'Today I would like to tell you my story'; Karenni refugee students use Heywire to connect with the Australian public
ABC Rural, 17 Sep 2014
Kle Wah was seven-years-old when he walked from Myanmar to Thailand, seeking safety in a refugee camp.
The trek took a month. His mother didn’t make it. She died in the forest.
"Burmese soldier come and burn our house," he said.
"If you don’t run they get killing our people."
Short, loaded sentences like this are all the information Kle Wah, now 19, can articulate in English, but he and other young Karenni refugees want to share their stories with Australia.
The Karenni are from east Myanmar and have been at war with the Myanmar Government for decades, with 10s of thousands fleeing by foot to Thailand.
Thai camps brought their own problems and many Karenni have settled in Australia including a group of about 200 in the regional South Australian city, Mount Gambier.
Kle Wah’s father and older sister are still living in a bamboo hut, without electricity or running water, in a Thai camp.
Meanwhile he is trying to settle into a foreign life of technology, shopping centres and wealth in his new Australian city.
About a dozen students studying an intensive English language course at Tennison Woods College entered the ABC Heywire competition, which asks rural youth to share their stories and ideas.
As their English improves, teacher Scott Dickson gains more insight into the students’ past.
"In amongst their stories is the heartbreak of what they’ve gone through and we knew broad brushstrokes of that … but quite often when they’re trying to explain it in English it’s not really clear," he said.
"Now with workshopping the entries you say, ‘well what does this mean?’
"And they’ll say ‘that was when my dad died’."
Naw Em Mui’s story recounts fires that destroyed her family’s bamboo home, not in Myanmar but in the Thai refugee camp.
It was 2013 and the 17-year-old was preparing for a school test.
"At 3pm I hear someone say the house become fire burn and I get out," she said.
"When I be to the river I saw the children cry because fire burn the house and looked very scared.
"At the fire burn day 37 people are death and everything we have building anew."
The fires prompted Naw Em Mui’s move to Australia.
"I’m so happy and everything is safe for our family," she said.
"I’m so happy that to came to college because I’m getting better at speaking English.
"I would really like to say big thank you to Australia Government and Australia people."
Lah Yu, 18, and her four brothers and sisters were born in the same refugee camp.
She describes the Thai camp as her ‘home’.
"I miss my friends and my country," she said.
"It’s hard to make friends (in Mount Gambier) because we can’t speak English very well, so I just study.
"I want to do hairdressing … I’m so happy to live here, I’m safe here."
Mahdalay, also 18, attends two church services in Mount Gambier every Sunday – one that’s delivered in English and the other in her Karen dialect.
"It’s very important to keep our Karenni culture," she said.
"Because we from different country and we want to show other people our culture."
Earlier this year four Myanmar refugees faced Mount Gambier Magistrates Court for possessing the carcasses of three koalas and 14 possums.
The case sparked public outcry on social media, with much support on a Facebook page that called for the accused to be jailed.
It was just one example of the cultural misunderstandings Karenni refugees face in the south east city; in Thai camps food was sourced from the forest or the river, so hunting native animals was not questioned in Australia.
Teacher Scott Dickson hopes the students’ stories will foster support from the wider community.
"With greater understanding comes greater knowledge and responsibility," he said.
"And I think that’s one of the things we’ll be able to share with a lot of people when we finish this project."