[vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text]June 2011 Newsletter


Welcome to the fourth edition of the John Byrne Memorial (JBM) newsletter, which aims to provide updates on the work of the JBM. In this edition we also have two feature stories on the relevant work conducted by members of the JBM Executive Committee that we would like to share with you.

We would also like to encourage you to visit our website at http://www.johnbyrnememorial.com.au for more information.

Feature Story – JBM Chair completes PhD study on young Vietnamese-Australian heroin users

When Dr Naomi Ngo, JBM Chair, set out to complete a PhD about young Vietnamese-Australian drug users some years ago she was inspired by John Byrne – at first sharing ideas and information and after his death drawing on his memory to remain motivated. In this article she responds to questions about her research and its findings.

What is the topic of your PhD and what motivated you to pursue it?

My PhD explored the experiences and needs of young Vietnamese‑Australian heroin users who travelled to Vietnam as a way of addressing their heroin related issues.

I started thinking about doing a research project in 1999, after spending a few years working with young Vietnamese‑Australian heroin users. At the time, I was very frustrated with the ‘band‑aid’ effect of my work on the lives of these young people, who appeared to be caught in a vicious cycle of disadvantage, crime, rehabilitation and re‑offence. As a result I decided to conduct a research study to explore the needs and issues of young Vietnamese‑Australians who were using and selling heroin.

Through conversations with colleagues, including John Byrne and young Vietnamese‑Australian heroin users, I noticed a trend amongst Vietnamese-Australian families to send their children back to Vietnam when they had heroin related problems. They thought that removal from the local scene would allow them to detox and break the link to drug-using friends.

I was told by workers, like John, that there was a common belief that in Vietnam the situation is different, their children would be safe, supervised and cared for by relatives, and would eventually leave their involvement with heroin behind them.

In the same year, John was commissioned by the Victorian Department of Human Services to conduct an investigation into drug culture in Vietnam. I decided to travel with him and found that this experience, coupled with his report, helped to inform my PhD proposal and deepened my understanding of Vietnam and the lives of Vietnamese‑Australians.

Later when I conducted a literature review on the topic of Vietnamese-Australian heroin users, I found that almost all the studies expressed concerns over their risk behaviours, particularly in relation to young people travelling to Vietnam for drug related reasons. They were considered likely to bring HIV from Asia into the Australian community and to sustain the current epidemic of hepatitis C among injecting drug users. While the studies produced valuable findings on the profile and health risks of these young people, they didn’t focus on their experiences and motivation.

As a result, I felt it was important to fill this knowledge gap in order to provide information to assist policy makers and workers in the field, as well as the Vietnamese‑Australian community and families.

Who was involved in your study?

The action of sending young people to Vietnam as a way of addressing their heroin related problems – an act that I refer to as the option of return – is largely a decision made by the young people’s parents, supported and assisted by their workers.

As a result, my research participants consisted of:

  • Ten workers who worked with young Vietnamese-Australian heroin users
  • Five family members who sent and/or accompanied children to Vietnam to address their heroin related problems.
  • Sixteen young people, aged between 15 and 25 years who had travelled to Vietnam for drug related reasons – eight interviewed in Victoria and eight while still in Vietnam.

What are the findings of your study?

I found that when young people travelled to Vietnam, many successfully met their own and their families objectives in relation to drug detoxification and abstinence. Their period of abstinence lasted as long as their length of stay in Vietnam, which ranged from one month to over a year.

For me, the factors contributing to their success appear to be the traditional social, cultural and familial structures that exist in Vietnamese society. These traditional structures and the way of life in Vietnam provided most of the young people with a positive and meaningful experience assisting them to remain abstinent and giving them a sense of confidence and optimism about their life and future.

Although Vietnam is rapidly changing, it still remains largely a traditional society that is collectivist or communal in nature, where the individual is defined and directed by others. In Vietnam the family is the fundamental unit of society. The actions of family members are guided by rules, morals and virtues that are in accordance with a Confucian heritage. The traditional and common form of communication is face‑to‑face interaction, with clear lines of communication within the family that are based on filial piety. Face‑to‑face interactions and oral traditions provide most people with a sense of the past and a social context for everyday life.

