn’t said goodbye to my parents properly. I couldn’t even glance back at land, as we were under deck.”

For the next three days, Tran was seasick and was floating in and out of consciousness. On the fourth day, the boat reached international waters. Tran was rushed onto the deck and began to recover, “we had run out of food, but I had water.”

“I stayed up on the deck near the bow of the boat, and from time to time, I saw the remains of other boats – wooden panels, chopsticks, plastic containers and most horrifyingly, people’s shoes. This was very confronting considering half of the people I knew that tried to escape, didn’t survive.”

When it rained, Tran wore her red raincoat, which was a gift from her sister who lived in France, “I carried it with me everywhere, and it was one of my prized possessions.” After the war, Vietnam was shut-off from the rest of the world, and most goods that were produced in Vietnam were shipped to Russia and China as debt payments. “Those years were really difficult,” explains Tran, “everyone was living on rations, not just on food but also on other basic necessities including clothing.” Once a year, each person was allowed a few meters of fabric to make clothes, and they only came in two colours – black and brown. “This red raincoat was very precious to me because I was one of a very few people on the street wearing colour.”

When Tran was on  the deck of the boat, she saw that the men were frantically waving a black shirt tied to a long pole. “The fishing boat was too small for us all to make it to land safely, therefore we had to rely on big ships in international waters to save us. For days, we waved and screamed at the big ships that passed us, but no one stopped to rescue us. Later, we realised the black colour was associated with pirate ships.”

As Tran, her sister and brother, and other passengers began to lose hope, a large ship appeared in the distance. Despite all on the boat screaming and waving the pole with the black shirt, the ship did not alter its course. Finally, “one of the men suddenly grabbed me, unzipped my red raincoat, quickly tied it to the pole, and madly waved it at the ship. To our astonishment, the ship turned toward us. That American oil tanker, Seacliff Antarctic, had seen my raincoat. We had been rescued.”

After boarding the large ship, Tran was taken to a refugee camp in Singapore before coming to Adelaide, which has been her home ever since. “Until this day, I still believe that it was my red raincoat that saved us. 99 people saved from one piece of clothing, all because of its colour.”

Xuan-Linh Tran now works as a Business Systems Analyst, and achieved her Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Systems Engineering in 2014. She has been happily married for 32 years and has 3 children.


How to get involved with Employment Solutions

The Employment Solutions program is designed for migrants and refugees, aged between 16-64, who live in the northern and western suburbs of Adelaide and are receiving income support payments.

The program provides a personalised service to help achieve the career goals of the individual. This service is entirely voluntary and is not connected to Centrelink Job Service Providers.

Find out more about Sonder’s Employment Solutions program here.


For more information about Refugee Week 2020, visit refugeeweek.org.au