Refugees, Museums and the Digital Diaspora
Two weeks after submitting her PhD on oral histories about Vietnamese refugee childhood and the digital diaspora, Anh Nguyen was invited to present a public lecture at Melbourne Museum. As a volunteer researcher at the Museum, she worked with curator Moya McFadzean on a collection of crochet works by Man Man, a detainee on Manus Island. In this adapted version of her lecture (also available as a video via the Museums Victoria YouTube channel), Anh reflects on how social media have facilitated chains of connections and friendships that have been contributing to the evolution of refugee and migration history.
Over the past few decades, we have seen important changes in how the history of refugees and migration has been framed and narrated in Australia and elsewhere. My PhD project examined these changes, tracing the shift from representations of Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s through to self-representation. Most recently, the advent of social media has brought new possibilities for creating and sharing histories, memories, identities, and diasporic communities, both on and offline; for contributing to and reshaping museum collections; and for building relationships and showing solidarity with refugees and asylum seekers in detention today. In this article, we’ll explore some individual cases of this kind.
The 1970s–1980s: Refugee History through the Eyes of Immigration Officials and Aid Workers
As a starting point, I want to share with you some stories about Vietnamese refugees from the 1970s – a period in Australian immigration history when support for refugee programs had both bipartisan and public support.
In this period, it was aid workers and immigration officials who provided the main sources used by the Museum to document this history. The image below, of refugee boys in Thailand, is part of a collection of photographs taken by Jennie Roberts, who was posted as a Senior Migration Officer to Bangkok from 1987 to 1989. At that time, Australia had an extensive program for Southeast Asian refugee and humanitarian entrants, primarily from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and these pictures were the only evidence of life there.
As the Museums Victoria website tells us:
This important and rare collection of photographs and craft represents two sides of the asylum experience – the refugees and the government officials. These parallel and intersecting experiences have both personal and bureaucratic elements to them, linked by place, and world events, with craft and a gift of appreciation providing tangible points of connection and memory.
This article explores the subsequent evolution of these connections across time and place, including on the internet, from representations produced by officials and aid workers through to self-representations by refugees, internees and detainees, in stories and in craft.
The 1990s and Beyond: From Representation to Self-Representation
First, let’s look at the significant role that art has played in the Museum’s immigration collection.
In 1992 the Immigration Museum started to showcase the connection between art and immigration history through its Immigration & Artistic Practice Collection. The collection comprises more than 140 artworks and 27 oral histories, as well as other materials related to immigrant artists from many different countries of origin.
Artistic practice also provides a tangible connection between two very different human experiences of dealing with the trauma and the tedium of life in refugee camps in the 1970s and 1980s, and in detention centres today. Consider the handmade wooden model fishing boat (image below), made in a Malaysian refugee camp in the 1980s, and the crochet works by Man Man (story further below), who was detained on Manus Island.
The wooden boat was made by Vietnamese refugee Tran van Hoang while waiting to be processed in Pulau Bidong Refugee Camp in Malaysia in 1981.
Bidong was opened as a refugee camp in August 1978 and by June 1979 there were about 40,000 Indo-Chinese refugees on an island said to have capacity for about 4,500 people. Conditions on the island were crowded, with poor sanitation and housing, but the refugee population themselves were well organised, aid organisations were well-represented and representatives from re-settlement countries frequently visited. (Museums Victoria)
Manual activity was prolific in the camps, the main objective being to make items (often from recycled materials) needed by the camp residents. Another motivation was to try to earn some money from the sale of the items, to other refugees, or to workers in the camps. Some of the camps had a small ‘gift shop’ where staff, visiting officials, or interview teams could purchase items.
Australian immigration official Lachlan Kennedy had wanted to purchase one of these model boats as a souvenir, and Tran van Hoang had gifted it to him, but Lachlan declined the gift when he learned that Tran was on his case list. Tran’s application was rejected, since he had tuberculosis at the time; later, he received treatment at the camp and was finally accepted into Australia. Lachlan eventually recovered the boat and brought it to Australia – before Tran himself (still undergoing treatment in the camp) was permitted to enter the country. You can read more about Tran’s story on the Museum website.
