Cam Nguyen has never been afraid to challenge the status quo.

Growing up in southern Vietnam during the 1940s, Cam had dreams of studying at the prestigious French university Ecole Polytechnique, even though it only admitted men. When she was knocked back, she plucked up the courage to write to the university’s director to criticise the discriminatory policy. Cam went on to study economics at Cambridge, where she excelled.

In her 20s, Cam met the man she would eventually marry during a party at the Vietnamese embassy in London. Their homeland was deeply divided during the Vietnam War, so wanting to marry a man from the north — when her family was from the south — was heresy to her father. He was so angry he didn’t speak to her for three months. But Cam married anyway, and her union to Dan Nguyen lasted until his dying day seven years ago.

Cam smiles while crouching in a garden

Cam Nguyen said she felt a ‘moral obligation’ to help refugees to Australia.(

Supplied: Cam Nguyen

)

In her 30s, Cam arrived in Melbourne as a political refugee after Saigon was captured by the communist Viet Cong forces in 1975. The Nguyens had connections in diplomatic and church circles, were well-educated and fluent in English. But the same could not be said for many of their fellow Vietnamese, who arrived on boats with few possessions.

“Most Vietnamese didn’t know much about the English language or the English culture. I felt that I had a moral obligation to help. I would have felt guilty if I didn’t do anything,” she says, during an interview with the ABC in June, between Melbourne’s fourth and fifth lockdowns.

Association’s rise from humble beginnings

In 1983, Cam and 15 other like-minded Vietnamese women met in a back room of the Migrant Resource Centre near the Queen Victoria Market and decided to form an association. Its goal would be to provide welfare services to migrants trying to start a new life.

Their group was able to secure a $200 government grant to set themselves up with some stationery.

Vietnamese women work at a fundraising stall

The Australian Vietnamese Women’s Association was formed in the 1980s.(

Supplied: Australian Vietnamese Women’s Association

)

Nearly 40 years on, the Australian Vietnamese Women’s Association (AVWA) receives more than $15 million in grants each year for the wide array of services offered to the elderly, vulnerable and disadvantaged, and to employ more than 200 workers.

In the early days, the association’s volunteers spent much of their time helping refugees fill out forms, learn English and enrol their children in schools.

In the decades that followed, Cam was a passionate champion for her community. She spoke out publicly, raising awareness of poor living conditions some refugees were encountering, and the rates of gambling addiction she was witnessing among Vietnamese migrants.

From tackling ‘scandals’ to high-profile commentators

Geoffrey Blainey makes a hand gesture while delivering a speech

Professor Geoffrey Blainey, pictured in 2001, sparked heated debate because of his views on immigration.(

AAP: Alan Porritt

)

At times, she had to calm tensions caused by cultural differences and misunderstandings. While it wasn’t funny at the time, Cam chuckles when she recalls an unfortunate “scandal” in 1983 which made headlines.

“Soon after we started the organisation, some young men were caught barbecuing a dog somewhere in Melbourne. The neighbours, of course, were very angry. I had to write a letter to the editor of The Age,” she says.

“In North Vietnam you could buy a dog to eat. Restaurants were serving dog meat.”

She regards her greatest piece of advocacy as coming out swinging against Professor Geoffrey Blainey, an acclaimed but controversial historian, academic and commentator.

“Professor Blainey declared that Australia should limit the number of Asians admitted to Australia, so I spoke up,” she says.

Cam believes Australia should keep striving to foster multiculturalism and diversity.

“I think we have to look at our common humanity,” she says.

“I go to the leisure centre quite regularly. Looking at a kid jumping into the arms of his or her father in the swimming pool, you see the trust and the love. It’s all the same, regardless of colour.”

Retirement plans shelved, for now

Cam smiles while leaning a wall with artwork of 'lucky' animals

Cam Nguyen says she has only taken one day of personal leave in the last 17 years.(

ABC News: Kristian Silva

)

These days, a large part of the AVWA’s work focuses on supporting 1,500 elderly Vietnamese community members across Melbourne. It has been a vital service, especially during the pandemic, Ms Nguyen says.

“We send carers to 800 elderly people so that they can stay at home instead of moving to a nursing home. We also organise group activities so that elderly can come once a week, have fun, sing, dance, joke and have lunch,” she says, referring to non-lockdown times.

The association continues to offer English language courses, and provides counselling for people struggling with gambling, alcohol and drug addictions. Family violence is also another problem the association is trying to tackle.

Cam is the association’s full time chief executive officer, a job that sees her managing staff across three offices and soon to be four, when the AVWA opens a new branch in Springvale in Melbourne’s south-east.

She is constantly asked when she plans to retire, but insists she will “hang on” until at least the end of the year. Cam plans to write her memoirs when she eventually gives the job away.

“On account of COVID, it’s not a good time to advertise,” she says.

‘People think that the aged are just a burden’

In the meantime, there is much work to be done and another group to champion.

Cam was named as Victoria’s Senior Australian of the Year for 2021, and like with many of the other issues she has spoken up about, she wants to change perceptions.

An old photo of Cam and her husband Dan, with the Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background

Cam Nguyen with her late husband, Dan Nguyen.(

Supplied: Cam Nguyen

)

Cam points to US President Joe Biden, 78, as inspiration for what older people can achieve.

“There’s a lot of ageism and what is also sad is that a lot of aged people don’t have self-confidence. They are ageist too. They don’t feel they deserve the respect and care,” she says.

Cam, who has four children and five grandchildren, credits her success to “a positive attitude” and says she has few regrets in life.

“Since I’ve been CEO from the year 2004, I think I have taken only one day of personal leave. I have not been sick in any way,” she says.

“Enjoy life and help others to enjoy their life. Because when you give, you receive a lot.”

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She’s tackled sexism and racism, now this 80-year-old CEO is confronting another growing problem
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