Melinda Ham’s Stories of Australian Refugee Journeys

Article | Issue: Feb 2024

Melinda Ham is an award-winning journalist and former foreign correspondent. Her book, The Lucky Ones, contains moving stories from refugees who have escaped persecution in their homelands to find safety in Australia.

Spanning 70 years, and tracking journeys from across the world, these stories offer a window into the complex history of Australian refugee experiences.

Prepare to be moved as we share five stories from this well-researched book.


The Early Years

Dolma and Jigme – Tibet

‘The army guards wanted to see if the questions made me tense my face. They wrote everything down. Some questions I couldn’t answer. They asked me about men, women and children I didn’t even know. When I didn’t know the answer, they just kept beating me. Sometimes the stick would break because they were beatingme so hard. I was covered in cuts and bruises.’

Then the guards grabbed Jigme and hung him from a wall by his thumbs. They used electric shocks on his legs and shoulder. He felt dizzy and started to hallucinate.

Then they beat him in front of Dolma, his wife. At one point they started hitting him on the head and Dolma screamed for them to stop or they would kill him. But still Jigme revealed nothing.

Sometime in the mid-1960s – neither knows the exact date – Jigme and Dolma were born in rural villages in Tibet. Maternal death and infant mortality were high but they both survived infancy. As they lived out their peaceful subsistence-farming childhoods in the green valleys bordered by the world’s tallest mountains, they knew little about their country’s seething in quiet hostility towards China. In the name of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese authorities began destroying monasteries, detaining academics, burning books and defacing cultural artefacts.

A decade and a half earlier, in 1951, after more than a thousand years of disputes, the newly formed Communist People’s Republic of China had forcibly annexed Tibet without the consent of the Tibetan citizens or the Dalai Lama, their political and spiritual leader. The Tibetans’ anger grew steadily, day by day, against this occupation.

Then on 10 March 1959, as rumours spread that the authorities planned toarrest the Dalai Lama, the anger frothed over into the street, turning into a tidalwave of more than 300,000 people around the Potala Palace in the capital, Lhasa.They wanted to protect His Holiness.

Over a period of two weeks, at the foot of the imposing red and white palace terraced into the cliffside, monks, nuns and thousands of women and men all chanted for their freedom, defiant against the Chinese occupation. The uprising grew in size and strength as protesters constructed barricades and fought pitched battles against the police and the army. But after 13 days of fighting, the Chinese authorities’ might prevailed and up to a million Tibetans out of an original population of six million disappeared – either fleeing the country or believed to be killed or detained. The Dalai Lama escaped to Dharamsala, in India, to form a government in exile.

Little of this chaos affected Dolma’s childhood, even though discontent continued to simmer in the hearts of many Tibetans. From the time she could walk, Dolma spent her days tending her family’s animals: the towering yaks, the gentle horse and sheep. She loved to pat the yaks’ thick fur while the chickens pecked the grain she tossed, and the cats curled up on her lap.

With her two sisters and widowed mother, she learned quickly to recognise weeds, pulling them out of the field of barley. Her mother would pound the harvested grain into the flour called tsampa that was the staple of their diet. Every morning, the family ate tsampa mixed with butter tea (tea made with buttery yak’s milk), so it became like a paste, a delicious, rich porridge filling Dolma’s stomach for a hard day on the farm.

‘My mother never stopped working, from morning until night. She always made sure that she fed us very well with milk and cheese from the cows, eggs from the chickens. She always said: “If my children have yummy, healthy food, then I am very rich”,’ Dolma says. Her mother never sold any of her produce as money had no value to her.

Longing for adventure but with a keen sense of family responsibility, at about 16 years old Dolma ran away to Lhasa and found menial labouring work, breaking stones for construction. After a few months she returned home, bringing with her new possessions for her family such as store-bought clothes and different food. Dolma stayed home for about a week, and all the while her mum wouldn’t let her out of her sight.

One night, when her mum had drifted off to sleep, Dolma ran away again toLhasa and this time she met Jigme – a teenage runaway like her – and they instantly fell in love.