Lachlan donated the boat and his photographs to the Museum and it is through his representations that we get an initial view of life in the refugee camps. We have, for example, his description of the camps:
The refugees on Pulau Bidong at this time lived in wooden-framed shanty houses covered in plastic. They were breezy, which was lucky, because there was no power for fans. Their houses were not rat proof. But Pulau Bidong had a library, hospital, market stalls, and two wonderful open-air cafes on the beach.
In the 1990s, the only representations of this history held in the Museum collection were produced by aid workers. Today we also have my research, which includes oral history interviews with another Vietnamese refugee, Nam Huynh.
Nam Huynh’s Story
Nam Huynh was an unaccompanied minor in the Pulau Bidong refugee camp in the late 1980s, before arriving in Australia at the age of thirteen. Today he is an architect and director of 3 Corners, an innovative practice based in Footscray. He is also an administrator of one of the largest, and still-growing, Facebook communities of former Vietnamese refugees in the global diaspora, the Pulau Bidong Alumni Facebook community, and organises offline refugee reunions in Melbourne.
Nam and I have a shared history as child refugees. We met through a chain of connections, beginning with my fellow PhD researcher Melissa Afentoulis, whose Vietnamese daughter-in-law, Tanya, who is Nam’s niece, introduced me to him. He’s now a friend of mine in real time and has been a major contributor to my PhD research. We’ve also worked together on a new project, designing a game and using game design to teach others about the choices and experiences of Vietnamese refugee children.
In his interviews, Nam shares his memories of migration. Nam and his cousin made seven attempts at escape. He describes the mixture of fear and excitement they experienced, as well as the texture of day-to-day life in the refugee camp. His oral history presents a unique voice, conveying a child’s perspective on the experience of migration.
When I was thirteen, my parents just asked me, “Do you want to go?” To pay a fee for a spot on a boat was a lot of money for them. I’m the oldest child, and we could only afford to send one. I have three more siblings. At that time, I don’t know much. I’m only thirteen. I just said, “Yes,” took a risk, and jumped.
I nearly died. It is kind of funny, but when I was young, we would watch movies or stories of adventure. After [each attempt to escape], you kind of link yourself to the character, you kind of learn to survive, and you kind of like it.
I witnessed three people drown, we were put into prison, we were smuggled in trucks, we dodged search lights like we were in a James Bond movie.
We tried everything, including going on foot over landmines in Cambodia, and each time we were caught in Russian trucks or the boat engine died or the people smugglers didn’t have the right officer ranking; we just went back and tried again. There were Buddhist pirates that robbed us, and also gave us water at the last minute. It was an adventure.
We gained experience each time, and when they asked, do you want to go again? I just said yes; it’s very easy to say yes.
When I stayed in Bidong, I consider it part of my childhood memories. It was [a] big part of my life. In Australia, I was already a teenager. We made it to the camp in 1989 before it started to close in 1989, but people came up to 1996.
In [the] refugee camp, you’re carefree and you hang out with friends and at the beach each day and you’re thinking the future is so bright because we have so many choices.
It was the best time of my childhood at the camp. I had this teacher who used to be a homicide detective. He made us wake up at 6am and exercise on the beach, he taught us to trek through the jungles, how to swim, and how to survive living in the outdoors.
I had a type of family with the other unaccompanied minors in the children’s house. We each had a room and responsibilities like cooking, washing, then going to school to learn English, going to the beach, swimming, playing, or church. At the height there were 24,000 people on the island, and in the children’s house only a few hundred.
There was a lot of bonding with other refugee children. When you landed, for the first few days you’d learn everyone else’s story. There was one kid, I still remember his name. He went with his dad and when the boat overturned, it killed his dad. That’s why he was with us. He was nine or ten years old then. He got to France very quickly, within a month or so.
There were many sad stories. We would cry when we received our first letter from home, or when a friend left for another country. It was sad, but I know that I’ll never be that sad again. After you’ve survived so much on the journey, you never fear being that sad again.
