As published in the Border Watch.
Written by Jocelyn Nickels.
The first refugees arrived in Mount Gambier 10 years ago in search of a life of freedom and possibilities.
Coming from places of war and turmoil they were given hope of a better and happier life thanks to the dedication of many caring and thoughtful people including local resident Ann Pick.
As a teacher and a friend, the caring and supportive Ms Pick has helped to educate and guide families with little to no knowledge of the Australian culture and way of life.
It is for all those years of dedication that Ms Pick was recently awarded the 2016 Volunteer Governor Multicultural Award for her commitment to volunteering at the Migrant Resource Centre (MRC) in Mount Gambier. Involved with the first Karen and Karenni families that arrived to settle in the Blue Lake city in 2007, Ms Pick was the first adult migration English program lecturer and coordinator at TAFE.
Engaging with the Australian Migrant Resource Centre in supporting the new arrivals in their settlement process, Ms Pick played an influential role in developing relationships with the new community.
It was in this role Ms Pick truly learnt of the struggles faced by the brave individuals and families in their escape from a life of fear.
“It was really quite a challenge – there was a lot of learning from them and from us because we had not dealt before with that refugee intake before,” Ms Pick said.
“To come in on a humanitarian visa as sponsored by the government as to coming in on other visas is completely different.
“Many of these people had come out of camps, some of them had been born in camps, they had lived in camps for 20 years.”
Although some of these first refugees did know some English, Ms Pick said the experience for them was completely new and frightening.
“To have to leave a village in Burma, escape terror across a border, be accepted as a UNHCR refugee in Thailand and then one day somebody comes from the Australian Embassy and picks you to come to Australia on a Qantas plane is not easy.
“They then land in Melbourne and get on another plane to come into Mount Gambier and have to assimilate and fit into the community. “I’ve got the greatest admiration for them.”
However, it is one story in particular that will forever stay imprinted in Ms Pick’s memory.
“One of the girls told me once when they came into Mount Gambier from Melbourne on the plane, all they could see were pines and they started to cry because they thought they were going to live under trees again,” she said.
“I can partly relate to that because that is what you would think when you see all those trees.”
A couple of years later, when Ms Pick’s hours were reduced at TAFE, she started to offer literacy classes on a voluntary basis at the MRC, giving students the unique and valuable opportunity to access TAFE teaching materials.
From there citizenship classes were also developed and to date Ms Pick has helped countless refugees to prepare, register and successfully gain citizenship in their new country. This has been an insightful and rewarding experience for the dedicated volunteer who admires the courage
and determination of the refugee community.
“People desperately want to become Australian citizens, they want to belong and be a part of this community,” she said.
“They come here on Monday night with very little English and they struggle and they learn what it is to be an Australian citizen and they want that piece of paper.
“One day I was at the centre during winter as it was pouring with rain outside and I noticed an elderly lady. “I said ‘hello I haven’t seen you before’ and she said ‘no I’ve come for citizen’.
“I asked her ‘where have you come from?’, because it was raining and she was very wet and she gave the sign that she had walked.
“I then asked her ‘how far, where?’ “That day I had my name written on the board and she was pointing at herself and then at me.
“I worked out that she had walked all the way from Pick Avenue to the centre in the rain.
“That was just an amazing story.”
Although much of Ms Pick’s commitments with the refugee community are based at the MRC, she has also invited a group of women into her home for basket making lessons.
The women not only learnt the skill, but also basic bookkeeping and business knowledge, while improving their conversational English as they sat in a circle on Ms Pick’s lounge room floor making baskets.
The baskets were sold for over $1000, with $500 decided by the women to be donated to the MRC. With their permission, Ms Pick used the $500 to purchase English picture dictionaries which are now used in English conversational classes at the MRC.
Developing friendships with the refugees and also learning about their culture Ms Pick came to understand just how different this new life was for them.
“The differences in cultures were massive, just with simple things like crossing roads, going to Centrelink, keeping appointments and going to medical clinics.
“If you’ve never worked and never been brought up in that work culture, how do you suddenly move from that to a sophisticated western culture?
“We’ve done a good job here in Mount Gambier, the way refugees have been able to assimilate into the community is a huge plus for the city.”
However, it is Ms Pick’s “open door policy” that makes her stand out. “My theory is if my car is in the driveway you can come and knock on the door,” she said.
“I think that it is great in the fact that you are approachable and that people do come if they have a problem or if they need help with a form or something else.
“I’m not the only one, there are lots of people in the community that are doing it, there are lots of volunteer people and support groups.”
Now with a community of refugees in the city, Ms Pick said it is great to see them working together and settling into life in Mount Gambier.
“As the first refugees that came did have some English skills, they have been able to be the support group for further groups of refugees to the city,” she said.
“Particularly in the Burmese community you see the ones that are established assisting those that need more help.
“It really makes a difference – they have built up this whole pattern of migration in the community.”