Visiting Tol Tran


Tol is in prison convicted of people smuggling. He and his family and friends fled Vietnam last year aboard his fishing boat the Hao Kiet after the Vietnamese Communist Authorities had visited his house in Vietnam, suspicious of anti communist activities. Tol’s wife had been involved with others in the handing out of leaflets calling for better treatment of the people and the right to freedom of expression and religion in Vietnam.

After a month at sea, beating pirates and the guns of Indonesian military, the Hao Kiet with its 54 passengers sailed into Port Headland Western Australia and into the political storm of the Tampa and children and truth overboard and such things. Our Government had introduced retrospective laws and whipped up a level of fear within our country about boatpeople. The cunning use of emotive language by the Howard Government had turned boatpeople into objects of fear and the likes of Tol Tran into criminals.

The Hao Kiet asylum seekers were shunted off to Christmas Island and held in detention. One man, Hoa Nguyen was immediately charged with people smuggling and after fifty days on Christmas Island, Tol was taken from his family and faced a similar charge. He was convicted and received a mandatory sentence of five years.

Tol is looking well and was in good spirits. He is eager to know the date the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) are yet to set for the visit to Perth from Christmas Island for his family. It has been many months since they have been together.

Tol tells us that he is trying his best to father his children over the Acacia prison phone while they are on Christmas Island in detention, with his wife Bich Le.

It is the first time Kim has met Tol. We live two hours drive from Acacia Prison. Kim had gone to work early that morning so we could set out from home at 1 p.m. to get to the prison by 3 p.m. Kim is a self-employed contractor in the building industry and is working more hours to help meet the phone bill that is mounting while I do my best to help the Hao Kiet people.

During the visit we spoke about the efforts taking place to assist Tol and the other people of the Hao Kiet. I explained who Betty Cuthbert the Olympic legend is and how she had taken a stand on his behalf to write to the Prime Minister and ask for mercy for Tol and the Hao Kiet people.

Mostly we spoke about family. My husband and I have six children between us. Tol was pretty impressed by this and I guess it is a ‘man thing’ but I sensed a mutual respect for virility between Tol and Kim. Men and their … well that’s another story!

We already knew that Tol was a fisherman in Vietnam before he came to Australia. Tol was interested to know what Kim did for a living and it was difficult for the interpreter to explain that Kim installs balustrades and before that we were farmers in the small, pretty town of Denmark on the south coast of Western Australia. My Kim is handsome and physically large and fit in stature with big hands (yes, I fell for his looks way back when we met). Kim gets his looks from his father (and uncle) who is Italian and came to Australia via Scotland as a small child after World War I. After arriving in Australia, Kim’s dad had to change his name from Enrico Zonfrillo and is now known as Bernie Bernard because of racism.

I splayed out Kim’s hands on the table so Tol could see that Kim is a working man and view the scratches and calluses he has from his work. As if by an involuntary action Tol reached out and felt my husband’s beautiful hands that have saved us when money’s been tight and provided through thick and thin for our family over the years. Kim grabbed on to Tol’s thin long fingers and they faced each other and no one spoke.

I guess in my life a moment like this will not come by too many times. Here I saw my husband connected by touch to a man who had saved the life of his family and friends, only to be condemned to a mandatory prison sentence in Australia for his heroic deeds. Here we were sitting in a private prison surrounded by guards and circled with razor wire. I held back the tears.

The moment broke and we went on to talk about kids and we had a big laugh when I said that the task of parenting is huge even though Kim and I are face to face with our kids in our home. We often feel like we were never taken seriously by them.

Tol said to us that his and his wife’s dream is for his kids to have an education as he and his wife are not educated people.

Lam, the inmate interpreter is a young Australian/Vietnamese man with a remarkable hairdo. I told him that he looked ‘crouching tiger hidden dragonish’ and if he was my boy I’d take the scissors to his locks. I do most of the haircuts in this house. Lam laughed at this and told me that there were no girls in Acacia for him to impress with his hair. Although by the size of his muscles he’s doing some serious weights and surely will impress the girls when he gets out. I didn’t ask about his troubles but he told me he was from the East and I enquired how he ended up in the West. He said with a real Aussie accent, ‘I went walkabout’. I doubled over laughing at the irony in his comment since the majority of indigenous inmates were seated nearby.

On the drive home Kim told me that Tol’s humble demeanour and the gentleness he radiated had touched him deeply.

I have had a similar soul touching experience.

Prior to my first meeting Tol, I was speaking with a Vietnamese Community Association representative about the ‘people smuggling’ conviction and the fact that I believed that the law was ludicrous when applied to asylum seekers who had fled persecution. The VCA rep went on to tell me how much of a good man Tol Tran is. I retorted objectively that my position was ‘I don’t give a rat’s arse if he is a good man or not, it is the flaws in the law that criminalise the innocent that are my interest.’

I now confess that my position after meeting Tol is strengthened and my determination to seek justice for Tol has become an inescapable duty. I cannot retreat on this matter of injustice and bury myself in the mundane like so many of my fellow Australians are doing to ignore the plight of those affected by the Government’s border control madness.

I asked Tol if there is anything he or his family on Christmas Island need that we may be able to buy and supply. I was expecting him to give me at least a small list of things for his kids that I had guessed they may not have in detention. But no, he said there is nothing they need and went on through the interpreter to tell us for the hundredth time, ‘thankyou’ for what we are doing.

I asked how his English lessons were going. Tol said ‘Two clock, one week.’ We worked out that this meant two hours a week is not enough to improve his English. This week I am going to try to find some English language resources and send them to the prison. I’d earlier discussed Tol’s English lessons with a prison supervisor who handles Tol. He had explained that the girl who conducted the lessons was Irish with a thick accent and we both shared a chuckle at the thought of Tol eventually speaking English with an Irish brogue. Multiculturalism Australian style!

When the bell rang and the prison visit ended we had to remain seated while the prisoners filed out through a door. Lam and Tol said goodbye and walked away and then jogged obediently at a guard’s request to hurry. Tol looked back and smiled and then he was gone.

I grew up in Mandurah when it was a small coastal town and developed a tomboyish love of fishing. I still snorkel and dive for crabs in summer and love to eat them with the kids and friends. Before we left Tol yesterday I told him that when all this is over we will spend some time together and go fishing.

I’d like to sit out the back of our home on a summer’s night with his family and mine. We’d share a meal of a few crabs and some fish and some laughs without the guards and wire.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.