I am Karen, one of the ethnic groups from Myanmar subjected to ethnic cleansing for many decades. When I was five months old, civil war struck our village and my family had to flee to a refugee camp on the border of Thailand, where I lived for 12 years.
During summer, it was really hot, and during the rainy season, we got wet because our houses were just made out of bamboo and leaves. The food was rationed weekly – rice, fish paste and yellow beans, and that was it for 12 years. But that kind of suffering was considered normal. My mother reminded us every day that we were very, very lucky because we had been saved, and we hadn’t had to run from the bullets, fleeing from one place to another…
It was only when we came to Australia that I realized we were not lucky living in that refugee camp at all. That’s how perspective changes.
Although I didn’t receive a proper education in the camp and knew almost no English when I came to Australia, I’m now in my third year of a double degree in Business and Law. When I was a kid, I never dreamed that I would get the chance to study at university. All I wanted was to be a soldier when I grew up so I could defend my people. Every day, we heard of village after village being burned, of women being gang-raped, of our people being tortured, and killed, and it was very hard to ignore.
Now, in my spare time, I’m volunteering with settlement services helping other refugees and migrants. Through this work, I have realized that even when refugees come from different countries, our stories are the same – the same feelings, the same fears, and the same relief that we are now safe.
Like most girls from my cultural background, I’m a bit shy and conservative. But I wanted to do this interview to break the stereotype about refugees. If we are given the right resources and the right opportunities and if we seize those opportunities, we can achieve anything other people can, and build a new life. But many refugees have had traumatic experiences – some have been tortured, or had family members killed – so when they come here, they are sometimes very scared to open up to the larger community. They think that it’s safer to stay in a corner and be quiet.
It takes other people to break down the wall, to welcome them, to come and say, ‘We want you here. We are the same human beings. We have this right. You have the same right.’
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