I still have a drawing of when I was in Pulau Bidong as a child. The title is in Vietnamese and translates as The view from Pulau Bidong looking out – Feb 22 1989.
We’re on Pulau Bidong looking at the other island. The island is a circular shape with one flat area for the refugee housing. We named that island Shark Island; it looked like a shark. That’s Zone F. People that arrived dead or died at the camp are buried there. We play there. There are ghost stories. You have a boat coming in, people or rocks and coconut trees that kill people when they drop 30/40 metres overhead. New boats arriving, one or two per day, they just land everywhere.
[This excerpt from a transcript of Nam Huynh has been lightly edited for readability.]
Man Man’s Story
By way of contrast, let’s fast-forward to the present, to recent and ongoing immigration history. Aung Saw Lim, nicknamed Man Man, a Burmese refugee from Myanmar who was detained in Australian offshore processing centres on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, and on Nauru. They were opened in 2001 as part of the Pacific Solution, which prevented refugees at sea from landing on the Australian mainland. Detention upon arrival is now an established experience for those arriving by boat. It has created a cultural identity – detainee or asylum seeker – within the scope and potential of becoming an immigrant to Australia.
Man Man created photographs, and craft objects as a way of coping with the trauma and tedium of life in detention. From 2010, he photographed and documented everyday life on Manus: views of his living quarters, the landscape and fauna of the island, the New Lorengau Camp and the West Lorengau transition centre.
Man Man also spent his time crocheting blankets, hats, sweaters, table centre pieces. Like Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, he used this act of self-care and feminist political action to help him to cope with the everyday grind of waiting on ‘the man’. In Man Man’s case, this meant waiting for the Australian immigration authorities to accept his application for asylum. Eventually, after four and a half years on Manus Island, Man Man was accepted for asylum in the United States in January 2018, as part of the intake of refugees from Manus negotiated between the Australian and United States governments.
These objects reflect the evolution of immigration policies and processes in Australia’s migration history. Both the photographs and the crochet works are now part of the Museum’s collection and can be seen in the Collections Online site. Like the Vietnamese wooden boat, these crochet works have arrived in Australia, while Man Man, the asylum seeker, has not.
Connecting Online: Man Man and Jill’s Story
These objects came to the Museum through a friendship that developed on Facebook between Man Man and Jill Parris, an activist with Aireys Inlet Rural Australians for Refugees (AIRAR). Jill became friends with Man Man via Facebook in 2014. She didn’t set out to make this connection as a political act – she just really liked his photography. Jill is an amateur landscape photographer, and her attention was caught by the landscapes and images of everyday life that Man Man uploaded via social media. It is this friendship that has brought Man Man’s work to the collection in Melbourne Museum.
Jill helped to arrange for Man Man’s crochet works to be brought to Melbourne. They also co-authored two books – Man Man: Making Meaning on Manus (2017) and Forty-Five Days (2018) – containing Man Man’s photographs, and Jill and Man Man’s correspondence. Copies were sold through AIRAR, to raise money for Man Man’s airfare to the United States and his startup costs as a refugee there.
Jill and Man Man’s friendship offers a useful starting point for exploring the change in immigration history from boat people in refugee camps to detention. Jill also spoke to me a little about their relationship.
Jill, would you tell us about how you became friends?
I became aware of Man through his lovely sunsets and began to try capturing similar light and movement. We spoke little but would share a picture or two at the end of most days.
Did Man Man confide in you about what life was like in detention?
I never asked him any personal questions and he seldom spoke about his life on Manus, except to say that he chose not to focus on life in detention. Having said this, he did speak a little about how he spent his time, and very occasionally he would speak of life being very scary, particularly during the time he joined others in refusing to move to the new accommodation on Manus.
How did you mostly communicate, and how do you communicate now?
We communicated via Messenger or by sharing pictures on Facebook. We would wish each other a good night’s rest most nights. Once Man knew he was going to America, I decided to make a book of his photos and sell them to raise some money to help him settle in the USA. In writing the book, I began asking more questions about his two hobbies, skating and crocheting. He also began to talk about a friend he was worried about and asked if I could do anything to help him get into the States.
