Saturday, January 3, 2009

Home at last, far from big cities and refugee camps

By Pia Akerman
The Australian

LIFE in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border was all that Hsar Muhtaw's four young children had ever known.

They were born in its squalid confines and their father had spent 17 years living there, often hungry, always in overcrowded conditions.

Now the family -- who fled persecution in military-ruled Burma -- is helping to set the standards on how refugees should be resettled in regional Australia. Their experience in the South Australian town of Mount Gambier is being used by Immigration officials and support groups as a template for introducing refugee families to their new life.

"Because we were scared of the Burmese army, we ran away to the camp," said Mr Muhtaw, a 38-year-old Karenni man, one of tens of thousands persecuted by the military junta as an ethnic minority.

Mr Muhtaw's wife, Baby Po, is expecting their fifth child, who will be born in the leafy town of Mount Gambier, midway between Adelaide and Melbourne. The family is one of 10 brought from refugee camps to be settled in Mount Gambier in a project tipped to become a benchmark for refugee settlement.

The Immigration Department has labelled the migrants' entry into Australian society a "great success", and is carefully studying recommendations on how other towns seeking to revive their population can best integrate similar arrivals.

A report, obtained by The Weekend Australian under Freedom of Information, sets out the dosanddon'ts of successfully integrating refugee groups into regional Australia.

For the Burmese in Mount Gambier -- a city of 30,000 people -- the dedication of their case worker, Heather Muirhead, has made all the difference. She has been with them since the first families arrived 18 months ago.

"Obviously it was big culture shock for them, but they coped reasonably well with it," Ms Muirhead said.

"They had to be shown everything -- kettles, toasters, how to use a fridge, how to use a bed."

Margaret Piper, a refugee expert and author of a report on the Mount Gambier case, said careful planning and a low-key arrival had been key for the Burmese migrants.

"Other groups of refugees come in and want everything yesterday," she said.

"They have spent a long time with their lives on hold and they want a job, they want a house, they want this and that. The Burmese are not as frustrated because they know things will take time."

Ms Piper has recommended that more refugees be identified to go to Mount Gambier, and that the surrounding towns of Naracoorte and Bordertown also be investigated for possible humanitarian settlement -- something that Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services Laurie Ferguson said was being considered.

"We have so many rural and regional areas that need population to keep schools going, to keep employers sure of workers," Mr Ferguson said. "At the same time ... we have the challenge of parts of western Sydney where refugee humanitarian settlement should be diversified -- it's just too pronounced."

Thoo Lay Paw, 36, was the first of the Mount Gambier arrivals to give birth in Australia.

She has high hopes for her new daughter, Hannah, who may never see the camp where her mother spent 21 years.

"I'm not worried for her because everything is good," Ms Lay Paw said. "I don't know what her ambitions will be, but she will decide that for herself. She will find her way one day."

Still mastering English, the men of the families are spending one day a week working for the local council, tending to the city's parks and playgrounds.

Mr Muhtaw would like to find work on a farm, but he knows things will be different from working the buffalo on his rice plantation.

The women hope to work in childcare, or perhaps in a local bakery. All say they are happy in Mount Gambier, and do not wish to move to a bigger city.

"Some have been to Melbourne, some have been to Sydney to have a look, they've then come back here," Ms Muirhead said. "The city overwhelms them."

The Burmese migrants have also applied for relatives to join them in Mount Gambier, with two more families expected to arrive later this month.

Recent Posts from Burma Wants Freedom and Democracy

Recent posts from WHO is WHO in Burma


The Nuke Light of Myanmar Fan Box
The Nuke Light of Myanmar on Facebook
Promote your Page too