Finding home

Paw Ku Htee has called Bendigo home for nearly six years and is now helping other new arrivals to become independent and navigate the system.

“You should do this… you have an amazing story to tell.”

It was these words of encouragement from one of her closest friends that convinced Paw Ku Htee to enter Heywire—an ABC initiative for young people living in regional or rural Australia.

A member of Bendigo’s Karen community, Ku Htee is surrounded by hundreds of others with similar stories of life as refugees and asylum seekers—stories of traumatic loss and great resilience. She doubted her story was very ‘special’.

But the folk at the ABC disagreed. The 21-year-old Bendigo Senior Secondary College Alumna was recently named one of 35 winners in this year’s Heywire competition for sharing the story of her journey from Mae Ra Moe refugee camp in Thailand to her new life in regional Victoria working for Bendigo Community Health Service.

After graduating from BSSC, Ku Htee began her role as a trainee and now works three days a week supporting the Karen community in vitally important ways.

“My role is really varied,” she says. “Part of it is translation—getting important messages out to the community—but I also work closely with people who have been in Australia less than five years, teaching them how to become independent and navigate the system.

“It can be very hard for people to catch public transport, fill in forms, or access medical services and job providers.”

Ku Htee is well placed to help people from refugee backgrounds having spent the first 15 years of her life in Mae Ra Moe camp.

Her parents had fled the civil war in Myanmar many years earlier, forced to leave behind the family rice paddy, fearing for their lives.

“There was no hospital or doctors in the camp,” Ku Htee says. “I was born in the middle of winter beside the fire. My family lived in a bamboo hut.

“I’ve heard the stories from my parents many times. I think that was their way of dealing with it… to tell us everything.”

Ku Htee describes her education at the camp as “very basic”.

“I didn’t learn much English as the teachers were not highly qualified,” she says, “but we were one of the luckier families.

“My parents had been in the camp for a long time and my dad got on really well with the nearby villagers. We had our own field to grow vegetables. Rice, oil and yellow beans were supplied by aid organisations, but vegetables were a real luxury.”

Despite having some really good memories of her childhood, Ku Htee says the nature of life in a refugee camp is one of trauma and constant loss.

“People are always moving on… transitioning,” she explains. “You live so closely with people—get to know them really well—and then they suddenly disappear. I would think, ‘I want to go too’, but you couldn’t live in the past… you just had to move on.”

The lack of hospitals or doctors in the camp meant people regularly became ill from unknown diseases.

Ku Htee’s best friend was one of those who became sick when they were both just eight years old. When her health continued to deteriorate, she was eventually taken to the town an hour away by road. She died a half hour into the journey.

Ku Htee describes it as one of the toughest times in her life at the camp.

“Those experiences are always with you,” she says. “You move on with your life, but you never forget.”

Leaving the camp after 15 years was a double-edged sword for Ku Htee. She was excited about the opportunity to migrate to Australia, but sad to leave friends (and her pet dog) behind.

“I’ll never forget the bus journey to Bangkok,” she say. “It was more than 10 hours, but I refused to sleep because I didn’t want to miss a thing. I’d never been to a city before… never seen tall buildings.”

Boarding the plane to Australia was the first time Ku Htee had ever seen white people. The unfamiliar food on the flight also left an indelible mark.

“It was so awful… I think I had food trauma,” she says with a laugh. “I could still smell it for days after we arrived in Melbourne.”

Ku Htee and her family spent a year living in the Melbourne suburb of Ringwood before being lured to Bendigo by the better access to services, the ease of getting around and the established and growing Karen community.

“After Melbourne, Bendigo felt like such an accepting and welcoming place. We quickly felt like we belonged here,” she says.

Ku Htee spent two years at BSSC in 2018 and 19 and made lasting friendships. She also credits her VET Allied Health teacher, Kait Kelly, as making a lasting impact on her life—inspiring Ku Htee to apply for the Diploma of Nursing at Bendigo TAFE.

“I really enjoy working with community and educating people and I want to continue to develop those skills,” she says.

“It would be great to travel and work in other countries one day, but to begin with I’d really love to work in a modern hospital like Bendigo Health. That’s the dream right now.”

She hopes this will also be the year she becomes an Australian citizen.

“Being born in a refugee camp means I have no official citizenship of any country,” she says. “Having that identity is something that will be really important to me.”

By John Holton