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Thursday, 28 November 1985
Page: 2461

Senator VANSTONE(12.46) —Today, for a very short time, I want to pay tribute to a South Australian, Sister Elizabeth Nghia. Before I give the details of this woman's position and state why that tribute should be paid to her, I remind honourable senators of a sonnet that is inscribed on a bronze plaque at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty. The sonnet was written by a woman called Emma Lazarus and it is called `The New Colossus'. With the indulgence of honourable senators I will remind them of the words of that sonnet. They are these:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name.

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,

`Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!' cries she,

With silent lips. `Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!'

It is my submission that anyone with any degree of compassion would endorse the spirit of those words for this country. I quite accept that the practice of them is not always easy but every now and then we hear a story that serves to bolster our resolve in that regard and I think Sister Elizabeth Nghia's story is just one of those.

Yesterday, in South Australia Sister Elizabeth was presented with the Zonta Club's 1985 Woman of Achievement award. When she arrived in South Australia in 1976 she could not speak any English. She had left her family and friends in Vietnam without having the opportunity of saying goodbye and certainly knowing that she would not have the opportunity to return to her home country. She told the Zonta Club that at that time there seemed to be no future, that she did not know what was going on, but now she is perfectly happy with her life in Adelaide.

Of course, this woman was not given the Zonta award simply because she came from Vietnam to Adelaide in 1976. She was given the award because of the tireless work that she has done for her community and, indeed, for the Australian community since she has been here. From a very desperate situation when she arrived at the age of 40, she has certainly become a driving force in the Indo-Chinese and South Australian community. She works as a social worker at the Woodville Refugee Centre, she is a President of the Indo-Chinese Australian Women's Association; and she is co-ordinator of the Indo-Chinese Australian Women's Association community centre. She is also an ethnic affairs commissioner and government adviser. It is for all these duties and for the work that was involved in getting to the stage where she could contribute in that way since 1976 that the Zonta Club in South Australia has given her this award.

It may be of interest to honourable senators to know something of the journey to Australia that she faced. I am certainly not suggesting that her journey was any more perilous than anyone else's but, nonetheless, nearly 10 years ago she was on board a tiny fishing boat which was drifting toward Malaysia with no fuel, food or water. Some 32 Vietnamese people had escaped their country under the dark of night. They had been chased by communist forces for several hours and during this time, unfortunately, the captain's compass was dropped overboard. After 10 days of sailing aimlessly through the South China Sea, a large ship went past. All on board the fishing boat thought that the ship would continue to go past. As luck would have it that did not happen. The ship, a bulk carrier, the High Lee, turned around and picked up all these people. Sister Nghia was told by the captain of that ship, a Hong Kong born Roman Catholic gentlemen, that, in fact, he had seen her blue dress, realised that she was a nun and decided to turn around and pick up the people on the fishing boat. I realise that that raises questions of why a captain should pick up a nun as opposed to someone else but, nonetheless, I think that explains why Sister Nghia believes in miracles. It might explain, to a certain extent, the degree of gratitude that she feels to this country for being here. I suggest that the Senate pay tribute not only to Sister Elizabeth but also to people in her position.

Sitting suspended from 12.52 to 2 p.m.