We still say goodnight to each over Messenger several times a week. He shares many ups and downs with me nowadays. He has been in the USA for about 14 months.
What transpired to have you bring Man Man’s crochet work to be included in the Museum collection?
One of the questions I asked Man was what he would like to do one day in the USA and he said [he’d like to] start a shop selling his crocheting. I asked him to put a display together in his Manus room and send me a picture to put in his book. He did this, and it started a conversation on his crocheting as a way of forgetting his surroundings. Man was very pleased that his stay on Manus was being documented. He felt this was important and asked me to find a way to get a crocheted blanket back to Australia from Manus and have it placed in the Museum – hence my contact with Michael [Green – see story below].
Would you tell us a little about why Man Man wanted his work to be part of the museum collection?
Man felt very strongly that it was important for what had happened on Manus to be documented for all Australians to see and acknowledge. He felt that by contributing to a collection in the Museum his existence would be recognised and his years in detention would have some meaning.
What are your own thoughts on museums and refugee stories?
I believe it is very important to hold on to the history of Manus because what has happened in the offshore and onshore detention centres defines who we are as a nation. We should not forget the horrors perpetrated in our name.
How is Man Man these days?
He is settling well in Atlanta and he wants to move to Boston. He has been offered a job there by his boss, but he is still waiting on his green card before transferring. He works in the Hilton Hotel where he is the receptionist manager of the massage and spa area. They love him because he is so friendly and open to people. He is also artistic, so he arranges flowers beautifully and his presentation of the place is appreciated. He is still having nightmares at times. He still finding it very hard to trust anybody.
He still remains in contact with his Australian friends and advocates through Facebook.
This friendship between an advocate and an asylum seeker in detention would not have been possible without social media.
Building Community and Making History in the Digital Diaspora
Social media also make friendships between refugees, aid workers and past refugee camp inhabitants possible. For example, Vietnamese refugees who were in the camps together have found each other through Facebook and formed online communities based on the boats they were rescued on or the refugee camps of which they were a part.
Nam Huynh is an administrator of one of these Facebook communities.
Nam, could you tell us about the history of how these communities started, and how you became involved in these online and real-time connections?
Some of stories I heard at the camp were just horrible. There are so many stories. You naturally share. If I never did this [made this journey as a refugee], I would not have met these people from different parts of Vietnam, and you learn about them and their story. I got reconnected with a lot of people [from the camp] on Facebook.
When we each left the [refugee] camp, we thought we’d never see each other again. Before Facebook, unless you know friend of a friend you couldn’t find or connect with others. When we get here to Australia, there were letters. Then we upgraded to emails. I wrote letters home to Vietnam, and I have letters in the camp, but nothing [is] like Facebook.
I volunteer and increased the members from 250, now it has grown to nearly 7,000 members. I visit friends from the group when I travel to America or Hawaii. The group from the children’s house are very close. We just had a reunion for Pulau Bidongers last March in Melbourne. I helped to organise that. There’s food, storytelling, dancing, lots of picture taking and posts on Facebook.
My research about these online communities shows how Facebook allows for a self-curated history. Here are some examples of how individuals from all over the digital diaspora have been able to share their stories and memories of migration and the continuation of life since.
Tin Nguyen writes about finding the Facebook community and asking about any others who were on the same boat on which he was rescued in 1979:
Stumbled across this group when searching for the location of Hawkins Rd Camp on the internet. Seeing my childhood memories wiped out by the jungle is a very emotional experience for me. I was a little boy when my family and more than 130 other people were rescued by the Norwegian LPG tanker MV Berge Sisu after 10 days at sea in May 1979. At that time, Hawkins Road was a beautiful neighbourhood. It was an open refugee camp where we were allowed to go wherever we wanted. Now everything is gone … Thank you for creating this group. Hopefully other people from Berge Sisu are here as well.
Former humanitarian aid workers and Vietnam War veterans also contribute to the history of refugees, sometimes in the form of friendships and reunions offline. For example, one of the posts on the Facebook group shows a reunion in Vietnam while Chau Nguyen, a child refugee, was on vacation and organised a reunion to meet up with Mr. Tran, a volunteer aid worker in the children’s house at the Pulau Bidong camp.