‘When we first met, everyone thought we were brother and sister,’ Dolmasays. ‘We looked a lot like each other. We both had similar round faces and red cheeks. So we pretended we were. It was a good way to stay together. So I would say: “Yes, he’s my younger brother.” Then we would laugh and laugh.’

Jigme was the middle child of 13, although two siblings died in infancy. From a young age, his job was shepherding his family’s sheep in the Himalayan foothills. But Jigme also dreamed of excitement and one day he ran away at night, spending seven days hitchhiking on the backs of trucks and begging for food along the way until he reached Lhasa. Initially he couldn’t speak or understand the language as it was different from that spoken in his home district of Kham.

Neither Jigme nor Dolma had ever been to school and both were illiterate, but they were energetic and enthusiastic to try their hand at any business venture. Together, they bought items such as biscuits, sweets and carbonated drinks at a cheap price and then would resell them to farmers visiting the city, taking a bit of a markup. Dolma also sold Tibetan chang, homemade rice beer, and the couple lived together in a tent on the edge of Lhasa.

After about six months, Jigme and three friends from his home village planned a road trip to Mount Everest, close to the Nepali border. Mount Everest is highly significant in Tibetan Buddhist culture. Tibetans regard it as a sacred mountain with immense healing powers.

‘Every time you walk around it you pick up a stone to keep track of how many circuits you make,’ Jigme says. ‘We believe if you are deaf or blind, if you walk around 13 times you may be able to see or hear again. If you die after visiting the mountain, you won’t have a complicated death. You will always go on the right path. Only foreigners climb the mountain, while Tibetans only encircle its base.’ Initially, Dolma didn’t feel comfortable travelling with three rowdy young men. But her curiosity to see the mountain held in such high regard in her culture won out.

Her presence actually made hitchhiking easier. She’d stand at the side of the road and when a truck stopped the three boys would pop out from the bushes and jump in together in the back, while Dolma went in the cab. Sometimes they travelled in jeeps from the Chinese army, and another time a cement truck. Whenthe boys got out, Dolma couldn’t recognise them. They were all white, covered in cement – like flour. They blew clouds of dust on each other and laughed until they cried.

Their plan was to stay at Mount Everest from July until October, when the coldweather and heavy snow came, and the roads closed.

They had no money to pay for food and just begged for tea, dried meat or cheese. Begging is culturally acceptable in Tibet. One day, the teenagers woke up at 4am and walked up to Everest Base Camp just to see what it was like.

‘We had no special clothes or boots,’ Dolma says. ‘Just very flimsy, thin shoes and we got lots of blisters but we really wanted to see the mountain close up. I have no words to describe how beautiful it was.’ When October came, Dolma decided she wanted to visit her mother but Jigme wanted to stay at Mount Everest. So the couple parted temporarily, hoping they would meet up again soon.

‘I missed my mum. I wanted to see her face. I wanted to eat her delicious food. I was worried that when my mum died, I would never have another mum. If I lost Jigme, he was replaceable. I could always find another boyfriend.’




Lulu – Democratic Republic of the Congo


The Lucky Ones by Melissa HamThe moon hid behind a cloud when Tshilanda came knocking at Lulu’s door, bruised, bleeding and crying. Tshilanda was the dear friend Lulu had shared so much laughter with as they braided each other’s hair in school, traded treats in their lunches and wondered about boys. Now, at just 17, Tshilanda was married.

When Tshilanda’s husband began to beat her, she ran back to her parents. Because her mother and father had received a substantial dowry for her, they returned Tshilanda, against her will, to her husband the next day. So instead she ran to Lulu’s house.

‘I was so shocked,’ Lulu says. ‘I realised that this domestic violence against my friend was going to continue and there was nothing anyone would do to stop it! I told her she had to report it to the police but she begged me not to. She refused to speak out.’

Around the same year that Dolma was born in Tibet, thousands of kilometres away, Lulu was born in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire, in the pulsing heart of Africa. Zaire, today called the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), is the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa and the most populous Francophone country. Decades of civil war have now turned the DRC into the poorest country in the world and it also has the highest levels of sexual violence and rape used as a weapon of war.

