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15 August 2014


Photograph by Andy Rasheed

I was born in Saigon [now Ho Chi Minh City] and came to Australia in 1975, on a plane with ‘Operation Babylift’. I lived in an orphanage for two years – there were children from all different cultures there, not just refugees.

As a kid I had two sets of foster parents: first a young couple, but after six months they split up and I went back to the orphanage. About a year later, I moved in with an American couple, who had two kids of their own.

Soon after, my foster father passed away and Mum decided we would be better off with her parents in America. I spent the next 10 years travelling all over the place, living in Tennessee, California, Texas, New York… I also spent some time in Africa and England.

In 1984 we moved back to Australia – to a country town in Victoria called Bairnsdale. I went to boarding school for a few years in Melbourne, and had my first taste of volunteering when I joined the school’s mounted cadets and learned to ride horses and care for them. I came back home to Bairnsdale, where I moved out at 16 and finished school on my own.

Then I did courses in hospitality, retail, arc welding and first aid – there were a lot of opportunities going at the time. At 17 I moved to Melbourne, where I spent a few years living on the street or in boarding houses. I stayed in a hostel with the Salvos and began volunteering, feeding the homeless.

I wanted to travel and I lived in Queensland, Adelaide and Perth. Eventually I settled in Adelaide, where I met Julie in 1996. We finally got married in 2005 and have six kids, aged five to 16.

In Vietnamese culture we have respect first for others and then ourselves, so I spent a lot of my life volunteering in all the places I’ve lived, including at Moore St [Homeless Centre] in Adelaide for a good 13 years now. I worked hard as a cleaner for five years, at first in government offices, schools and police stations and then for big events like the Clipsal 500 and Formula 1 [motor-racing] and the Australian Open [golf]. I’m not doing it anymore: I have polio in my right leg and they see me as too much of a risk to employ.

I knew lots of vendors through my previous work and volunteering jobs, and a few months ago I got my arm twisted – they said I’d do well as they saw how hard I work at other things. It was one of the best choices I have made.

Not only do I get time away from the hectic life at home (six children, a dog, two cats and 12 pet rats!), I get to meet lots of nice and different people. I work long hours every day, and really like where I sell outside the Artisan cafe – they’re fantastic there and give me great support.

You can never take one day for granted. I’d really like to get back into the workforce – cleaning, hopefully, or in hospitality. It’s really important that my kids see me working, to see that there are opportunities out there for them.


Interview by The Big Issue
Garfield sells The Big Issue in Rundle Street, Adelaide.