A family’s journey - from seeking refuge to a PhD

Michael Thai Trung King, the son of Vietnamese refugees, is set to graduate from RCSI

Michael Thai Trung King, who is to be conferred with a PhD from the RCSI. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Michael Thai Trung King, who is to be conferred with a PhD from the RCSI. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

 

They arrived, wrapped in Aer Lingus blankets, to a cold and blustery Dublin Airport in the winter of 1981.

To many, they were simply the “Boat People” – desperate ethnic Chinese in flimsy vessels fleeing Vietnam and pushed back out to sea by the Malaysian navy.

Nga Van Thai, his wife and children were among the first of 200 Vietnamese refugees relocated to Ireland.

Only a handful spoke English. The majority were poor, unskilled with little formal education. Some were illiterate in their own language.

That’s why today is an especially proud day for Thai’s family. One of his children – Michael Thai Trung King – will be among 24 students to graduate with a PhD from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) .

“I feel very proud,” he says. “My father always wanted me to do the best I can.”

It’s a considerable achievement given the barriers he and other children of the Boat People have vaulted.

The State’s response was – to a large extent – indifference. Funding for accommodation and furniture came through the church collections. Children were expected to pick up English by osmosis.

The public response to refugees – based on the newspaper letter columns of the time – was hardly welcoming.

“Did anyone ever stop to think who these people are, and how much money they spent to get on the boat?” asked one letter writer.

Another questioned: “Will they contribute anything to the Irish economy?”

Michael, now 31, was luckier than most. His father – who set up a Chinese takeaway in Dublin’s North Strand – had some English and encouraged the language in the home.

Michael grew up in Coolock and attended primary school in Darndale.

“It could be tough at times,” he says. “Kids were kids. Typical slurs were ‘chink’ or ‘yellow’. But I didn’t take things lying down. I was a little rascal, I guess.”

Challenge

Secondary school was also a challenge. But he singles out a chemistry teacher for helping nourish his interest in science.

He studied chemistry at the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology, where he achieved a first class honours degree.

“The atmosphere was totally different,” he says. “I under-performed at school. There, people wanted to learn. My friends were very open-minded. They’re friends for life.”

Work at a pharmaceutical firm helped fire his interest in drug discovery. As part of his PhD at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, he researched the development of drugs that may lead to treatments for autoimmune and infectious diseases such as arthritis, lupus, MRSA and sepsis.

Michael’s father was supportive to the end. When he faced challenges completing the write-up stage, his father gave him the motivation to finish it.

He died on the day Michael submitted his thesis last May.

Today, Michael’s mother and sister are due to celebrate with him at his conferring ceremony.

His father won’t be far from his thoughts. “Education was everything,” Michael says. “He wanted us to do well. He never told us what to do – just to do well in what we did.”

He is continuing his work as part of a post-doctoral research position in RCSI and hopes his story is an inspiration to others.

“I owe thanks to a lot of people here at the RCSI – they are amazing human beings. And my wider family . . . With the right support, you can achieve anything.”