BSSC Year 12 student, Nay Ler Wel, vividly recalls the feelings of ‘awful, scary’ on his first day in an Australian school.
Unable to speak a word of English, the intensely shy Nay and his sisters were the only Karen students enrolled at the primary school. Nay was seven years old.
“It took me three years to become fluent in English,” he remembers, “but I’m proud of the way I got through such a hard experience and made good friends there.”
Nay’s earlier years were spent in the Noh Poe (Nu Po) refugee camp—an isolated settlement of around 10,000 people fleeing violence in Myanmar, located on the Thai-Burma border.
School at Noh Poe was a low priority for the young, adventurous Karen boy who much preferred to skip his lessons and ride pillion on his dad’s motorbike as he attended a variety of jobs.
“I would hear the motor-bike rev up and I’d be out there on it,” Nay says.
But a work site is not always the safest place for a child.
On one occasion, as his dad worked on a problem with a water pump, Nay leant over a large swirling expanse of water, lost his balance, and fell in headfirst. There was nothing he could do to help himself, but thankfully the water popped him up to the surface and he was able to pull himself out.
“I don’t think I told anyone about that,” he says sheepishly.
Another time it was his dad who saved his life.
They arrived at the workplace to find the front door locked. Nay took little notice as his dad banged on the door trying to get someone’s attention.
Suddenly, a snake which was lying along the top of the door, and was probably the reason no-one would answer their knocking, lunged at Nay.
“My Dad must have the best reflexes,” Nay recalls. “He caught the snake around the neck and killed it. It provided a good meal later in the day.”
When Nay was seven, the family left the camp for a new life in Australia.
“We arrived in Darwin and my first memory was of airport security confiscating a bottle of soft drink Mum had told me to finish, but I’d just stuffed back in my bag. It really spooked me,” he says.
Nay hated the heat and humidity of Darwin and recalls being terrified by all the unfamiliar lizards—Darwin’s ubiquitous geckos.
After a few weeks, the family flew on to Melbourne and were met by people they knew from the Bendigo Karen community.
While starting school was quite traumatic for the young Nay, he also recalls the luxury of their own place to live and, as time passed, he saw there would be travel and educational opportunities not possible in Noh Poe.
“I’m grateful that we came to Australia,” Nay says. “Even though it was hard at the start, I’ve made some great friends and many people have been kind and helpful to me.”
Nay has a few career ideas, but is still not sure what pathway he will follow beyond BSSC. He chose his subjects with an eye to joining the army… PE to get fit, and Legal Studies in case he applies for the police force.
Still driven by his adventurous nature, he’d love to have a go at skydiving and is inspired by the idea of travel and exploring new places.
Nay is also conscious of the many benefits of fitness too.
“We learnt how much the brain benefits from exercise in Health & Human Development,” he says. “So I’ve just joined a gym.”
Nay admires the legendary Bruce Lee for his martial arts and also his willingness to develop his own method and commit to it completely.
If it was possible to speak with Bruce Lee, Nay says he would simply say: “Teach me your ways.”
In contrast, if Nay could travel back in time he would like to have a word with that child so determined to skip school whenever he could.
“I have never properly learnt Karen, so I would love to go back and say to myself, ‘turn up to school in Noh Poe, work hard and learn Karen. My Karen has faded even more as my English skills have grown.
“A part of me wishes we’d stayed longer in the camp so my Karen would be better, but life there was much more dangerous and I wouldn’t have met some of the friends I have here.”
Asked what comes to mind when he thinks about BSSC, Nay says, “BIG—educational—opportunities—hard work—and FUN.”
Nay has kicked off the 2021 school year with a “fresh mindset” towards his studies, helped by his great relationship with Duane Anderson.
“Last year I would laugh off his—and other teachers’—efforts to get me to pay attention,” he admits. “I did almost no work in class. My report said I was basically able to do the work, but was lazy.
“This year, Duane’s onto me! I’m trying much harder now and I do want to get better grades. My confidence has grown.
“At BSSC you need to step outside your comfort zone to make the most of all the opportunities on offer.”