Australia for UNHCR Special Representative Carina Hoang has led a life that sounds like the plot of a novel.

Carina was only 16 in 1979 when she fled Vietnam on a rickety wooden boat with two of her younger siblings and hundreds of other refugees. The journey was treacherous and the group became stranded on the uninhabited Kuku Island in a remote region of Indonesia. It was three months before the survivors were rescued.

Since 1998, Carina – who now lives in Perth and is an acclaimed author, refugee advocate and actor – has returned to Kuku Island several times to bring the families of those who perished there to visit the graves of their loved ones.

“Some families excavate the grave and rebury the remains,” Carina says. “Some families leave it alone and renovate on top. We bring paper money and things we burn, that send prayers for the deceased, along with incense and fruit and other offerings.”

“For those who come to the jungle, the opportunity to carry out that ritual is very important. It’s a way of grieving for their lost loved ones, and finally being able to reach closure.”

“Not only do people miss their loved ones who died on Kuku Island, but they have guilt because they survived. So they come back to visit, to say ‘We haven’t forgotten you, we always think of you’,” says Carina.

“Coming back is not just to help the living, but for the deceased as well. It’s sad to see how abandoned the graves look. It could have been me buried there.”

Carina Hoang and her daughter Chiara Remigio visit a monument in memory of Vietnamese boat people who lost their lives on KuKu Island. © C. Hoppen

On last year’s visit she took her 18-year-old daughter with her to the island, and into the jungle where the graves are found.

“She helped paint the tombstones. It was quite meaningful for her to see and understand the suffering of those who lost their lives.”

Over the years Carina has brought dozens of people back to Kuku Island, and in 2010 she released a book – Boat People – which told the stories of Vietnamese refugees.

“There are different layers to the suffering of refugees that we don’t hear about,” Carina explains.
Although she planned to make the trip last year her final visit, Carina said that as long as families keep asking her to help them say their final goodbyes to lost family members, she will stay open to returning to Kuku Island.

Carina Hoang visits Kuku Island © C. Hoppen

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