Vietnamese Youth Rep at UN General Assembly
By Jackie Bong-Wright
Vietnamese Wins Spot on Australian Delegation
Thao Nguyen, 24, speaking gently but firmly to the Vietnamese crowd at a restaurant at the Eden Shopping Center in Virginia, described her work at the 59th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) as a Youth Representative from down-under Australia. She had joined 12 youth representatives from other countries to conduct briefings and run round-table discussions on social, health, education, and human rights issues.
They also worked on a common statement and a newsletter as they lobbied to gain governments’ support for controversial resolutions on topics like Crimes Against Women and Girls, Children in Armed Conflict, and Trafficking of Women. Such issues were a constant part of these young people’s efforts during their UN stint.
Thao’s first chance to speak at the General Assembly came in October, when she shared her own story with the assembled world leaders and diplomats. She said that her parents had fled Communist Vietnam and walked through the jungles of Cambodia, ending up in the refugee camp in Thailand where she was born.
“Today, ladies and gentlemen, that same baby is addressing you,” she declared. Her moving tale impelled Sichan Siv, a U.S. Ambassador to the UN and originally from Cambodia, to “congratulate the distinguished delegate from Australia for her eloquent statement.” He himself had survived the Cambodian killing fields and had come to America as a refugee, driving taxis and delivering pizzas before managing to get into Colombia University.
In her statement, Thao observed that young Australians were confronted with an overwhelming level of information and complexity compared to previous generations. “The pressure to make immediate choices now, significant or not, is prevalent. With high levels of social expectations and pressures, many young Australians have not adequately been able to develop the parallel emotional resources to accommodate and utilize this rapid era of choice and information.”
In her consultations in Australia before starting her UN assignment, Thao had seen that young Australians were politically disengaged. She believed that they possessed an immense amount of knowledge, insights and new ideas, and that the lack of engagement was due to access barriers and decision-making inability in political forums that hindered their participation and empowerment.
She also mentioned that school retention rates among Indigenous Australians were low and that detention rates for young males were much higher than the national average. Unemployment was another significant issue.
“Youth of marginalized backgrounds – culturally, religiously, sexually and geographically, are confronted with issues of identity, belonging, perception and opportunity. Never before has the need for community engagement and development been so paramount,” Thao said.
Thao recommended that one of the best ways for the young to participate in accessible and empowering environments was through community cultural development.
She believed that youth participation in decision-making was needed to have genuine democracy in the development of policy affecting young people.
A Survivor’s Journey
Thao brought her experience as a survivor to the competitive process that would allow her to go to New York. In tests to measure commitment and achievement, she outscored 200 other young Australians who were vying for the job at the UN. An active volunteer in the Vietnamese community in Sydney, she boasts an excellent educational and cultural background. Besides a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce, she is in her final year of Law at the University of Sydney, specializing in human rights law and public international law.
Thao’s qualifications do not stop there. She is youth chair of the Ethnic Communities’ Council of North South Wales (NSW) and is extensively involved in community and cultural projects. She coordinated Spectrum, a state-wide conference looking at cultural diversity, inter-generational conflict, and cross-cultural communication among young people. She was a member of the 2002 National Youth Roundtable, and has been active in encouraging leadership and participation among refugee and migrant youth. In 2003, she was named the National Young Vietnamese- Australian of the Year.
In 2004, she initiated and coordinated a Memory Frame – An Anthology of Missing Recollections, written with six other young Vietnamese refugees about their ordeal and resettlement in a new country. The project was supported by the Literature Board of Australia Council for the Arts.
Thao’s preparation for her UN work was extensive. She conducted consultations with youth all over Australia, journeying to six cities to meet with community activists, industrialists, politicians, aboriginals, and even youth in detention centers to learn their concerns. A quick mind, exceptional charm and strong determination were needed for the the $25,000 award her work brought her, which exceeded her own target and financed her stay in New York.
Her eloquence at the UNGA proved she has something to say. “Voices may originate from whispers. Whether from a developed or developing country, young people must and should be able to contribute today to the world that we live in and to the future that we will inherit. Budgetary constraints will always exist but priorities can always be shuffled. If you so desire, the young people of your countries will make it a reality. I hope that you will genuinely hear the whispers that will one day become the voices of change.”