On 26 September, we commemorate Migrant and Refugee Sunday. It is an opportunity to reflect upon and delve deeper into the lives of migrants and those seeking refuge among us. To mark this day, Thach Ly shares his inspirational story of how the greatest lesson he learnt in life is that of love, shown by way of an almost-90-year-old Christian man who gave his time each week to teach English to a young, unknown refugee boy.
Thach Ly was 14 years old when his home city of Saigon, Vietnam, fell to Communism. He and his 11 siblings and mother lived under Communist rule for four years before ‘escaping’ Vietnam by boat in 1978—he was 17 years old (his father had died three years prior to this). About 420 people made the voyage on the 23-metre-long boat, with many suffering dehydration and seasickness.
‘It was my first time on a boat, with seasickness and vomiting causing a problem for many,’ he said. ‘The good thing about being seasick on the boat was that everyone else around you was exactly the same!’
‘We weren’t smuggled out. One of my brothers was on a secret organising committee with others to help make arrangements for our escape.’
At the time of interviewing Thach, the Taliban had recently seized power in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, causing many to flee or attempt to flee the country. ‘When I see the news and the events unfolding in Kabul, I have flashbacks of all of those memories,’ he said. ‘What happened in Kabul recently, with refugees fleeing, that’s exactly what happened to us in Saigon. People are comparing Kabul and Saigon—it was exactly like that for us. I’ve lived through it.’
Recalling the 11-day boat ride and how they survived on little food and water, he said, ‘The last five or six days, I had only a small amount of water in a glass per day. I remember that I’d put my tongue out and I could scratch my tongue and dust would come out. My tongue was so dry, the dust would come off my tongue.’
The boat was intercepted by the Indonesian Navy, and following its landing on an island, Thach and his family were transported and held in a refugee camp in Tanjun Pinang, the capital city of the Indonesian province of the Riau Islands. During the day he’d ‘swim in the sea, go back home to the tent, which was very hot, study English and play music with a group of people.’
After six months, the Ly family was granted a visa for passage to Australia. They arrived in Sydney on 21 June 1979. Thach was 17, and since then he has called Australia home. ‘Life in Australia was unbelievable—so quiet and peaceful and completely different. It was heaven on earth.’
When the family first arrived, they stayed in a hostel and were supported by a local church community. They would offer supplies and necessities for the newly arrived refugees, and also helped them to find accommodation and work. At the time, Thach felt ‘too shy’ to go back to high school to continue his studies. Though he’d been ‘top of the class in Vietnam’, he felt his ‘English was so bad’. ‘I was 17, 18 years old, and I didn’t want to put myself through that,’ he said.
There are a number of people that Thach ‘feels indebted to’ from that church community for the kindness and generosity shown towards ‘the Vietnamese refugees’, but none more so than Mr Charles Spurgeon Boyall, an elderly Christian man who visited Thach and his sister each week to teach English. He was also to be the teacher of one of Thach’s greatest lessons in life—but he wasn’t to realise this until 40 years later!
Mr Boyall drove to Dee Why, a suburb in North Sydney, where Thach was living with his older sister and her family. ‘He was very old—close to 90—and each week he’d drive to us to do the lesson,’ explained Thach.
‘Sometimes he’d bring a bagful of utensils donated by church people, or some money, or a whole plate of food for us or sometimes a piece of cake made by his wife.
‘He would come on his walking stick; he would sit down, and he would have his typed-up lessons on thin paper. Each was a short lesson with an essay of maybe 100 or 200 words, and he would go through it and read it and then get us to read a few words and he’d explain the meaning. There were, perhaps, a total of 20–25 lessons in all.
‘I can still picture Mr Boyall in my mind, and I remember that I would say something to him, and I’d have to repeat it three, four or five times. Why? Not just because my English was so bad—it was terrible—but because he couldn’t hear well; he had a hearing aid! Imagine watching the conversation between us, an old man teaching a young refugee.’
After two years in Sydney, Thach moved to Melbourne where one of his older brothers was living. He enrolled in a 10-week intensive English course, which provided the skills and confidence he needed to enrol in a four-year Bachelor of Electrical Engineering course at the then Footscray Institute of Technology. Thach kept in contact with Mr Boyall during the first two years of university, with the two of them exchanging letters regularly. Thach would hand write the letters, which Mr Boyall sent back, corrected. Mr Boyall also sent typed letters, which Thach has kept all of these years.
Following university, however, Thach completely lost contact with Mr Boyall. After his studies, he was employed by Telstra and worked there for 20 years, embarking on a busy and successful career as an engineer and product manager. In the meantime, he married and had two sons.
Deciding that ‘corporate life’ wasn’t for him anymore, Thach decided to follow his heart to become a teacher, something he’d be ‘happy to do for free’, and studied for a Diploma of Education at the University of Melbourne. He commenced his role as a teacher in information technology, engineering, physics and maths at St Alban’s Secondary School in 2004. He has been there ever since.
‘For 20 years I was having the “ride of my life” in the corporate world, and then I became a teacher and realised just how much I love this. It’s like I have returned to myself,’ he said.
Now 60 years old, Thach said his career change had provided ‘the opportunity to slow down and take time to reflect’ on his life. ‘I recently started going through old stuff at home and I found all of the letters between Mr Boyall and myself,’ he said.
‘I had been so busy with my life as an engineer, a product manager, travelling overseas, and had forgotten all about Mr Boyall, the letters and the lessons. Then, I got to a phase in my life where I could settle down and start reflecting, and that’s when it all came back to me.’
Having pulled out the old letters, Thach started researching the whereabouts of Mr Boyall. Sadly, he discovered that Mr Boyall had died in 1987, before Thach had an opportunity to thank him. ‘I wanted to go and find his grave,’ said Thach, ‘I wanted to be able to say, “I still remember you.”’
Reflecting on Mr Boyall and the lessons he gave when Thach was younger, he said, ‘I studied very hard with Mr Boyall and at the time I thought I got nothing out of it. But I’ve realised that Mr Boyall not only taught me English lessons; the biggest lesson he taught me, which took me 40 years to realise, is that of love. He taught me selfless love.
‘Sure, I love a lot: I love my family, I love tennis, I love watching soccer, but if I get to 90 years old and I walk with a walking stick, would I be able to drive at seven or eight o’clock at night each week to visit a refugee who has nothing? Would I do that journey, twice a week? I have to question myself. That’s the lesson Mr Boyall taught me. That’s real love.’
Thach was baptised into the Catholic faith at his local parish, St Damian’s in Bundoora, in February this year, having completed the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) process last year. Reflecting on his decision to become a Catholic, he said there were a number of people who inspired the Christian values that he too wanted to live. ‘I was inspired by a fellow teacher who was advocating on behalf of refugees and organising marches, and at the same time I started seeing the parallels to Mr Boyall and what he did for me,' Thach said.
'It’s his legacy and lesson of selfless love that I want to continue.'
Melbourne Catholic22 September 2021
Fiona Basile21 September 2021