Alumna empowered by law studies after life struggle

From her birth in a Thai refugee camp to practising law back in her parents homeland, Cat Thao Nguyen’s story of growing up as a migrant in Australia is unique yet familiar.

Written by Emily Jones

Thao Nguyen

Before Cat Thao Nguyen was born, her father and pregnant mother dodged bullets and Khmer Rouge soldiers as they fled post-war Vietnam in search of a better life for their young family.

Nearly 30 years later, the combined law alumna has given voice to her parents’ brave plight in her first book, We Are Here (Allen and Unwin), published last month.

Cat Thao’s memoir charts her family’s harrowing settlement story, escaping Vietnam in 1979 through the killing fields of Cambodia, into the notoriously brutal Thai refugee camp where she was born, and finally into the relative safety of western Sydney’s migrant community.

Touching on themes such as the generational trauma of the Vietnam War, the book also chronicles Cat Thao’s coming of age in a migrant household, where she faced challenges including translating for her parents from a young age.

Though afforded safety and opportunities beyond her parents’ dreams, Cat Thao said she found her childhood difficult to navigate. Her migrant background presented a sense of displacement that she found hard to shake.

“Growing up as a refugee child, I felt that there wasn’t a place for me in Australia,” says Cat Thao. “There was a lot of struggle growing up being validated because I never saw [people like] myself on TV, people represented in a decision-making capacity.”

Yet the determined alumna excelled during her studies in Commerce/Law. She was selected to represent the nation as the Australian youth representative to the United Nations General Assembly in New York and was the first student from the University of Sydney to do so.

Thao Nguyen

After completing her law studies and being admitted in 2007, Cat Thao worked on several boards, including on the national advisory board to the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), the Ethnic Communities’ Council of New South Wales, the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam and the Loreto Vietnam Australia Program.

But Cat Thao’s career journey was ultimately cyclical, returning her to the family’s ancestral home in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam for a role with Ernst & Young.

“It was a new beginning but something that was also strangely familiar,” says Cat Thao of her return to Vietnam in 2007. “My parents were very worried about me. They never said ‘don’t go’, even though I think my father wanted to say that. They were worried because the Vietnam they knew was the Vietnam of war; it was the Vietnam of persecution.”

Despite the challenges of her upbringing, Cat Thao says she drew strength throughout her law degree from academics such as Professor Mary Crock and her fellow students, who shared their support as she completed her studies.

“Those people actually really inspired me and they consistently told me that yes I did belong here, and to keep going, keep pulling through. They really helped me to finish,” she says.

Cat Thao says studying law has provided an important lens through which to see the world, and the necessary tools to help fight future injustices, such as those faced by her family.

“Studying law has given me a sense that I have the capacity to make decisions and I am empowered, not just for myself but also for other people around me.”

(Thao Nguyen pictured with Professor Mary Crock at the launch of her book at the Law School)