A Sense of Place

Refugees from the ethnic minorities of Burma have settled un-noticed in Wyndham- west of Melbourne, Australia, but beneath the surface of their close knit community lies isolation and trauma that if unfettered can lead to a loss of hope. A small community centre- the Wyndham Community Education Centre, has taken the advice of the communities elders and teaches the refugees the history of Australia, both indigenous and colonised. The intent is to provide them a sense of place -a home.

Wyndham Vale, Melbourne. Naw Su Htoo leans on the living room wall and lets the late afternoon light warm her face. She fears the darkness, the trauma of her life in Burma apparent in her lack of energy. As a younger woman, Naw Su’s village came under constant attack from the Burmese army. She would flee into the jungle with her husband, Poo Aung and their children whilst the army razed their rice fields and homes. Photograph by Christopher N Hopkins.

Staring into the black emptiness of Carman’s Tunnel, an abandoned Gold mine in Maldon, South-East Australia; fifty-six year old Karen refugee Naw Su refuses to enter. Her fear of the dark cavernous hole, dug into a scrub covered hillock during the 1880’s gold-rush, is born from events over 30 years and 7000kms away in her homeland on the Thai/Burma border.

With the worlds attention focused on the militarys recent abuses of the Rohingya in the countries Rakine state, in eastern Myanmar the protracted conflict between government forces and the countries ethnic minority groups has seen 50 years of human rights abuses and major displacement for the Karen, Chin and Karenni (amongst others) peoples. Since 2010–11, Australia has settled over 18,000 refugees from the conflict. Almost 3000 have been settled in the burgeoning Wyndham, on Melbournes western fringe.

Working closely with the large Burmese community settling in the outer west, Wyndham Community Education Centre (WCEC) re-settlement co-ordinator Richard Dove identifies a worrying trend,

“A lot of communities come, and they feel hopeless and they get disconnected. They’re used to living in villages, now they live in suburban houses. They get disconnected from each other. ”

Whilst young members of the community quickly learn English and form social circles through school, their parents and grandparents remain isolated from the broader community. Language and geographic isolation within the dense urban sprawl that is Wyndham compounds this issue.

Wyndham Vale, Melbourne. Eight-year-old twin, Andrew Htoo, plays outside after school as his father Roh Htoo cooks a curry for the family meal. Photograph by Christopher N Hopkins

After securing a one off grant, the WCEC approached the elders of its ethnic Burmese refugee community, and on their advice, are assisting their re-settlement by teaching them the history of their new home. Through 2017 the re-settlement team at the WCEC took the elders on excursions to places of historical significance.

“Originally the grant was to help and assist in access and inclusion and feeling welcomed in Australia. Once we sat down and saw the content of the things that they wanted to do, there was an over arching theme to it — finding your sense of place in Victoria’s history. So this is about them discovering where they fit in the history of Victoria.”

Maldon, Victoria. Kini Htoo and Poo Aung search for evidence of gold in Carman’s Tunnel ,an abandoned mine on the outskirts of Maldon rural Victoria, on a historical education excursion. The gold rush was a topic highlighted by the elders of the ethnic communities of Burma as of interest to assist them in learning the history of Australia. Photograph by Christopher N Hopkins.

The goal is to maintain an ingrained hope that they and their children will one day be Australian citizens and contributing members of ‘A’ society. As Burmese ethnic minorities, the Karen, Chin and Karenni people have been unrecognised and stateless their entire lives and thus, do not associate with being called Burmese:

“We are from Burma but we are not Burmese.” says Reginald Shwe, a community liaison worker who acts as a conduit between the community and mental health facility- Foundation House. “We have long lived under an oppressive rule with little to no inclusion, mirrored by the governments recent human rights violations towards the Rohingya, as recognised citizens of the country known as Burma, now Myanmar”.

This prolonged lack of recognition has left the communities with an ingrained and now, multi-generational existential dillema:

“Sense of place and identity is absolutely everything. If a person can feel that they can be who they are and actually find a place in where they are, then that feeling can spread through an entire community. The excursions are opportunity’s to come together to find out who they are, where they are, in a safe place and in a way that provides a sense of hope.” explains Dove.