Back in the 1960s, Kinshasa was a vibrant and wealthy city fuelled by the profits from rich deposits of gold, copper, bauxite, diamonds and other gemstones, with a large, educated African middle class. Lulu’s birth came just six years after Belgium, the European colonial power, granted the country independence, and people who questioned the government were regularly detained without trial.

The newly independent country had held its first ever elections in June 1960 and the people elected Patrice Lumumba, one of the main campaigners fighting for independence, as their first prime minister. But his victory was precarious, as vicious tribal divisions racked the country and several provinces began seceding. Three parallel governments started operating at the same time and the country spiralled into chaos.

Prime Minister Lumumba desperately appealed to the then Soviet Union for military assistance, without the Congolese army’s backing, and the new country became a sideshow in the Cold War. In a counter move, the US backed the Congolese army, supporting Colonel Joseph Mobutu to stage a coup. In September 1960, soldiers loyal to Mobutu arrested and eventually summarily executed Lumumba. Both the American CIA and Belgian soldiers were implicated in the murky plots that led to Lumumba’s death.

Decades later, an independent inquiry discovered Lumumba had been beaten, shot by a firing squad, dismembered, buried and dug up before his remaining body parts were dissolved in acid. Mobutu changed the name of the country to Zaire, suppressed all dissent and joined the growing ranks of African dictators.

As the first girl after four sons, Lulu’s dad – a professor at the University of Kinshasa – rejoiced when she was born and became very fond of her, always encouraging and supporting her aspirations.

‘My father had very different views to most people,’ Lulu says. ‘In particular, he had progressive views about girls because he was so educated. That alone gaveme huge privilege in a society where girls and their education was not valued at all.’

In her last years of high school in the early 1980s, Lulu’s family moved toLubumbashi, the country’s second-largest city, located about 90 kilometres from the Zambian border. Many Europeans, including large communities of Italians, British and Greeks, still lived in the city, running bakeries, restaurants and businesses serving the mines.

Encouraged by her father, Lulu chose the science stream for her school diploma and particularly loved biology and chemistry – unusual subject choices for girls in that time. Even in year six, she’d started to outstrip the other girls in her class, who had to repeat their exams over and over without progressing to the next level because they had to do domestic work and didn’t have the same time to study as boys. Some of them dropped out of school due to arranged marriages.

When their sons got places in the university, relatives from the village would send them to live with Lulu’s family in the city. Her father built six extra bedrooms out the back of their house to accommodate them. Over the course of her childhood, over 20 male cousins came and stayed with them but never any girls. Every spare moment, the boys played soccer out in the yard, running and screaming, clouds of dirt enveloping them. Or they watched the game on TV, shouting and arguing, often in jest. Lulu wasn’t allowed to join them and play, so from that point onwards, she hated football.

Neither did Lulu’s mother allow her to go outside their yard unaccompanied. She didn’t want Lulu to be hassled by men in the street. Lulu’s friends could also only visit during particular hours. None of her brothers or male cousins had any restrictions on their movements and they could come and go as they pleased.

‘The problem came from the older women – like my mother, my aunties, my friends’ mothers,’ says Lulu. ‘They reinforced the subjugation of girls. I understood early on that you would never have progress for women unless women themselves break the cycle.’

Her female relatives also actively discouraged her study. They believed if a girl went to university, she would become too intelligent for her husband and then challenge him. So it became a choice for Lulu and her friends to either go to university or get married – not both.

Lulu attended a Catholic school, and deeply admired the European and African nuns who taught her. Here were the most empowered women she’d ever met. They were intelligent, creative and confident. She wondered whether maybe she might join a convent herself and go to Belgium or Germany, where she could study, accomplish something big in her life and make a difference.

But then her dad lost his job and her family’s middle-class lifestyle started to crumble. Her mother left for another city to tend to a sick relative. Lack of money also curtailed Lulu’s dreams of going to university and she became anxious about how her future would unfold.