Not only did these features provide young people with a positive and meaningful experience, they also assisted them to remain abstinent. As one of the young people told me,

The community here is more loving, like everyone talk to each other not like over there, like I don’t even know my next door neighbour… Like people [here in Vietnam] they talk more, it’s more community. Everything is close by. If you’re hungry, people bring food to your door. Over there, if you want to go somewhere you have to like hop into a car… [In Vietnam] Sometimes I can’t keep up with it. I have to follow the rules, like don’t lose the family name whatever, like I have to save face and that for the family… It’s a good thing but. Gives something to believe in.

(19 years old Vietnamese‑Australian young man).

In general, the option of return seems to be an effective way of addressing heroin issues for young Vietnamese‑Australians. However, it is also a strategy that involves risk because of the availability and affordability of heroin in Vietnam and the general lack of awareness among young people about the health risks involved in sharing injecting equipment. Furthermore, the experiences of a couple of the young people in the study were negative because they could not identify and connect with their environment and the people around them. All the same, these young people were able to remain abstinent because of a sense of personal and familial obligation that they gained while they were in Vietnam.

When the young people returned to Australia, almost all of them were healthy and hopeful about their future. Their state of mind and general outlook on life were positive and they had confidence in themselves to stay away from heroin. They all had clear goals for their future: to remain abstinent, to resolve their legal issues and to obtain employment or return to school.

Unfortunately, their optimism and plans lasted as long as they could remain drug free and the majority relapsed into heroin use within three months. Once they relapsed, their physical and mental wellbeing deteriorated and they returned to a similar situation to the one they were exposed to before they left for Vietnam, that is, highly at risk of dangerous heroin use and incarceration.

I believe the main factors contributing to young people’s relapse were their return to an environment with limited support and their entry into a state of isolation and marginalisation. In Australia, they were part of a minority group, and for many of them their lives were characterised by socio‑economic disadvantage, racism and marginalisation. Whereas in Vietnam, they were part of a majority and held the elevated status of Việt Kiều (overseas Vietnamese). Almost all of them were well cared for and most felt respected, valued and loved in Vietnam. In addition to this, most of them gained a stronger sense of belonging to the family and community as a result of the traditional and collective nature of Vietnamese society.

Despite relapsing, the majority of the young people believed that they had “done better” than other young people in their situation by going to Vietnam. They found that Vietnam provided them with an environment, space and time to learn about themselves, their families and their homeland. More importantly, it provided them with the opportunity to get off heroin and start a new life. For these reasons, almost all of them recommended returning to Vietnam as an option to address young people’s heroin issues.

For me, the young people’s experiences in Vietnam and after their return to Australia pose a challenge to current public and scientific views that heroin dependency is a health condition requiring medical treatment. My research shows that the socio-cultural factors shaping the behaviour and lives of young heroin users need to be taken into consideration and that is my recommendation. We also need a holistic approach to ensure access and equity for all those affected by substance misuse.

If you’d like to read Naomi’s thesis, a copy can be downloaded from http://researchbank.rmit.edu.au/eserv/rmit:7537/Ngo.pdf

The JBM Executive Committee would also like to congratulate Dr Janis Webb on the completion of her PhD. Janis kindly offers mentoring to recipients of the JBM scholarships.

Feature Story – John’s nephew serves in the Philippines

by Annette Byrne-Phillips, Secretary of the JBM and John’s sister.

During the Easter break I had the pleasure of travelling to the Philippines with my sister and brother-in-law, Maree and Brian, to visit their son Mark David Walsh. Mark is John Byrne’s nephew and a member of the JBM Executive Committee. He is currently doing a year’s immersion in the Philippines with the Institute of Formation and Religious Studies (IFRS) in Quezon City.

IFRS is an institute that was set up by the Women’s Religious Orders (Catholic) to give their members theological training that was previously only available to men seeking religious life. They see themselves as being rooted firmly in an Asian and Majority World (the two thirds of the world who live in poverty) context. They seek transformation of hearts and of structures, so that all may enjoy fullness of life. In addition to this they recognise their interconnectedness to the greater community of life on Earth and seek to understand the responsibilities associated with that more fully. In an attempt to be inclusive, they look to the wisdom of women and men, of indigenous peoples and of religious traditions and spiritualities other than their own. They also include lay and religious men and women amongst their student body.

Mark is working with a number of religious congregations including the Sisters of Good Sheppard and Sisters of Sion. We had the pleasure of staying with the Sisters of Sion who made us feel most welcome. One of the sisters from Australia, Sister Pat Fox, went to work in the Philippines 20 years ago and has continued working with and for the people especially from the provinces. It was an overwhelming experience to visit a country where the people are so disenfranchised and down-trodden yet happy with the simple routines of life and generous to strangers.

