Our new series produced by the New Zealand Red Cross profiles people from refugee backgrounds who now call New Zealand home. Our third Kiwi Legend: Mitchell Pham, who escaped alone from Vietnam as a 12-year-old, and went on to create a hugely successful NZ software company.
Mitchel Pham has fond memories of his early childhood in Vietnam. He was the oldest of three kids and both his parents were engineers. They lived across the Saigon river from the CBD in a mostly rural area.
“I remember having a very open and natural environment to grow up in, much like Kiwi kids,” says Mitchell.
He was born in the early 1970s as the Vietnam War was ending and was four when Saigon was captured, signifying the end of the war as the country became the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
The economy in the South-Asian country plummeted following the war and many families struggled to survive, facing shortages of food and water along with very limited freedom. Thousands and thousands of people began trying to flee the country in order to survive, Mitchell being one of them.
His parents took the three children and tried to escape twice, once when he was eight and again when he was 10. They were all arrested both times with the men being sent to hard labour camps and women and children to prison.
When Mitchell was 12 the family was desperate to make one last attempt to escape. They’d exhausted all their funds and so begged, borrowed, and leveraged everything they had to try one last time. In the end, they could only afford to send one person.
As the eldest of the young children, the family decided it should be Mitchell who made the escape attempt. The route was dangerous and Mitchell was fully aware of what it entailed.
The group had to outsmart local government agents and police and pretend they were holidaying in a fishing village in the south in the Mekong Delta. In the middle of the night they boarded a fishing boat and quietly escape down the river and out to sea. From there they crossed the open water to reach Indonesia where they could seek asylum.
It’s terrifying stuff for anyone, let alone a child, but Mitchell was resolute.
“I was the family’s last hope,” he says.
“Because I’d tried to escape with the family twice before, I think I was certainly more mentally prepared than if I hadn’t done that before. However, I’d never successfully gotten out of the country and nothing could really prepare me for what was to come.”
The first half of the journey went according to plan and they made it out of the river mouth. They were soon discovered by the coastguard which chased after them, shooting at the boat with machine guns.
“That was a very terrifying experience, especially at my age at the time.”
The group survived though and made it onto the open seas where they waited to be rescued. The situation grew increasingly dire as they ran out of food, water, and fuel.
“We came across a holiday cruise ship which stopped,” says Mitchell. “People took photos and whatnot but they didn’t give us food, water, or fuel, and they didn’t rescue our people. When the ship left the wake nearly sank us.”
The small fishing boat eventually began drifting towards an oilrig near Indonesia. They were spotted and towed them back to the rig where they were quarantined, and Indonesian authorities were contacted.
“This happened literally one hour before a huge tropical storm, so we were very lucky to survive the journey.”
Life in a refugee camp
Over the next two years Mitchell went through four different refugee camps in Indonesia, waiting to find out what his future held.
“Refugee camps are definitely not comfortable places,” he says.
“They are usually overcrowded, lacking food, clean water, sanitation, healthcare facilities, school, you name it. They are treated as temporary places so there isn’t a lot of infrastructure. It is a very difficult environment to live in and unfortunately many refugees are stuck in these crowded camps for a long time.”
Some of the camps Mitchell called home housed 20,000-30,000 people, some of whom had been there for more than a decade. The average amount of time a refugee spends living in a refugee camp is 18 years.
Faced with the prospect of spending an indeterminable amount of time in these camps, Mitchell realised he needed to keep himself busy. He got involved with a volunteer team that built two Buddhist temples and began teaching other refugees basic English at a United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) language school.
Despite these distractions, Mitchell was still a child, alone in a foreign country, and completely disconnected from his immediate family.
“I had no news of my parents and siblings, and they didn’t know whether or not I’d survived the journey across the sea,” he says. “I didn’t know where they were. After I successfully got out they had to go into hiding otherwise they would’ve been arrested again.”
They lost touch for around five years before they reconnected through written letters that made their way to each other through various hands. It took 30 years for Mitchell and his family to be reunited in Auckland.
“It has shaped my view of how important family is in my life. To me family is worth all of the time and distance we endured, but also more than all the money in the world.”
A new future in New Zealand
While Mitchell was living in the refugee camps, he was also on a waiting list for resettlement to a safe third country. He nominated his preferred three countries – with New Zealand at the top – and attended interviews with representatives from those countries.
He was eventually accepted by New Zealand and arrived in Auckland in late August 1985 and faced a whole raft of new challenges. From coping with a different culture and climate to navigating a completely new schooling system and way of life, settling in wasn’t an easy or simple task.
“It took me about 10 years to fully adapt and integrate to New Zealand. Becoming a Kiwi is an organic process but if I had to pick a moment in time where I really noticed I’d become one, it would be in humour. Once you fully master and connect with the humour in a particular culture then you are fully integrated into that society.”
At university, Mitchell made many new friends, four of whom changed his life. In 1993 the group of five friends decided to go into business together and founded the first company in the Augen Software Group.
“We were very passionate and not very experienced so we didn’t see any of the challenges that were up ahead. This was probably a blessing, because if we’d known how difficult it was going to be, we may have chosen not to do it.”
The Augen Software Group took off and grew into a group of interconnected companies that operate across the New Zealand technology industry, particularly in the areas of software innovation.
“We did this because we all aspired to having our own business. We had many role models who were business entrepreneurs and we were passionate about the technology sector, so we thought we should combine entrepreneurship and the technology sector for our career path.”
Mitchell says he’s proud of his achievements, not only how well the business has done but also the opportunities he has managed to create for others and the impact that his businesses have had on other businesses and industry sectors across the economy. He also hopes that policy makers recognise what former refugees have to offer their new home countries.
“If I had a wishlist, at the top of it would be the hope that countries adopt refugees in the same way that they adopt international talents. Fundamentally, we are no different to those who have more means to come into this country, to fill jobs, to fill up the talent pool that is much needed to support economic growth and social advancements. Refugees are a pool of talent as well as economic and social opportunity for countries that takes them on.”
Mitchell Pham is an entrepreneur and World Class Kiwi Award winner. He is part of New Zealand Red Cross’ Kiwi Legends series, profiling people from refugee backgrounds who now call New Zealand home. Read more at redcross.org.nz.
Previously on Kiwi Legends: