When a hood drove his knife into Vanu Coughran’s left eye he changed her life forever.
The mother of four walked away from a career in the corporate sector determined to help people like her attacker turn their lives around. It was a decision that surprised colleagues in the police where she was working as an executive assistant on a project aimed at speeding up emergency response times.
Vanu will never forget the evening of Saturday, April 10 2007.
After getting home from an afternoon’s youth work at the Uniting Church, she decided to take her youngest son, Tatala, for ice-cream while she did some chores is Wiley Park. She went to a convenience store to withdraw her rent and buy petrol as she had a dozen times before. Vanu noticed two teenaged girls watching as she took money from an ATM and, as she handed over $20 for petrol, they pounced. She fought back and the struggle brought down racks and scattered groceries but didn’t move the shop keeper.
“He didn’t do a thing to help, he didn’t even speak to me,” Vanu recalled. “I was quite upset. As soon as I got outside I knew I was in big trouble. There were four of them, the two girls and two young guys. They all attacked me and, I never saw it, but I felt the knife go into my eye.”
She could feel the eye ball bouncing on her cheek and the blood spurting but she was fighting for her life. She dragged a male assailant to the ground and wouldn’t let go while holding Tatala to her midriff so he couldn’t look up and see her face.
“I didn’t feel pain just this mighty urge to survive.” she recalled.
Doctors said the adrenaline saved her. So tight had been her grip that police had to prise her fingers away from the attacker’s hair she had grabbed and wound around her wrist. An ambulance rushed her to the Sydney eye hospital, with seven-year-old Tatala along for the ride, and it wasn’t long before her police officer daughter was also by her side. Vanu had knife wounds to her wrists and arms but it was the severed eye that really hurt. During 11 crucial days, in and out of operating theatres, she prayed for the glimmer that might have saved her eye. But the light never came and surgeons operated to replace it with a hand-crafted replica.
“I was ready.” Vanu said. “The hospital staff had been very good. They were honest about the chances from the start. It wasn’t a shock and I just wanted relief from the horrific pain.”
She spent three weeks in hospital and four weeks off work but full recovery would take much longer. Vanu wore an eye patch for six months. It was eight months before she got behind the wheel of a car and 18 months until she was confident to drive at night. Life was going to be different for the one-time NSW and Australian volleyball rep.
“All my life of running up and down railway station steps I never knew what the painted white and yellow lines were for.” she says. “Now I know, they’re for people like me.”
But her biggest challenge was to be strong, forgive her attackers and to work for a city that gives a damn about youngsters like those who had taken her eye.
Back with the police, she became increasingly upset about Juvenile Justice papers that would cross her desk. Senseless crimes and useless punishments, she felt.
“I was starting to hate working in a system that just threw people away without making any effort to help them.” Vanu said.
So she turned up at Centrelink and announced her intention to work in the community. They kept pointing her to corporate jobs and she kept telling them she wasn’t interested. Eventually Centrelink suggested a community services course at TAFE which led to a placement with the Metro Migrant Resource Centre in Marrickville. Her enthusiasm led to a permanent job working with immigrant groups.
Samoan-born, New Zealand raised and educated, she loves helping Korean, Chinese and Arab women with their Australian Citizenship tests, running safe driving programs, and assisting the unemployed in their quest for work.
She still finds time for her own projects – youth work with the Uniting Church and going out on youth patrols with Campsie and Bankstown police. The patrols sit down and talk with young people they find drinking or abusing drugs. They listen to the kids’ concerns and try to point them towards activities that can reconnect them with broader society, often through police youth clubs.
“The idea is not discipline but to listen and we actually manage to reach some of them.” Vanu says. “It reinforces to me that the most basic policing comes from inside the home. All of these kids, each one of them, has some kind of family problem.”
She has also been active in helping cool tensions between Sydney’s Tongan and Samoan communities. Her life, she says, is more rewarding and busier than it ever was.
But the fact more needs to be done was brought home in dramatic fashion in late May as she waited for a train home from Bankstown.
It was early evening when two young men came down the stairs towards her, pushing and shoving. They looked like an Asian and a Samoan and suddenly, right in front of her, the smaller young man reached inside his jumper, pulled a knife and drove it into bigger boy’s chest.
Reaching behind her, Vanu dialled 000 as the Samoan wrenched the blade out of his heart and lashed out, slashing his attacker and another youngster before collapsing to the platform. Vanu reached out and held his hand as he died.
“I wanted to help but I was scared.” she said. “My mind went straight back to the attack four years ago. “It still goes through my mind that I could have stepped in. Maybe, if I had spoken to him in Samoan, he might still be alive. As a community worker I want to find a way to talk to these people, to get these youths together. I have lost an eye and now I have watched a young man die. I won’t be backed into a corner to die of hatred and bitterness. There must be a way to reach out and help these young people.”