In a 2015 post on Facebook, Chau wrote:
27 years later, without contact since leaving Singapore camp, we [Chau and his partner] & Mr Tan met again in Saigon. Who would have thought? Saigon was the last place we expected to see Mr Tan. It was nice to see you again in person Mr Tan. The same humbled person as before. Conversations were flowing. We trade stories and filled in the gap.
Refugee reunions and moments of recognition on Facebook validate the experience of Vietnamese refugees and affirm their survival in history. The community online also provides connection and reconnection for seeking to know what happened to the Vietnamese refugees they encountered. For example, Hugh Gemmel posted: “Looking for this girl from the film footage, Please pass on, I would like to give her this collection of Pics & film footage. It’s part her history as well as mine.”
Refugees also represent themselves in collecting work about the community of refugees in the past and present.
For example, Tin Nguyen posted a video on the “Vietnamese Boat People Refugee Camp” Facebook page about the trip he and his daughter made back to Pulau Bidong, the former refugee camp where he had lived.
People also use social media to share video footage of boat rescues and pictures of their life as refugees that are not part of museum collections. These historical artefacts are unique in that they represent a place that now exists online in the form of life stories and in real time connections.
Social media also enable commemorative and memorial practices. Communities memorialise teachers and aid workers who have died, as well as marking special anniversaries and returns to camps. And they express their concern for refugees today through community activism. Thus, Vietnamese refugees have created a self- and community-curated collection of their own experiences and histories. In the growing digital diaspora, they collect, preserve, and share pictures, experiences, and stories that would otherwise go untold.
Sharing Stories Online: Michael Green and Abdul Aziz Muhamat
Another key figure in the chain of connections that brought Man Man’s story into the museum collection is Michael Green, journalist, writer, and producer of the Walkley Award winning podcast The Messenger about Abdul Aziz Muhamat, a Sudanese man in immigration detention on Manus Island. Michael and Abdul’s friendship is another connection that was made possible by social media and internet communication technologies (ITCs). Michael and Aziz shared thousands of voicemail and text messages via WhatsApp, enabling them to tell more stories that would otherwise be lost.
Michael Green’s other works include They Cannot Take the Sky: Stories from Detention (2017; co-edited with André Dao and others) and the Behind the Wire exhibition at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum. He has also worked on two Walkley-shortlisted projects for SBS about the Rohingya community in Melbourne and the refugee mega-camp in Bangladesh; an illustrated online feature for SBS; and a documentary delivered via Instagram, She Called Me Red. I spoke to Michael about his work and friendship with Aziz.
Michael, would you give us a bit of background about how your friendship began and how you two decided to get Aziz story out to the world?
Back in early 2016, when I first spoke to Abdul Aziz Muhamat, I’d already been working on stories about immigration detention for two years, for a related project – a book called They Cannot Take the Sky. Some contacts suggested I get in touch with Aziz on Manus Island. At the time, mobile phones were banned and not much information was getting out. Aziz got hold of a smuggled phone, but he could only use it secretly in his room. We exchanged streams of voice messages almost every day for months before we knew what we’d do with all the recordings. And it was months more before I was able to visit and meet him in person.
One major dilemma was balancing potential risks for Aziz – for his personal safety and his chance of resettlement, for example – against his desire to speak out. I really wanted to be sure that he was making an informed decision.
Then there was the huge challenge of putting it all together. We had a dedicated and talented team of writers and sound editors – André Dao, Hannah Reich and Bec Fary from Behind the Wire and Jon Tjhia and Sophie Black from the Wheeler Centre. Plus great logistical support from the Wheeler Centre, and extra fact-checking from Ben Doherty from the Guardian. It takes a village, and a heck of a long time, to make a long-form narrative podcast.
What impact did the story have?
In February this year Aziz won the Martin Ennals Award, a major international prize for human rights defenders. He was flown to Switzerland for the ceremony and just a week ago he found out that he’s been given asylum and permanent residency in Switzerland. It was a very weird thing! I was there to record and witness it all, this strange journey out of detention, and you should hear some radio stories about that time soon.
