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Lumen Summer 2005 Issue
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New land, new life, new passion

Taking a snapshot of the life of Tam Van Doan and Thanh-Tam Pham reveals a remarkable picture.

The University of Adelaide medical graduates are refugees from Vietnam, General Practitioners, budding photographers, and husband and wife.

Born and raised in Vietnam, they met and married while studying medicine at Saigon University in the 1970s. They graduated in 1979 and spent as long as they could under the Communist regime before making the life-changing - and endangering - decision to leave Vietnam.

"After we got married and finished our studies, we wanted to stay in Vietnam and help our country rebuild after the war," Dr Tam Doan says.

"But after a while it became obvious to us that our philosophies on life weren't compatible with those running the country, and we made the decision to escape.

"My brothers and I organised for us to escape - it took a lot of planning over a long time, about a year, for it to occur. But the whole time, we knew we were doing the right thing for us and it was worth taking the risk."

On March 26, 1981, Tam, Thanh-Tam and their six-month-old son Hieu left Vietnam in a boat with 66 other people and headed across the South China Sea for Malaysia. The journey took seven days, and was perilous from beginning to end.

"We were escaping from Vietnam illegally, so if we had been discovered by Vietnamese authorities in Vietnamese waters, we would have been in a lot of trouble," Dr Thanh-Tam Pham says.

"When we were very close to Malaysian waters, we were intercepted by some Thai pirates - it was frightening as we could see Malaysian islands in the distance and we were so close to our goal.

"Luckily, they just wanted our possessions so we gave them all we had and they let us go."

The family stayed in a Malaysian refugee camp and then in June 1981 came to Renmark in South Australia's Riverland. There, along with other refugees, they were looked after and supported by Father Philip Carter of the Anglican Church and his wife Helen, who is also a University of Adelaide medical graduate.

The Carters also helped with the Doans' subsequent move to Adelaide, where both Tam and Thanh-Tam enrolled into the University's medical school in order to obtain qualifications which would be recognised by the Australian health system.

Again, this was far from easy, with another two children born while they were both studying and being far away from family and support networks in Vietnam.

"It was hard work, bringing up three small children and both of us studying," Dr Tam Doan says. "But we were so happy to be in Australia, and to have another chance, that we were determined to make it work, and so we managed!"

For the last fifteen years, the couple have operated their own GP clinic on Hanson Road, Woodville North (opposite the Arndale shopping centre), in the heart of Adelaide's Vietnamese community.

It has allowed them to make a positive impact on the lives of many Vietnamese-Australians, particularly new arrivals to Australia who have little English and who are grateful to received medical advice in their first language.

More recently, the couple have begun specialising in an entirely different field: landscape photography.

It's a passion which has seen them set up their own photography business, Iris Photography, put on four exhibitions (including one at the Barr Smith Library) and often drive thousands of kilometres in a weekend to take photos.

"We just love it," Dr Thanh-Tam Pham says. "We've only started getting serious about it in the last couple of years. We see patients on a Saturday morning and once we've seen the last one for the day, we hop in the car, drive to where we're going and take photographs for the rest of the weekend!"

It's a life scarcely imaginable to them in the 1970s, when they were caught up in the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

"I can't begin to tell you what it felt like even just to get on the Qantas plane to come to Australia," Dr Tam Doan says. "I sat back in my chair on the plane and said to my wife, 'we are breathing free air now'!"

"I think sometimes people who have lived in Australia all their lives don't realise how lucky they are, that there are many people around the world who will never experience the freedom that is easy for Australians to take for granted.

"My family is very lucky to be in Australia and we have always been determined to make the most of it." ■

Story Ben Osborne


Photo entitled Earth Spirit, photograped by Tam Van Doan.

Photo entitled Earth Spirit, photograped by Tam Van Doan.
Full Image (49.68K)

Thanh-Tam Pham and Tam Van Doan.

Thanh-Tam Pham and Tam Van Doan.
Full Image (54.69K)

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