Maria and Wojciech – Poland

His nostrils flared with the lingering smell of the animals previously transported on the train as he was pressed up against other forced labourers. The hours passed and,as there was no place to urinate or defecate, the reek of human waste mingled with the animal odour and Wojciech felt suffocated, craving fresh air. Lack of food and water exacerbated the collective fear and anxiety of those on the train. Already they’d heard rumours about the tens of thousands of Jews killed in concentration camps, but as yet no one knew about the genocidal extermination of six million lives.

After travelling for four days, the train finally stopped and soldiers let the prisoners out, separating them into queues of men and women. The soldiers ordered them to strip, then hosed them down with disinfectant, like animals. As Wojciechstood shivering and naked, he was thrown a pair of trousers, a shirt and an armband with a prominent ‘P’ on it.

As the last golden rays of the sun stroked the fields, Maria went to visit a friend at a neighbouring farm. The teenage women were chatting enthusiastically when Maria’s ears pricked up – the melodious tones of a baritone voice singing Ukrainian folk songs floated over the fields.

The voice belonged to Wojciech, one of the farm workers. His voice was literally music to Maria’s ears and once she met the singer, the attraction was mutual. Both could sing in perfect pitch and throughout their life together they’d intertwine acapella harmonies.

‘Music was the embroidery of people’s lives back then,’ says their daughter Jozefa, as she recalls all the stories her parents told her. ‘They sang to sow and to reap, to worship and to wed. They sang to praise their God and celebrate the coming of festivals.’

Maria and Wojciech were both 17 years old when they met, immersed in the chaos of World War II, in the middle of Germany, away from their Polish homeland. Wojciech had been born in the rolling hills of the south-eastern region of Poland now called Malopolska. After the redrawing of borders following the war, Maria’s village in Tarnopol province is now located in Ukraine. They’d both lived on subsistence farms in mud-brick thatched-roof cottages, helping their families to grow the vegetables and raise the livestock they needed to survive.

Their villages were in territories bordered by the imposing Carpathian and Tatra mountains, repeatedly invaded and occupied over many centuries. This conflict had made the villagers both resilient and flexible. They spoke two or more languages and worshipped in two or more religious traditions, Ukrainian (sometimes called Greek or Uniate) Catholic, Roman Catholic and Jewish.

‘My mother’s life was characterised by a fearless honesty, a deep sense of justice and injustice and a deep aversion to hypocrisy,’ says Jozefa,

Maria and Wojciech’s daughter. ‘She judged people on their treatment of others, not on their nationality or creed. She had little interest in the ethnic divisions created by years of nationalist fervour stoked by small and large conflicts. She witnessed early in life the destructive and disruptive consequences of political commitment.’

Maria was very feisty and refused to wear her ‘P’ armband to identify herself as a Polish prisoner. Her argument was that after the Germans’ advance into Poland in March 1942, she had left her village voluntarily, to escape from domestic violence at the hands of her stepbrother. Armed with two cooked chickens and a loaf of bread and clutching a wooden suitcase, she boarded a train for Germany with her cousin and three friends to find work and perhaps a different future.

Maria had endured years of an unhappy home life. Her older stepbrother, Eugeniusz, ordered Maria to work and generally made her life a misery. The son from her mother’s first marriage (his father had died in World War I), he was oppressive and unpleasant, and left Maria with some emotional scars.

Her youngest stepbrother, Emilian, was a Ukrainian nationalist. Prior to World War II, the Polish authorities would often come to their house, hunting for Emilian because of his underground activities. He would often hide in a trunk, but another time he fled disguised in women’s clothes just as the authorities arrived. He eventually paid for his patriotism. After the war, the Soviet authorities arrested him and he spent 25 years in the Siberian gulags.

Maria’s father, Jozef, was a philanderer, and her mother used Maria to torment his love interests. She would instruct Maria to go to their homes and throw stones at their windows and on their roofs – and Maria dutifully obeyed. Her mother wanted the lovers harassed to pay them back for the hurt her husband had causedher and the shame he had brought to the family name. Even after her father left, Maria’s home was cloaked in residual bitterness.

At the same time, outside her home, Maria was deeply disturbed by atrocities and systematic discrimination against the Yiddish-speaking Jewish people, who were a substantial and visible ethnic minority in every village and major city across Poland. The Jews formed the backbone of communities’ commerce. In exchange for sugar, cloth and flour, Maria traded her farm produce, such as eggs, butter, meat, fruit and vegetables.