In the time since we began working on The Messenger, and the situation has lurched from crisis to crisis, he’s become increasingly outspoken in all sorts of media. Our podcast is just one part of a crucial body of journalism about Australia’s offshore detention system, but there is something immediate and different about the way listeners get to know Aziz, through his voice and over such a period of time. Many people have contacted him directly after following the show.
You won a Walkley Award for Radio/Audio Feature in 2017 for this work. What has been the best and most challenging aspect of this work?
When we first spoke, Aziz said he wanted to be able to speak out on behalf of the other men detained on Manus Island. The award was a powerful acknowledgement that he’d done just that. The whole relationship and work of making stories with Aziz has consumed me for the years since we first got in touch. I’ve done other things in those years too – lots of other projects with Aziz and other men in detention, as well as other work too – but it’s a special sort of thing, to speak to someone for so long and to be entrusted like that. It’s been a heavy thing, but also just really deep emotionally. I feel like really communicating and connecting with other humans is a large part of what it means to be human. So it has been a very powerful experience for me, personally. I speak to him any day and any time of day, so it was an unbelievable relief to find out he was free.
How is Aziz these days?
As I mentioned earlier, he’s finally free. It’s quite extraordinary. He’s still completely committed to campaigning for the people he left behind, and who remain on Manus and Nauru, so he’s having a lot of meetings with people and organisations and diplomats in the international community. Now, since he found out he has permanent residency, he can finally begin to think about the future. When I spoke to him just after he got the good news, he said he felt like a huge burden vanished immediately, all that uncertainty just disappeared.
Incidentally, it was Michael Green who physically brought Man Man’s crochet works to Melbourne. Jill Parris heard through the activist grapevine that Michael was planning a visit to Manus Island; she contacted him via Facebook, and this resulted in Michael and Man Man meeting in person on the island.
Back in the late 1970s and ’80s, it was unimaginable that Vietnamese boat refugees would survive and then find one another again decades after leaving the camps. Today, they share memories, everyday historical photographs, and real-time reunions with other refugees, aid works, and other veterans linked to the refugee camps and rescue boats. They have built a self-historicising and community-based living archive on Facebook. They are making their own history.
Contemporary life and digital technologies open up new inquiries about the representation of refugees in museums and through shared stories. Man Man, Nam, Jill, Michael and Aziz’s stories all expand and extend the history of Vietnamese migration in Australia to the global and digital diaspora, through to the situation of asylum seekers in detention today. Juxtaposing these stories also highlights the stark contrast between the refugee camps of the 1970s–‘80s and the detention centres today. For Nam, the refugee camp was a playground where he learned trekking and survival skills. Nam stated, “When I stayed in Bidong, I consider it one of the best parts of my childhood”. It is unlikely now that any child or adult asylum seeker in offshore detention will recall ‘childhood’ or time in detention in this way.
The call to action as a refugee researcher has brought me to my volunteer work building a culture of philanthropy supporting the operation costs of Thrive, a social enterprise that gives refugees business loans from Westpac, and mentors from the Australian business community. Thrive was co-founded by Huy Truong, one of the first Vietnamese Australian refugees I interviewed while on a Frederick Sheldon fellowship from Harvard University. Through the PhD program at SHAPS, I was able to come full circle in completing work based on my initial inquiries about Vietnamese refugees in Australia.
While it feels like a never-ending struggle to survive, thrive, and find peace with oneself with refugee history, it has been a privilege and gift to listen and share stories as a refugee researcher, participant and witness through oral history. I would like to thank Jill, Man Man, Michael and Nam for their collaboration, friendship and openness. Their stories call upon us to be more connected to the stories and lives of others and may also inspire us to activism to ensure the continuation of refugee lives and stories beyond the online world.
This project was carried out as part of the ARC Kathleen Fitzpatrick Laureate Fellowship on the History of Child Refugees.
Feature image: Group of Vietnamese Boys, Site 2 Refugee Camp, Thailand, May 1987 (detail). Photographer: Jennie Roberts. Museums Victoria, MM 129343