In 1985, when Mai Thi Le was just three months old, her 19 year-old parents managed to sell oil from their lamps to pay for passage on a small boat out of Vietnam. They were hoping to get to the United States but the boat foundered in the open sea and they were rescued by a Norwegian liner.
Mai and her parents spent the next five years in a refugee camp in Japan before coming to Australia.
She remained an only child and went on to graduate from UTS with a combined arts/law degree before working in tax law and now with a government department.
Because of her background, Mai has always been interested in migration and, while her family did not encounter many problems with the process of gaining residency in Australia, she is aware that times have changed as has the public discussion around the issue.
Mai believes strongly that the majority of people who seek to come to Australia are doing so with the best intentions and are willing to ensure they have a good life and make a contribution here.
“I have come through it and my family has come through it. We are an example of what can be achieved once you settle in Australia.”
She wants to use her background and experience to “give something back” which is why she has undertaken the Graduate Diploma in Migration Law and Practice offered for the first time this year in the UTS Law Faculty.
The Program Director and UTS Law academic, Christine Giles is a former immigration ombudsman and says there’s a lack of understanding about migration law and the challenging work of migration agents.
“The Home Affairs website advises that you don’t need an agent to lodge a visa application but my response is to use the analogy that you don’t need a lawyer to go to court either but would you go without one? People don’t realise how many things can go wrong in their dealings with the department.”
Now married with two young children, Mai says she was worried it would be difficult to combine the study with her busy work and home life but she has been pleasantly surprised.
A law degree is not a prerequisite and Christine says, like Mai, many of the students studying the two-year graduate diploma are doing so because of their own personal experiences as migrants or refugees or those of relatives and friends grappling with the visa process.
Mai says that even now, after all these years, her mother struggles to even look at images of the open ocean and her father lost his best friend on the journey.
“When I think of the horrors they experienced to give our family a fresh start, everything in life seems more precious and worth fighting for.”