One day, Maria was very upset because she had accidentally broken some eggs while bringing them to the village’s Jewish shop. She’d hoped to exchange the eggs for sugar. But the kind shopkeeper said not to worry and let her get what she wanted anyway. It wasn’t until after the war that Maria learned the full horror of the mass extermination of six million Jews in concentration camps.

Wojciech’s village was close to the frontier that the Soviet army crossed on 17 September 1939. He was the oldest of eight children, and at only 16 years old was dragooned into a forced labour gang building a rail line.

Twice, he escaped. On the first occasion, he ran so long and with such desperationthat he wore out his shoes. When he reached home, the Soviet army officials were already waiting for him. They beat him savagely and returned him to the labour gang.

He endured the gang for the next few years but then, suddenly, in August 1942 hissituation got much worse. Ukrainian militia came to his home and grabbed him. Without knowing where he was going, he was marched to the train station and, along with thousands of other able-bodied young women and men, was forced at gunpoint into a freight car usually used to transport animals to slaughter.

Wojciech was now identified as a Polish labourer. He was involuntarily one of the Zivilarbeiter, tens of thousands of Jews, Poles and other nationalities forced to labour on farms (and also in factories) without pay across Germany. That was when he met Maria.

During the ensuing years of the war, Wojciech and Maria worked on small dairy farms of no more than a few hectares. Their working conditions were tantamount to slavery. They received no pay, very meagre food rations and sometimes illtreatment. But in the middle of Germany at war, they had few options.

At one point, Wojciech had to pull out his own tooth with pliers because it hadrotted. When an infection of boils covered his entire neck, he made his own poultices. These experiences forged the resilience and self-reliance that characterised how he dealt with challenges for the rest of his life. He was always crawling in lice, and didn’t remember ever washinghis clothes; he simply waited until he wore them to tatters. Then he’d go to nearby farms, offering to do odd jobs in exchange for another set of second-hand clothes or a pair of shoes.

Starting work at 4.30am every day, Maria and Wojciech hand-milked the 18 or so cows on each of the farms. They worked a full month before they were entitled to a ‘recreation day’, usually on a Sunday. The climate was bitterly cold, with high rainfall and snow in the winter. They worked barefoot or with paper and ragswrapped around their feet, often in deep mud, their feet hardened with calluses, while their hands were chapped and raw. In summer it was hot, and they got sunburned but at least were warm.

When Wojciech complained to the Arbeitsamt (Labour Exchange) that his farm boss, Herr Gembler, beat him regularly, they told him that if he was not happy with his working conditions, they could transport him elsewhere. Wojciech feared that destination might be a concentration camp – and this forced him into silent compliance, even in the face of continued brutality and deprivation.

When Gembler left to join the retreating German army, his son Hans, who hadbeen a passionate member of the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth), took over farm supervision with the mindless authoritarianism of an immature and frightened young man. Wojciech was older than Hans and resented his new master but had no option but to obey. Fortunately, Hans had two sisters who were kinder to Wojciech, which made the cruelty of young Hans more bearable.




Kasse and Minh – Vietnam

Kasse’s mother had warned her never to talk to strangers.

‘At that time in Vietnam, poverty was everywhere. Strangers could kidnap you, break your arm or poke out your eyes, forcing you then to beg for them. It was a desperate society when people would go to any extreme to feed themselves and their children,’ Kasse says.

So one day in April 1980 when a strange, wiry man came to her school and claimed he was her father, seven-year-old Kasse was very sceptical and nervous. She refused to look at him as she walked all the way home ahead of him with herbest friends, their red scarves and long plaits flapping behind them in indignation.

‘I ignored him as he followed after me, saying persistently, “Don’t you remember me? I am your father,”’ Kasse says. ‘I didn’t even go into my own house; I went to my neighbour’s house because I didn’t want this stranger to findout where I lived. I slipped home through a hole in the fence and told my mum what happened. My mum said, “That’s your dad. He’s returned from the camp.”’

