My story and that of 1stAvailable begins in another country. I never think of myself as a refugee, in my heart and mind I am Australian but I suppose in reality I am a refugee. I am the youngest of 5 children, born in 1978 I was less than one year old when my parents and family fled Vietnam in 1979 following the end of the Vietnam war.
The family originated in a farming community in the village of Can-Tho, near the capital of Ho Chi Minh City (previously Saigon). During the Vietnam War Dad was conscripted to be a soldier in the South Vietnamese army and fought alongside the foreign forces against the communist North Vietnamese army. At the end of the VW in 1975 after the North Vietnamese occupied the country my parents were quick to realize that there was no future in Vietnam any longer. It took my father 4 years to amass the required ‘fee’ to bribe the government to allow our family to flee by boat.
My family and extended family fled by boat where we firstly headed to Malaysia, Malaysia refused entry to port and gave some water to the boat but told us to move on. Next port of call was Singapore where the authorities did not even allow entry and towed the boat into international waters (almost capsizing the boat in the process due to the speed of the towing vessel). Eventually the boat marooned on an Indonesian island where all the occupants were transferred to a refugee camp. We stayed in the refugee camp for several months waiting for processing and acceptance of our applications.
My father had placed only one choice on his list of chosen countries, Australia. This was not for any particular reason, he had heard from a market vendor in Vietnam that Australia had a similar climate to Vietnam, that it was close by and that the market vendor would have chosen no other country to go to. Luckily for us we were eventually accepted by Australia.
We arrived on Australian shores in September, 1979. At first we were placed in the Villawood detention centre. The kindness of Australia shows in my early family photos where my whole family wear clothing supplied by charities such as the Smith Family. My parents eventually found work in factories by waiting outside the gates of the factory and waiting for the foreman to choose replacements for any workers that had not arrived or reported sick. Once the foreman became familiar with the work ethics of a particular person (after using them several times as replacements) they sometimes offered them full time employment, which happened for mum and dad.
We moved to a rental property in Lidcombe, sharing a house with one of my uncles and aunties and cousins and grandfather, and eventually moved to our own rental property in Berala. All my siblings attended Berala public school whilst I was babysat by my grandmother. I was desperate to go to school with them and one of my earliest memories was getting dressed and going to school at Berala Public school at the beginning of the school year only t be told I was too young.
During the early eighties interest rates for mortgages were in the high teens and early twenty percentiles. The government was trying to encourage people to move out of the urban area of Sydney and offering low interest rate loans through the government to buy new property further from the city CBD. Our family took up the offer and in 1984 moved to Dean Park. Dean Park was a low socio-economic suburb situated between Blacktown and Mount Druitt. New housing estate was being built where farm land and acreage once was. Our family was one of less than ethnic Asian 5 families in a suburb of 5000. Understandably we were at the end of our fair share of discrimination in the early years but as time went on we were one of the fold. I think a lot of the reasons why my siblings and I were able to assimilate so well into Australian society was this forced adoption of the unfamililiar.
In 1990 the factory my mother work in relocated and retrenched a lot of the workers. My parents are proud people, having overcome great odds and they did not want to receive welfare so Mum and Dad decided to buy a little corner store in Ashfield selling general goods. This was my earliest lesson in business, the corner store was not a business. It was a self-employment with mum and dad working 15 hours a day, opening at 6am and closing at 9pm everyday, 365 days a year. They were competing with the other corner store on the opposite side of the street but mostly with the local Coles and Woolsworth. My parents eventually sold the business in 2000 for less than they bought it. The days of small independent shops competing against the large chains were numbered even then.
As a child I attended William Dean Public school and later Plumpton High school. Between 1990 and 1996 I moved through many high schools, Ashfield Boys high, Parramatta high and eventually Fort Street High.
In Vietnam education is not free and only those that could afford to received schooling, unfortunately my parents did not come form rich families and they are both technically uneducated having received no more than primary school level education. In their eyes free schooling in Australia represented an opportunity that many people did not get, they applied all the pressure they could on my siblings and I to excel at school, coming second in a class was not good enough and required an explanation.
I hated the constant pressure at the time but I eventually graduated from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Dentistry degree with honours in 2001. My siblings are all professionals too and are in order – a pharmacist, an accountant (now working in Finance at Westpac), an IT specialist (WAN/LAN specialist) and an Endocrinologist (hormone specialist at John Hunter hospital).
Along with education my parents also ensured that healthcare had a high priority. Even though they were in the lowest paid bracket of income earners they always ensured that we had private healthcare insurance. As long as I can remember we always had membership with HCF. In my early teens I remember having to travel from home by train after school to Cabramatta to see the dentist who was a family friend, it actually was these visits that made me want to be a dentist, so I could do my own dentistry on myself!. Having a family now with three of the five siblings directly involved in healthcare is thus no coincidence.
My early experience attending the dentist as well as those I have gained owning my own dental practice for a decade really highlighted the difficulty that many Australians have accessing healthcare. Many people don’t event know what services are available in their local area and let alone how to access these services. Then there are the Australians living in remote and rural areas that travel long distances, sometimes hundreds of kilometers to seek appropriate healthcare. In 2007 whilst still practicing dentistry it dawned on me that here had to be an easier way. That was the genesis of 1stavailable.com.au , a game changer and one stop online shop for all healthcare services in Australia that everyone can access whenever they needed it.
So with Refugee week between 17-23 June and 1stAvailable gaining momentum, I would like to thank Australia for giving my family the chance to build a better life and I hope with 1stAvailable I can return the favor.
Dr Rick Luu, Non-Executive Director and Founder