Australia

How a child refugee became Australia’s first Vietnamese-born police officer

For Detective Sergeant Luc Thai Nguyen, Refugee Week is a poignant reminder of how different his life might have been.
He says he had a happy childhood in Vietnam, sharing memories of a peaceful life with his large family in Tuy Hoa (now called the City of Tuy Hoa). But everything changed during the Vietnam War.
In 1980, his parents, who had previously been financially comfortable, could barely afford to feed their large family and were concerned for their safety. They could not take their whole family out of the country so made the decision to send one child away in search of a better life.

They selected Luc.

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With just a few hours’ notice, and aged only 14, Luc boarded a boat and travelled across rough seas for seven days before being rescued by a Norwegian oil carrier, and later taken to a refugee camp in Singapore.

“I think my dad selected me because he thought I would be most likely to survive,” he says.

Luc Thai Nguyen as a teenager, standing next to a friend

Luc Thai Nguyen left Vietnam when he was 14. Source: Supplied

“Our journey on the boat was very very tough … I thought we weren’t going to survive; it was a tiny boat with about 46 people.”

At the time, he says, he could have settled in Norway as a refugee but opted to go to Australia due to the warmer climate and closer proximity to Vietnam. He did not speak any English but says he learned with the help of friendly locals, and through watching SBS programs with subtitles.

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“I never knew the word [refugee] or became familiar with it until weeks and years later,” he says.

“People in Australia were very friendly, very helpful. They gave me a lot; a better life here, an education, and now I’ve got a government job, a secure job.”

Following in his father’s footsteps

Luc joined the NSW Police Force 34 years ago and is now a detective sergeant attached to the State Crime Command’s Compliance and Special Projects team.
He decided to sign-up in honour of his father, who served as a police officer in Vietnam before the war ended in 1975.

Luc became the first Vietnamese-born police officer to serve anywhere in Australia.

Two young police officers stand side by side in uniform, with Luc on the right.

Luc joined the NSW Police Force in honour of his father, who was a police officer in Vietnam. Source: Supplied

When he was in the academy, he was one of only three people of Asian descent in his cohort.

While he says some members of the public were surprised to meet Asian officers, he never felt targeted by racism and was well-supported by classmates and teachers.
“Entering into the police academy … was a new life, everything was new to me.”
“But I tried my best, I tried everything, my classmates helped me out and we are still friends today.”

At his attestation parade, he was the only officer without family or friends in attendance. Now, he travels to ceremonies to welcome other officers of Vietnamese background to the force and provides support across both professional and social matters.

“When (new officers) see me in uniform with the rank of detective sergeant, it surprises them, because they’ve never seen an Asian person hold that rank … we stay in touch and even if they bump into me on the street they say thank you to this day,” he says.

“I am a proud refugee and a proud Australian and equally proud of my Vietnamese heritage and that’s why I will continue to reach out whenever I can to my fellow Vietnamese recruits to give them a hand and advice.”

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In addition to mentoring Vietnamese Australian recruits, Luc has also organised official police study tours to Vietnam and other southeast Asian countries and assisted senior police officers from those countries on official visits to Australia to share their policing skills, culture, and customs.

He has also managed to reunite with his family and hometown community and has visited several times over the years.

Group of police officers and students at the Vietnamese Police University in Ho Chi Minh City.

Luc Nguyen (front right) at the Vietnamese Police University in Ho Chi Minh City. Source: Supplied / NSW Police

Reflecting on Refugee Week, Luc says it is a reminder that he was the “lucky one” in his family.

“My journey … has been relatively fortunate.”
“At the end of the day, the word ‘refugee’ to me means wanting to find a better place, a better life.”
“I always tried to help out and reach out to any other refugee, because … that’s how I used to be, and other Australians [helped] me out, so I want to return that whatever I can.”
Refugee Week is held from 19 to 25 June.
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