Until that point, Kasse had no memory of a father. After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, when the North Vietnamese overpowered the South Vietnamese forces, who no longer had the Americans as allies, the new Communist authorities rounded up over 1.5 million people. They included Kasse’s father, Minh, and her maternal grandfather, as well as professionals such as doctors, engineers and business people. All were forced into re-education camps.

When Minh was arrested, Kasse’s life transformed overnight. Along with her baby sister, Brigitte, and her mother, Nhu, she was turfed out of her house, clutching only what she could carry. They became homeless, sleeping under an awning in the Saigon market.

Deep sensory memories of the market, the sights, smells and sounds, still play vividly in Kasse’s mind – such as a man with no legs who had fought for the Communists sitting on a plank using his hands to push himself along through the churned-up, muddy ground. He was begging to feed his children. Starvation was a fact of life and Kasse knew many people who had hanged themselves because of the stress. Dead bodies at the side of the road, with flies crawling on their eyes,were a common sight.

It took a few months, but Kasse’s maternal grandmother eventually tracked them down, and they went to live with her, leaving behind the filth, fear and desperation of the market. Brought into the embrace of her grandmother’s household, surroundedby young aunties and uncles, Kasse’s life now overflowed with love, kindness and attention. ‘From then on, for the next five years I grew up surrounded by people who all cared for me,’ she says. ‘Never a shortage of people to hug me, brush my hair and play with me.’

Her grandmother was the strong, resourceful matriarch of the family. Withboth her husband and son-in-law away indefinitely in re-education camps, she cared for two generations, surviving by her wits. Her responsibilities included her five daughters, two sons and two granddaughters, Kasse and her sister, Brigitte. Her youngest daughter was only 12 – just five years older than Kasse.

Although the Communists took most of their possessions and savings, somehow Kasse’s grandmother acquired a small farm 60 kilometres outside of Saigon and grew sweet potatoes, corn and green leafy vegetables, so the family was self-sufficient for food. Kasse’s mum, Nhu, also made straw hats and sold them in the market in Saigon to make extra cash. Frequently, she would leave several hours before dawn to catch a bus. She would darken her face with dirt to hide her beauty so she wouldn’t be raped by soldiers, as so many women were. When she arrived, she’d sleep in the nearby forest waiting for the market to open, her body getting covered with mosquito bites. She’d also sewed a pocket into her shirt to keep her money safe.

Kasse’s grandmother’s kindness extended beyond her family. Through relentless propaganda, the Communist government cajoled many families to settle in the North. But many who moved North hated it and then tried to return home tothe South. Because of a severe housing shortage, usually another family would have moved into their original home in the meantime. This happened to one family Kasse knew. When they returned from the North, they became homeless. Her grandmother opened her home to them, let them sleep on the floor and fed them.That was her true generosity.

Once she went to live with her grandmother, Kasse began compulsory primary school. The teachers were strict and very demanding. Kasse remembers Ho Chi Minh glaring down at her from a portrait on the wall as she satin the classroom doing dictation, reciting poems and singing songs about their great leader. She also remembers trying to avoid going to the toilet at school.

‘There was no toilet as such, just cubicles and an open drain that we had to squat over, and you could see everything floating there from everyone who’d done their business that day. It was so disgusting,’ Kasse says.

At the time, Kasse knew nothing about her father or his early childhood. Minh was born in central Vietnam, but his father left his mother when Minh was only a few months old to join the Vietnamese nationalist forces fighting against the French colonial power.

Minh’s maternal grandparents brought him up, while his mother had to earn aliving, walking long distances into the village market to sell vegetables. As well as tending the buffalo, young Minh also started going to school, and learning became his new obsession.

‘I realised that I had been born this way, into poverty,’ he says. ‘I could see thehardship of my grandparents, my mother and my other relatives and I knew that only I could change my own life and change their lives too. I had to do it myself.’

