A Change of Guard

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Friday, 1 January 2010

Sowing seeds of a better life

January 1, 2010
The Age

THIRTY years ago, a Victorian farmer's conscience was pricked by the suffering of refugees pouring out of South-East Asia.

His son Bernie remembers Bill Mannes as a strong Catholic and a community worker, but also as a doer. He did something about it. The poultry and dairy farmer from Strathfieldsaye, near Bendigo, organised for two refugee families to settle in the area.

John Harrington, a farmer in nearby Fosterville, donated 10 hectares of land he leased from the Catholic Church, and so the Quach clan — 11 Cambodians who fled despot Pol Pot — and the 14-member Vietnamese refugee Lam family moved into a very Anglo-Celtic area.

Locals built and furnished two houses and sheds. Rent was peppercorn. Mr Mannes lent a tractor, the church donated a van. The children attended Goornong Primary and nuns taught the adults English.

The idea was for the families to run a vegetable co-op. But they knew little about farming, so Mr Mannes, who died in 2000, and Mr Harrington showed them how. Bernie Mannes says: "For five or six years after they first arrived, Dad probably spent most days there. Dad was a good fellow, would help anyone out, at any time. I think he just saw that there was a need there and he was able to do it." The Quachs have repaid the kindness shown to them in the way they have lived their lives. Sun Quach was seven and has little memory of the August day The Age took a group photo, save for running into a paddock to kick a ball with his brothers. He has more vivid memories of helping grow zucchini, broccoli, carrots, potatoes and capsicum (and later bok choy). Everyone pitched in. "I recall some nights working up to midnight, packing, getting ready for the market," Mr Quach says. For a year or so, the two families worked together, then the Lams moved to Melbourne. But the Quachs worked the farm for 20 years. "I think we knew that we had to make a living, and this was going to be home,"Mr Quach says. "This was a second chance, really."

The family's "first life" ended in 1973, when in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, his uncle and the uncle's wife, both teachers, were murdered by Pol Pot.

Fearing they would be next, Mr Quach's father, Thanh, a supermarket owner, led his family east into southern Vietnam. In 1978, he paid one kilogram in gold for a place on a crowded boat to Hong Kong for his wife, Teng, their six children including Sun, and Thanh's brother and sister.

They spent six months in a refugee centre in Hong Kong, where a seventh child, Lak, was born. That was when Australia and Bill Mannes changed their lives.

The eldest children, Mai and Nam, are now factory workers; sonHai is a panel beater. Nai is a hairdresser and factory worker. Sun, a registered nurse, is Victorian account manager with a medical equipment company. Phen is an IT contractor with a major bank, and Lak is a sommelier at the CityWine Bar.

Thanh and Teng have 10 grandchildren. The latest, a son for Phen and his wife, Jennifer, arrived yesterday at 4.10am. Sun Quach says he will take sons Jadyn, 3, and Branden, 2, on holiday to Cambodia so they can "appreciate Australia, and know how lucky we've been and how lucky they're going to be . . . in Australia".

He says the Government should be more compassionate about refugees. "For people to pay pretty much their life savings, to risk their lives, hopping on to a leaky boat coming over here, they are very desperate. You wouldn't do that if you were able to stay where you were." Without asylum here, "we wouldn't have had a life, really. We might have been in refugee camps for years."

Bernie Mannes says: "It's a magnificent success story. And that's probably the best part of it, that we gave somebody else, through Dad, a second chance at life, because they came out with nothing.

"I'm quite proud of the fact we've had a little hand in it. But they did the work; we only gave them the opportunity and they grasped it with both hands."

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