As published in the Border Watch.
Refugees reflect on first 10 years in Blue Lake city
It was a chilly winters day when Karen refugee Ray Min and his family made the terrifying move to Mount Gambier in 2007.
Filled with fear and uncertainty for what the future would hold, Ray held his toddler tight on his lap in the plane as it descended into the city they would now call home.
Next to him was his wife Pa Lae Sein, who trusted him unconditionally to provide the family with a better future.
Both parents hoped their new life in Australia would be worlds apart from the persecution they suffered for many years at the hand of the Burmese for the sake of their children – Htoo Eh Main Min, almost four, and two-year old Diamond Htoo Min.
“I was terrified, I thought if something happened to this place, we would all be gone,” Ray said.
“Everything was uncertain – is someone going to pick us up from the airport? What will happen to us?”
With them on the flight were Thoo Lay Paw Eh and her family- Ray and Thoo were to be the two pioneer refugee families to arrive from Burma to settle in Mount Gambier.
Upon arriving at the airport they were welcomed by then Mount Gambier Migrant Resource Centre manager Heather Muirhead and taken to a rental two-bedroom unit she had secured prior to their arrival.
“The unit was so different from the bamboo houses we were used to – it was like a five star hotel,” Ray said. “It was the first time we had running hot water and we had to learn how to use the electric stove.
“We practised cooking on it and many times we set off the smoke alarm.”
In their first few weeks in Mount Gambier the family were scared to walk the streets, fearful that it would be the same as when they were living in the Thailand refugee camp where they had no right to go into the city and were locked up by police if they were seen there.
“It took us a few months to realise we were safe,” Ray said. However, one of the biggest barriers for the newly arrived couple to overcome was learning the English language.
“We have no plurals and no past tense in Karen,” he said. “We don’t say ‘yesterday I came’, we say ‘yesterday I come’, so tenses and pronunciation were the most difficult for us to learn. “When I arrived I was keen to become a nurse in Australia because I worked as a paramedic in a refugee camp, but I soon realised my English was not good enough and I became a little depressed for a while.”
Ray was born in a small village in the Karen state in Burma in 1972where he grew up with ethnic groups fighting to gain control over each other.
His father was a Karen soldier who fought hard for the independence and survival of his people, but it meant his family had to move from place to place. “Around 1978, the fighting was so bad that it became too dangerous for me, my sister and my mum to be with my dad, so we had to flee and leave dad behind,” Ray said.
However, their relief to get away from the brutality of the Burmese soldiers was short-lived as they were attacked again in Thailand.
Ray and his family were taken to the Umpiem Mai Refugee Camp where they lived for 23years before the Australian Government granted them a visa on humanitarian grounds to permanently settle in Mount Gambier.
It was at the camp he met his wife and their first two children were born.
It was also in the camp that Ray studied to become a paramedic and worked alongside visiting volunteer doctors, administering medicine and treating patients for illnesses such as Malaria and skin diseases.
He also helped with the delivery of babies.
“For about the first two years in Australia, I thought I’d be able to become a nurse and work in hospitals again,” he said.
“But when I realised it would never happen, I worked on a pig farm where I sometimes thought I was going to throw up because I couldn’t stomach the smell.
“Then I tried twice to work on dairy farms, but my body ached all over, I got very tired and realised I would not be able to do this work long-term.”
After studying English at TAFE, Ray returned to study aged care while his wife earned money running a day care centre from home.
“It took me about four years to get my career started and it was very hard to do the aged care course with my limited English.”
But Ray’s persistence paid off and not only did he learn to drive a car for the first time in his life, but he also gained employment as a carer at Boandik Lodge aged care facility where he still works now.
In 2010, Joshua Min was born and six years later, the family was blessed with the birth of Aria Min.
Now owning their own home, Ray realises how far they have come to fulfil their dreams ofhaving a good education, an income and their own property.
“Before I came here I knew nothing about Australia except that it had a high standard of living and peace – that’s what we came here for, the peace,” he said.
“Coming to Australia was the best thing that ever happened to us. “We’ve got freedom and we have the same rights as everyone else.”
In celebration of the arrival of the first two families in Mount Gambier 10 years ago, an event will be held at the Mount Gambier North Primary School on Saturday night.
This will include a bamboo dance performance, a question and answer session with two refugees and speeches from Mount Gambier Migrant Resource Centre employees. The event will begin at 6pmand is free and open to the public.