Because there were no high schools in his rural district, when Minh wastwelve years old he sat the exam for the prestigious selective Quốc Học high school, the second-oldest in Vietnam. The school was located in Huế, onthe banks of the Perfume River. This city, with its ancient imperial palace complex encompassing temples and shrines and encircled by a moat, would become Minh’s home for the next six years. The main problem was that while he had secured a place to study, Minh had nowhere to live, so the city’s orphanage took him in. At night, many of the other boys would become gangsters and get in trouble in the neighbourhood for stealing and causing mischief. Minh wasn’t interested in that. Instead, he studied by a streetlight that shone into his room.

Every year, Minh finished top of his class. In his final year, a man who had a senior position on the provincial council asked him to tutor his seven children. In return, Minh got a free bed and food at the man’s house. Under neon lights, Minh tutored the children into the evening. Once he finished, he had to go to his own tiny room, where there was no electric light. He studied by a lamp with a fabric wick dipped inkerosene and then lit. ‘I realised for the first time how rich people could be so arrogant and very cruel,’ Minh says.

After graduating, Minh was very disappointed that he didn’t secure one of only 60 places offered to study engineering at the University of Saigon. It was1965, at the peak of the Vietnam War. A friend of his from the orphanage suggested that they should join the air force together. Minh was reluctant to join because he wanted to continue his studies, but he needed a roof over his head and so agreed to sign up.




Melinda – Canada

I was born in Canada in the mid-1960s – almost the same year as Dolma, Jigme and Lulu. I am the first daughter of a British migrant mother and a Canadian-born father with Empire Loyalist heritage (loyal to the British Crown, my father’s forebears had fled north in the American War of Independence). My parents split up when I was 11 years old – and for the first time I realised the impermanence of everything I knew. Mum did an incredible job of keeping our family afloat, even though she and Dad kept on battling it out in the Family Court to negotiate child support for years.

Eventually, just after I started high school, Mum and we four children moved away from our middle-class suburb to one that was more inner-city. We lived very near Kensington Market, which sprawled over several streets. First settled by Jewish migrants in the 1930s and 1940s and then by Portuguese refugees fleeing the Azores, by the time we arrived in the 1980s the market was home to identifiable groups of refugees and immigrants from the Caribbean, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Somalia,Iran and Chile, while China Town was the next street over. Asian vegetable sellers nestled between European cheese shops that offered free samples, along with Caribbean bakeries adding a completely new dimension to my life. Early in the morning, I loved to inhale the smells of strong cheeses, fish and fresh baked bread as I trampled on old fruit boxes, jogging past shops mostly owned by these new migrants.

My friends at school were predominantly first-generation Canadians from Latvia, Greece and Germany. Eleni and Penny quickly taught me to swear in Greek and I loved the baklava and spanakopita that they brought in their lunch boxes, not to mention the pierogi (potato dumplings) from Mara, my best friend. Attending my friends’ first Communion celebrations, I linked arms with their extended family members in community halls as we danced in circles to music with a tempo that seemed to get faster and faster until we whirred around in a dizzying blur.

I was swept up in the excitement of my friends’ cultures and our new neighbourhood, away from what I regarded as my boring Anglo heritage. I had struggled to find much sense of belonging or affinity with Canada and even empathised with the separatist Quebecois, who wanted to form another country.

When I was 11 years old, I wrote in my diary that I wanted to be a writer and photographer for National Geographic magazine when I grew up. That dream never faded. The yellow-spined magazines on my family’s bookshelf were my windows to the world.



Melinda Ham, journalist and authorMelinda Ham has been a journalist for more than twenty-five years. She started her career in southern Africa as a correspondent for six years for the Associated Press and for London’s Daily Telegraph, The Economist and other international publications. She’s also lived and worked in India and Singapore.

In Australia, she wrote for The Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun Herald for more than 12 years, including stints as a sub-editor on the foreign desk and as commissioning editor for Special Reports. She wrote on a diverse range of subjects, including education, environment, health, lifestyle, health and culture. She’s been editor of Explore, the Australian Museum’s twice-yearly magazine. She’s also produced dozens of publications through her media company, Narrate Media, for charities, universities and companies

Follow Melinda Ham on LinkedIn

Author: Melinda Ham

Category: Literature & literary studies

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Affirm Press

ISBN: 9781922848024

RRP: $34.99

Reader Comments

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all reviews

The Latest List