'05, Master's in Business Administration
More than 30 years have passed since Carina Hoang fended off disease, hunger and death as a Vietnamese refugee, but the memories have never faded.
Hoang was 12 years old when her father became a political prisoner shortly after the end of the Vietnam War, prompting the rest of the family to fear for their lives. Over the next four years, Hoang attempted to escape the country four times, with each costly effort thwarted by police and crooked boat captains. Finally, in June 1979, Hoang, along with her younger brother and sister, boarded a small wooden boat with 373 others in an attempt to get to safer ground.
Refugees endured and witnessed heinous acts that included rape and death at the hands of pirates, as well as cannibalism among other boat people. When Hoang’s boat landed on a remote Indonesian island, she and her siblings were stricken with malaria, a disease that took the life of her cousin along with many others.
In all, 1-in-3 refugee boat people would die during the exodus, Hoang says.
“Sometimes I look back and wonder how I did it,” she says. “If I had to go back and relive that again, I’m not sure I would survive.” Hoang would eventually leave the island and find success as a businesswoman and entrepreneur who lived in the United States and Vietnam before adopting Australia as her home country. Like many people who live through unfathomable atrocities, Hoang did not share her story with friends and colleagues — let alone strangers — for many years.
All of that changed when she published “Boat People: Personal Stories from the Vietnam Exodus 1975-1996,” which shares the personal stories of Hoang and other survivors as they fled Vietnam and started new lives.
Hoang’s 2011 book not only has garnered good reviews but has helped spark interest in Australia about the plight of refugees. Now, Hoang is regularly asked to share her story with Australian schools, libraries and agencies, including the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Parliament for New South Wales and Western Australia. Her efforts led to a Volunteer of the Year award from Western Australia’s International Women and induction into its Hall of Fame.
Last fall, Hoang flew from Australia to visit Cal Poly Pomona, where she launched the U.S. debut of her book. A poised, confident, yet soft-spoken woman, Hoang shared her harrowing experiences as well as those of others, bringing tears to members of the Cal Poly Pomona community. Her life as a displaced person resonated with faculty, staff and students; some of whom spoke of their own experiences as refugees and of having relatives who had gone through similar hardships.
Hoang originally began the book as a doctoral thesis project and as a way to help her young daughter stay connected to her heritage. Soon, documenting the experiences of Vietnamese boat people became a passion and has turned this Cal Poly Pomona MBA graduate into an author and human rights activist. Hoang says the plight of refugees is still relevant today. In fact, 3 million Afghans are currently living as refugees, and uprooted people worldwide now number more than 40 million.
“My job is not done yet,” Hoang says. “It’s not the story of the past, it’s still happening.”
For more information on Carina Hoang’s book, visit www.carinahoang.com.
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