Mark is teaching scripture and Jewish Christian relations, as well as running short courses to assist the students with their essay writing and English as an additional language. His interest in, and work, with the Filipino people is in the same spirit as John’s Vietnam experiences. I see John’s passion and strengths in Mark working for those less fortunate than us and giving his students the opportunity of a better education.

For more information on IFRS, please visit www.ifrs.com.ph

2011 Scholarship Recipients

Every year the JBM awards two scholarships to students studying in the Western Region of Melbourne – a tertiary scholarship for someone studying at Victoria University (VU) and a secondary scholarship for a student at Maribyrnong Secondary College. This year VU is opening its scholarships in mid June that will close in early July. As a result, we will provide you with an update of the VU scholarship in our next newsletter.

It is with pleasure that we announce the successful scholarship recipient at Maribyrnong Secondary College:

Esther Ting Paw

Esther is currently studying Year 12 at Maribyrnong College. She arrived in Australia with her family in 2007 and has since applied herself very diligently to learning English and undertaking secondary school studies. When she was very young her father fled Burma for Malaysia because the political situation in his home country made it dangerous for him to stay. In 2006 Esther’s mother and most of the family escaped to Malaysia to join her father leaving Esther and her younger brother behind in Burma. There followed a very difficult time for Esther until she and her brother were able to be reunited with the family in 2007 and together they all came to Australia as refugees. She was highly recommended by staff at the school who are impressed by her diligence and persistence with her studies.

The John Byrne Spirit Award

In late 2009 the JBM Executive Committee was approached by one of John’s ex students who wanted to donate funds to set up an award at Maribyrnong Secondary College in dedication to John. This anonymous donor wanted to create the John Byrne Spirit Award to recognise a student who has demonstrated the same community spirit and generosity as John. Someone who is prepared to consider others before themselves and someone prepared to act upon their beliefs.

The JBM Scholarship Committee is glad to announce that the inaugural John Byrne Spirit Award has been given to Bassel Tallal. Bassel is a young man in year 12 at Maribyrnong Secondary College who fits all the criteria – willingness to help others. He has been a carer for his father, a college captain and has organised school activities, which he has always done for the entire six years he has been at school.

Financial Assistance

The JBM has also allocated $1,000 a year to assist disadvantaged students with the purchase of public transport tickets to facilitate their school attendance. Funding for travel tickets is not available elsewhere.

The JBM has organised for the Western Language School (WELS) to administer the fund that is accessed by youth and relevant support workers. In the last 12 months, 6 six monthly travel tickets were purchased and given to 7 students in secondary schools and tertiary institutions in the Western suburbs of Melbourne.

Fundraising Events

The JBM held two fundraising events late 2010 and has another planned for June 2011.

Thanks to John’s nephew and committee member, Mark Walsh, a trivia night was held in October in the warm and inviting space at St Joseph’s Conference Room, Edmund Rice Education Australia in Richmond. Mark and friend John Binek, both experienced Trivia organisers, ran a great evening with something for everyone in their questions. The winning table won a $200 dinner voucher for Brown Sugar Thai, an outstanding restaurant in East Brunswick. The restaurant is run by an old friend of John’s, Sarapee, and we are grateful to her for donating this great prize. A total of $1,620 was raised through this event.

In November a viewing of the Australian film, Summer Coda featuring John’s nephew, Nathan Phillips and set in Mildura was held at Cinema Como in South Yarra. In light of its screening so close to our trivia fundraiser it was very gratifying to see good numbers and to raise $590 for the Sunday afternoon event. An exciting highlight was an appearance by Nathan who flew in to Melbourne just in time to answer questions about the film at the end of the showing. The Committee is grateful to the Management of Cinema Como for its support and to Nathan for adding a special note to this event. Both of our film sessions were made possible through the generosity of the Zeccola family and Kino Cinemas and we thank them for their support of the JBM.

In addition to the JBM fundraising events, a total of $570.00 in donations were received. For the year 2010, the JBM made a total of $3,640.00 in fundraising and donations. We wish to thank everyone who generously supported the JBM.

The next event planned is a fundraising screening of the movie, Oranges and Sunshine, at 1.30pm on Sunday 19th June 2011 at Kino Cinema. Please see below for more details.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/1″][vc_column_text][/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]