As we approach the 175th anniversary of the Archdiocese of Melbourne, there is much to celebrate, not least the contributions of the many immigrant communities that have enriched and helped shape the Church of Melbourne. As part of our series celebrating these communities, we hear the story of how Cambodian and Lao Catholics have found their way to Melbourne, the challenges they have faced, and the ways their presence has enriched the life of our Church.

Before the mid-1970s, only a few Cambodians and Laotians had arrived in Australia, mostly as students under the intergovernmental Colombo Plan for social and economic cooperation. But from about 1975, the numbers of Cambodian and Lao migrants began to build, slowly at first, and then more rapidly from about 1982, when large refugee camps were established in Thailand on the Cambodian border.

Much of this immigration was driven by hunger and by the desire to escape the authoritarian governments that came to power in their homelands in 1975: the Communist government of Laos (which replaced the former Kingdom of Laos and prompted 10 per cent of the population to emigrate), and in Cambodia, the brutal, corrupt regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. Between the mid-seventies and mid-eighties, almost 13,000 Cambodians arrived in Australia under the Refugee and Special Humanitarian Program, along with about 7000 Laotians. In the late 1980s, more Cambodians and Laotians came here as sponsored relatives of those who had arrived earlier.

The great majority of these Cambodian and Lao immigrants settled in Melbourne and Sydney, where most of the migrant facilities were based. The most recent Census indicates that Melbourne has the largest Cambodian population in Australia, numbering 13,587 in 2016 (or 41 per cent of Cambodians in Australia). Victoria is home to the second largest Lao-Australian community (2,224 in the 2016 Census, or 21 per cent), with the great majority of Lao immigrants to Australia settling in New South Wales.

Melbourne’s Cambodian and Lao Catholic communities

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ has been ministering to the Cambodian Catholic community in Melbourne for 37 years as their Chaplain, and has been serving the Lao community for about 15 years, always seeking to be ‘a help to the community in their desire to meet and celebrate’. During the early waves of immigration, he began by visiting newly arrived Cambodian Catholics in the immigration centres. ‘I helped bring them to the community Masses and enabled them to meet Australians there who could help them in their settlement questions,’ he says.

Cambodia and Laos are majority Buddhist countries, and Catholics form only a small minority of those who have emigrated to Australia. In 2016, there were 734 Cambodian-born Catholics in Australia and 472 from Laos, so the Melbourne-based communities are not large. ‘Initially the Cambodian community was larger—perhaps up to sixty,’ Fr Andrew says. ‘But [many] had become Catholic only in the camps, and as they settled, they drifted away from faith.’ He says this Cambodian community no longer meets, but that many Cambodian Catholics have instead settled into local parishes across Melbourne.

By contrast, the Lao Catholic community, while smaller, ‘was strongly Catholic in Laos for a long time, and has been cohesive,’ according to Fr Andrew. ‘At Christmas about 50 people gather. At monthly Masses about 20.’ Often traditional dances and thanksgiving ceremonies will be incorporated at the end of the liturgies when they gather.

‘Both have really been house churches, with the community making decisions and exercising leadership,’ Father Andrew says of the two communities. He feels their greatest contribution to the Church in Melbourne has been a simple and profound hospitality.

They have welcomed guests and modelled what a small Catholic community can be.

This practice and deep appreciation of hospitality in the life of faith has been reinforced by the experiences of generosity and hospitality that many Cambodian and Lao refugees themselves experienced as they made a new home for themselves in an unfamiliar culture.

Maria’s story

Maria Vong arrived in Melbourne as a teenager in the mid-eighties. First, though, she and her younger sister made the perilous journey from Cambodia across the Thai border to the Khao I Dang refugee camp, where they were eventually reunited with the rest of their family. She remembers vividly her first night in the camp: the terror she felt as she climbed through the camp’s barbed-wire fence in the middle of the night and sprinted under floodlights to a bamboo hut on the edge of the camp; the kindness of those who welcomed her into the hut and found her fresh clothes and a bed; the relief she felt the next day when she was able to register with the UN as a refugee.

Through the sponsorship of her maternal aunt, Maria’s whole family—her parents and seven children—eventually settled in Melbourne, living first at the Midway Migrant Hostel in Maribyrnong before moving to a parish house in Glenroy, and then eventually to Nunawading.

Maria says the challenges her family faced were ‘the same as for other refugees: language, food, weather, culture, and the way we live in Australia. But I had no problem adjusting with the support from the Catholic community and some good Australian friends.’ Some of these supporters, including many within the Jesuit community, remain Maria’s close friends to this day. ‘The Jesuit community were our family’, Maria says. ’On my twenty-first birthday, all my friends were priests and brothers!’

Eventually a small Catholic Cambodian community formed, gathering for a monthly Mass and for a meal afterwards.

We welcomed friends, both Australians and Cambodians, to celebrate the Cambodian Mass and to share our food ... When Cambodian people cook, we don’t bring a plate, you know; we make a big pot.

Just as important as the food, though, was the conversation that went along with it: ‘We talked about our families, our interests, our culture and of course how we got here,’ Maria says.

She feels very blessed that her family were all able to leave Cambodia safely and settle in Australia together, pointing out that they didn’t experience the kind of discrimination or hostility that some refugees experience today. ‘I feel for them. It must be hard,’ she says. ‘We were the lucky ones.’