Former refugee and business phenomenon, Mitchell Pham’s dangerous flight as a 12-year-old from worn-torn and poor Vietnam to the two years spent in Indonesian refugee camps before being rehomed in New Zealand, is a story which continues to amaze.
Mitchell Pham’s escape from a country ravaged by civil war reads like something from an espionage novel. It involved subterfuge, courage, and cunning.
The eldest of three children, his early years were spent growing up in a mainly rural area of what is Ho Chi Minh city today.
“I was just four when Saigon was captured by the North Vietnamese ending what had effectively been a two-decade long conflict.”
As the struggling economy saw food and water shortages, families strived to survive. Like thousands of others, Mitchell’s family tried to flee Vietnam. Two failed attempts saw them all arrested and imprisoned.
“Eventually, when I was 12 it was decided to make one last desperate bid to escape but we had run out of resources. They family afford to send only one person. That was me!”
Despite the dangers, Mitchell says he felt relatively prepared because of the earlier escape attempts – “But, I had no idea what was in store… a truly frightening passage of several days with 67 people jammed onto a 12-metre fishing boat.
“We made it down the Mekong but then came a terrifying chase by the coast guard who fired on us with machine guns. I was terrified and feared we wouldn’t escape alive.”
On finally making it out to sea, the group still had to cross open waters (and face poor weather) before seeking asylum in Indonesia.
“Our situation deteriorated when we ran out of food, water, and fuel. Then, you can imagine our excitement when a cruise ship came upon us and stopped. However, we were absolutely deflated when the passengers started taking photos before the ship moved off again. There was no rescue. In fact, as it departed its wake nearly sank us.”
Eventually, the small boat drifted towards an oil rig. Workers spotted and rescued the physically drained and mentally exhausted escapees who were then sent to their first refugee stay in Indonesia.
And, so began the next stage of Mitchell’s miraculous journey
“Over the next two years I stayed in four refugee camps with the last, and largest, housing more than 20,000 people. They were overcrowded and lacking food, clean water, sanitation, healthcare facilities, school, infrastructure – you name it.
Determined to stay on top of his situation, Mitchell undertook various projects including teaching other refugees basic English at a United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) language school.
Nevertheless, he was still just a child, alone in a foreign country, and completely disconnected from his family.
“I had no news of my parents and siblings, and they didn’t know if I’d survived. I later learned that after my escape they went into hiding to avoid being arrested.”
After five years the family were reconnected through letters but it was decades before they were reunited in Auckland. Today, Mitchell says he is very grateful to have his brother’s family living in Half Moon Bay and his sister’s family in Epsom.”
Mitchell also counts himself fortunate that at 13 and a half, his dream of resettlement in Aotearoa New Zealand became a reality. He arrived here in August 1985 and over the next few years stayed with several families in Auckland before later setting out on his career path.
“This was the beginning of countless new challenges ranging from adapting to a different culture and climate to a new schooling system,” he recalls. “Settling wasn’t easy; it took me 10 years to feel at home.”
Mitchell’s story might have ended there but it seems he was destined for greater things. In 1993 he and his tight-knit group of four university friends ventured into business together, founding the well-known Augen Software Group.
“We were passionate but not very experienced so we didn’t see any of the looming challenges which was a blessing. If we had, we might not have gone ahead.”
The enterprise took off and grew into a technology group of interconnected companies, now operating in New Zealand and South East Asia.
Proud of his business achievements, which include many awards and accolades, whilst also creating opportunities for others, Mitchell hopes New Zealand’s policymakers will recognise that refugees have much to offer this country.
“I hope we will adopt refugees in the same way we adopt international talent. Fundamentally, we are no different to those who have more means to come to this country to fill jobs, and provide much needed skills.
“Refugees provide a pool of talent as well as economic and social opportunities for countries which embrace them. New Zealand can use these abilities more than ever.”
Many hats Mitchell wears
A three-decade career in business entrepreneurship and technology innovation now sees Mitchell Pham as a director of CodeHQ (formerly Augen Software Group) in New Zealand and of the Kiwi Connection Tech Hub – a platform for NZ technology businesses to accelerate presence in Southeast Asia.
Outside of his own business interests, Mitchell serves as Chair of the Digital Council for Aotearoa NZ, NZTech, FinTechNZ, NZ ASEAN Business Alliance and NZ Asia Institute.
He has been involved with the board of the Asia New Zealand Foundation since 2005, and currently serves as an honorary advisor. He is also a NZTE Beachheads Advisor in technology business for South East Asia.
Internationally, Mitchell has been recognised as a World Class New Zealander by KEA, a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and an Asia 21 Fellow and Global Council Member of the Asia Society.
He is also a member of the Strategic Alliance Vietnamese Ventures International network and an executive member of the global Vietnamese diaspora business network BAOOV.
Mitchell is co-founder and patron of the Auckland Refugee Family Trust and director of HOST International Aotearoa.
These organisations assist refugee individuals, families and communities in New Zealand.