Year 12 student, Ka Yai Htoo (pronounced Kaya), has a clear future focus.

She enjoys caring for people, being part of a team and has always imagined herself working in a hospital setting. Nursing is therefore top of her preferences.

“I’d like to study in Melbourne because I want to challenge myself by moving away and becoming more independent,” Ka Yai says.

“Now my English is so good, I’m confident I can succeed as a nurse—I can also be a translator for Karenni people if needed. Having two cultural perspectives is such an advantage.”

The Mae-surin refugee camp where Ka Yai was born is in isolated jungle near the Thai/Myanmar border. Mae-surin was initially established in 1992 for around 150 families fleeing the violence that continues to decimate ethnic minority groups in Myanmar.

In the camp, Ka Yai’s family operated a small shop selling snack foods. While Ka Tai and her friends—like all children—created many fun times, in reality they were terribly vulnerable.

Food, education and health care were all difficult to access and when the opportunity to migrate to Australia came up, Ka Yai’s parents grabbed it.

She is grateful to her parents for bringing the family to Australia, but cannot escape the worry of the ongoing violence in Myanmar.

“My country is going through a bad time,” Ka Yai says sadly. “I feel helpless for people still living there. It’s such a contrast to here, where I feel safe.”

Ka Yai’s family arrived in Darwin when she was around six years old. She remembers being amazed by a woman cutting up fruit who ended up with a whole bucket of fruit pieces—how it seemed so extravagant.

“I’d also been warned I’d be shocked the first time I walked into a supermarket,” she recalls. “It was unbelievable to see the variety and quantity of food.”

Ka Yai was enrolled in kindergarten and although she could not speak English, she understood what was required by watching the other kids.

“We moved to Bendigo later because there were friends here and Mum wanted to escape the Darwin heat,” she says.

“As I began to learn English, I had a thick accent and at first I got teased a bit. I’ve worked hard to lose my accent.

During her time at Crusoe College, Ka Yai took up volleyball. The team ended up competing at the 2019 School Sport Australia National Championships.

She realised during those games it wasn’t something she was willing to give up everything else to pursue.

“It was humbling too,” she recalls, “to realise I wasn’t a natural star of the sport.”

The following year Covid arrived and everyone’s lives change. Ka Yai found the lockdowns really challenging.

“I lost so much motivation for my studies,” she says. “I was incredibly sad I couldn’t go out or be with my friends.”

Pets took on a whole new importance for many families, and Ka Yai’s was one of them. Their “very cute and affectionate cat” made life so much better.

“I just loved hanging out with her,” Ka Yai says.

Now, back at school full-time and in her final year at BSSC, Ka Yai likes the way students support each other and is very grateful for wonderful friends.

Away from the college, Ka Yai works part-time at K-Mart and has a great group of friends she loves to spend time with.

If she could travel back in time and offer her 12-year-old self some advice, it would be to stop avoiding issues that really need attention.

“I don’t like confrontation,” Ka Yai says. “In the past I would have just gone along with things, even if I knew they weren’t in my best interests. I don’t do this so much now, and it makes a big difference.”

In hindsight, she wonders if she needed to experience these things to learn the lessons that have brought her to this point.

“When I look back over the last few years, I’m really proud of the way I’ve learnt to analyse what’s really going on.

“I’ve withdrawn from a couple of really disappointing situations, but that lets me know I’m developing a greater inner strength.

Ka Yai also has a much greater sense of being able to look after herself and trust her judgement.

“But wouldn’t it be great to have a really wise person on hand all the time,” she muses. “Someone who could give great advice right when you needed it?”


The ABC’s 4-Corners program from Monday 22nd August is worth watching if you’d like to know more about the disaster unfolding in Myanmar.