I Arrived in Australia as a Vietnamese Refugee. This is My Story.

On June 18, the Seventh-day Adventist Church will hold its World Refugee Sabbath.

Kim Russell, as told to Sandra Lehn, for Adventist Record
I Arrived in Australia as a Vietnamese Refugee. This is My Story.
Four-year-old Kim (left) and her brother — refugees from Vietnam. [Photo: courtesy of Kim Russell]

My name is Kim, and this is my story. The year was 1977 and I was four years old — a refugee from Vietnam. I was standing next to my brother Albert, who was holding a THANK YOU AUSTRALIA sign. A newspaper photographer snapped a photo, and it appeared in various newspapers throughout the country. The photo was taken just after our family had been released from quarantine in the city of Darwin and we were about to board a plane for our final destination in Sydney.

The Vietnam War had ended in 1975, and communism had taken root within our country. My father was angry at the loss of freedom we were experiencing and decided he would find a way to get his family out of Vietnam.

We boarded a boat in the middle of the night in April 1977 — 73 scared men, women, and children in search of a new life away from post-war communism, crammed into a small fishing vessel.

We were a Buddhist family of eight; Mum and Dad and six children between the ages of 12 years and four weeks.

A problem occurred as we boarded the boat. The captain wanted my mother to leave her baby behind. We needed complete silence as we left the harbor. My mother refused. She managed to smuggle him on board, and he did not make a sound until we were out in the open sea.

Leaving Vietnam, we stopped at five countries along the way, including Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. We were unsuccessful in seeking refuge in any of these countries. Not every country helped us; some drove us back out to sea, and so food became a problem.

After four months, as we neared the coastline of Australia, we noticed smoke wafting up somewhere inland. A party was sent ashore to investigate. It was an uninhabited area, but they came across a cattle station and made contact with the people. The people welcomed us. We were so thankful to be on dry land after 16 weeks at sea.

The place was Wyndham, on the border of Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

I’ve been told we were among the first refugees to enter Australia. The authorities were informed of our arrival, and a government official arrived soon after. Within three hours we were on our way from Wyndham to Darwin.

We had no documents upon arrival, not even passports. In Darwin we were placed in quarantine for a few weeks while our documentation was put in order, and we were granted entry visas.

On arrival in Sydney, we were placed in the Villawood Migrant Center where we stayed for the next 12 months.

I’m reminded of the verse found in Jeremiah 29:11 where it says, “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (NIV).

This is how God’s plan unfolded for me.

When I was in Grade 3 at the local primary school, a note was sent home to ask into which Scripture class I should be placed. The three choices were Christian, Muslim, or Other. I asked my mother if I could go to the Christian class. Being Buddhist I should have been in the Other class. Mom agreed, because she’d had a very positive experience with Christian charities.

I loved these classes. This was my introduction to Jesus and His love. I wanted to learn about this Friend called Jesus. I was also given a Bible to keep.

During the school holidays, when I was 13, a leaflet was placed in our letterbox, called, “Taking Charge of Your Life.” You could send in for lessons on Bible topics. I decided I would like to do this and posted it off. Lessons eventually arrived, and I loved filling in the answers from the Bible that had been given to me in Scripture class.

After leaving school I began working in the tourism industry where I eventually met Andrew, and we began dating.

Before we married, we both decided that we needed to reconnect with church after a long absence during our teenage years. Andrew had been brought up in the Catholic faith, and so we began attending the local church. We both had many questions to which we could not find the answers, and we decided to try some other churches.

It is amazing how God gently leads. His “plans for us” were coming to fruition.

We had been married for a couple of years, and one day, another leaflet arrived in the letterbox advertising a prophecy seminar on Armageddon. Some of the topics to be presented intrigued me. For example, “Which Day Is the Sabbath?”; “The State of the Dead”; “Is 666 the Number of the Beast?” The program was to be held locally over several nights.

I asked Andrew if he would like to go, but he had a lot of work commitments and didn’t think he could find the time, so I threw the leaflet out.

A few days later, while clearing out the garage, I noticed a leaflet on the floor. It was the same one I’d recently thrown away (I have no idea how it got there). I looked at the dates and found that the last day of the seminar was to be that very day. I rang Andrew and said, “Today is the last day of that seminar, do you think we could go?” He agreed, and so we went on the last night of a 10-day program.

The speaker spoke of many things that we had been seeking the answers to, including the Sabbath. We were amazed.

The speaker then said that he was from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and he referred to books written by Ellen White.

On hearing this name Andrew realized it was the author of the book he was reading. A few months earlier he had picked up a book called Desire of Ages at a second-hand bookstore. Andrew loved it so much, he read it twice.

From this time forward we were excited to learn increasingly more of the wonderful biblical doctrines of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Especially seeing all the answers proved from Scripture.

In 2009 Andrew felt the call to become a minister and went to Avondale College (now Avondale University) where he graduated with a double degree in theology and ministry. 

Andrew now has three churches in which he serves as head pastor. We have three beautiful children, and God has blessed us abundantly.

But that is not all.

Recently, my daughter came home from high school and said a friend had shown her a picture of a wall mural of Vietnamese refugees. The painting was the same picture of us holding up the sign saying THANK YOU AUSTRALIA all those years ago. After doing some research I discovered that the wall mural had been painted by a street artist called Heesco Khosnaran, in the town of Yarram, in South Gippsland, Victoria. It was one of 25 murals throughout the town.

Through social media, I made contact with a TV producer and filmmaker who invited me to come and meet both him and the artist. While there, he filmed my story, and I was also introduced to John Schooneveldt, who told me that he had been the minister in 1977 who had come to Wyndham and had given us permission to enter this country. Isn’t it incredible how God’s plans come full circle.

My heart is full of thanksgiving. Not only to Australia for taking us in and becoming our home, but thanks to God for His amazing grace and His leading of both Andrew and I on this wonderful journey together.

June 18 is World Refugee Sabbath for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Resources are available at

The original version of this story was posted on Adventist Record.

Kim Russell, as told to Sandra Lehn, for Adventist Record