From Vietnam to Australia, a refugee doctor’s journey

Dec 9, 2023
A man with a shoes and backpack is standing on asphalt next to flag of Australia and border

On 23 November, a boatload of asylum seekers was dispatched to Nauru for offshore detention. They were found wandering the coast of Western Australia by Aboriginal people, three days earlier. This has been Australian policy for unauthorised boat arrivals since 2013; 10 arrivals in the past year. But there was a time when asylum seekers were welcome.

Such is the story of Vietnamese refugee doctor, Sang Phan, his wife Kim Chau, and their children Thanh, Lan Huong, and Tri. Of escape from Vietnam and the perils of an ocean journey in a small boat. A journey of apprehension and uncertainty – including a baby delivered by Sang Phan in the vast Indian ocean – to Indonesia, Malaysia, and finally to Brisbane, and then, Sydney.

Malcolm Fraser was Prime Minister, John Menadue was Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs and Ian Macphee the Minister. John Menadue says of his involvement in the humanitarian and nation building program of that time, that it was the most meaningful period of his public life. He negotiated with the Vietnamese Government the orderly departure of refugees from Vietnam which avoided risky boat journeys. 100,000 Indo-Chinese refugees came directly to Australia and with family reunion, and negotiations with the Vietnamese Government, about 250,000 in all came to our country.

John Menadue says, “That broke the back of White Australia. If only we could be generous again to refugees.”

Sang Phan, after years of working as an interpreter, learning English, and failed attempts for admission to a medical course in Queensland, moved the family from the Wacol refugee centre to Sydney so that Sang could enrol in the medical course at UNSW.

For refugee doctors, it was possible to sit the Australian Medical Council examination, usually after completing a refresher course. Sang Phan could have taken that path, but he chose to go back to medical school with students a generation younger, in a foreign language, and in a culture very different from his native Vietnam. It was a brave decision. He believed he needed to understand the practice and ethics of Australian medicine from the very beginning, from the bottom-up.

All the Phan family became students, studying into late nights, supporting each other as they attempted to gain a foothold in this country. The children, Thanh, Lan Huong and Tri, mastered English, and succeeded, despite the barriers, in being accepted into top Sydney high schools – Sydney Boys and Girls High Schools – and there to excel, reaching the top rank in their classes. Tri Phan becoming Dux of Sydney Boys High School.

Sang Phan graduated from the UNSW in 1989 at 57 years of age. His second graduation, the first from the Saigon Medical School 23 years earlier. Six other refugee doctors graduated in that class of 1989. That the university admitted refugee doctors from Vietnam has meant the large Vietnamese community in southwest Sydney has been well-served by doctors who understand their culture, health needs and beliefs.

My first meeting with Sang Phan was after he had failed a clinical examination. Sang was re-assessed by the professors of medicine and surgery, and I was the invigilator. He was nervous, but it was clear, that although he approached clinical examination differently from our usual undergraduates, he was a well-experienced clinician who had examined hundreds of patients during his career. After all he had practised obstetrics and gynaecology in Vietnam, delivered babies, and done Cesarean section operations – more experience than his examiners!

The real hero is Sang’s wife, Kim Chau. The family’s survival depended on her – in Vietnam and in Australia. Her selflessness has been expressed in so many ways, no more than giving up her profession as a well-trained pharmacist to work as a mail-sorter at Sydney’s massive Redfern mail-exchange.

Her son Tri Phan said, “Mum memorised the post codes of everywhere in Australia”.
For many years Sang Phan was a GP in Cabramatta.

He was appointed to Commonwealth Government advisory committees and set about publishing and promoting health to the communities of south-west Sydney. His public contributions included regular newsletters, broadcasts through SBS – to promote vaccination, quit smoking and public health. He developed a following among the Vietnamese diaspora in the US as well. His sons and daughter now carry forward this legacy with continuing contributions to medical research, teaching, and service.

This refugee family, like many other refugees, has enriched and advanced the welfare of Australia.

The full story “From Vietnam to Australia, Sang’s Memoir” can be obtained through

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