Hanging Rock, Woodend, Victoria. Pah Dah Tapue, a member of Melbourne’s ethnic communities of Burma is seen atop the natural rock formation at Hanging Rock, Victoria. As a part of the historical excursion program, Hanging Rock was chosen for its significance to Australia’s Indigenous culture, a topic highlighted by the elders of the ethnic communities of Burma as of interest to them, helping them to understand the history of their new country. Photograph by Christopher N Hopkins.

Naw Su leans on her stark living room wall and lets the last of the days light warm her face. She fears the darkness, the trauma of her life in Burma apparent in her listlessness. “My brain is getting dry”, “My thinking does not function properly” she recounted earlier through an interpretor. As a younger woman, her village would come under constant attack from government forces. She would flee into the jungle with her husband, Poo Aung and their children. Waiting to return safely as the army razed their rice fields and homes.

On one such occasion in 1994 they fled but were separated; she bundled up some of the children as Poo Aung split off in another direction. Naw Su assumed that their 10 year old son Ney Say, was with him. He wasn’t. She hid in the jungle for 2–3 days then upon their return was captured and tortured. The army beat her; breaking her arms, knocking out her teeth, leaving her partially blind and deaf. Pregnant at the time, the child was still-born, black, and bruised. Her five year old son died shortly after, a result of hiding with no food and water.

Re-united with Ney Say four years later in the Mae Ra Ma Luong refugee camp on the Thai/Burma border, Naw Su and Poo Aung would soon again be separated from him after being granted a visa to Australia. With help from her brother Roh Htoo they have lobbied for his application for a Refugee and Humanitarian (Class XB) Visa, but it was recently denied with no explaination.

She relies heavily on Roh Htoo who in turn leans on his son, Daniel. Daniel was born in the camp but has grown up in Australia. An apprentice sheet metal woker, his fluent English means he is called upon to translate, often official documentation. A common occurrence in ethnic minority households, the youth are required to be bi-lingual meaning some elders rely too heavily on them, a problem identified by Dove:

Wyndham Vale, Melbourne. Naw Su’s brother Roh Htoo (l) and husband Poo Aung, discuss her sons visa application refusal with Roh Htoo’s son Daniel (r). Daniel was born in the Mae Ra Ma Luong refugee camp on the Thai/Burma border but was settled in Australia at a young age. His fluent English means he can translate and assist the elders in their discussions. The youth assisting their elders is a common occurrence in ethnic minority households but can cause added issues with elders relying too heavily on them, thus eliminating the impetus to learn a second language themselves. Photograph by Christopher N Hopkins.

“Ive said to the group on a number of occasions, that they are elders, and if they learn English the impact that will have on their family is massive. If they don’t, that also has a large impact on not only the family, but the clan.”

Naw Su has never had any type of formal education and says it is difficult for her to understand the process of learning given her mental health issues. Roh Htoo and Poo Aung have begun using the excursions to alleviate Naw Su’s societal withdrawl and while she says that being involved in the program ‘makes her feel welcomed’ the constant negativity in her life is evident in her demeanor. Says Reginald Shwee “The challenge is the Karen never seek help. They are very quiet and most of their issues, they internalise and keep within the family.”

63 year old Ay Myuang, known as the ‘Loom-Man’ is seen as a leader amongst his peers within the local community. At the forefront of a small social enterprise born of the Karen’s expertise as weavers, he is gratified knowing that he is able to contribute to a society that has provided his family with oppurtunity. The enterprise has since grown and now provides a place with a purpose for fellow Karen elders to socialise and contribute.

Werribee, Melbourne. Ah Myuang instructs Christina Augustine while loading the communities loom with yarn in preparation for the day’s work. Christina is willing to learn the craft from an expert like Ah Myuang, giving her a skill with the potential to earn an income. For Ay Myuang the weaving and teaching is not only a practical way of contributing to society but a practice that keeps the traditional customs and culture of the Karen people alive by passing them on to future generations. Photograph by Christopher N Hopkins

“As the Karen people kept their traditional culture alive throughout the persecution from the Burma government forces, the community here see keeping the culture alive, through activities such as the weaving, as part of an instinctual survival mechanism.” Says Shwe.

Karenni WCEC settlement worker- Mae Sie Win; a former abductee of the Burmese army and now an Australian citizen with a degree in Political Science, summarises the complex situation faced not just by the ethnic communites of Burma in Wyndham, but by refugees facing settlement issues all over:

“We believe that knowing or having our identity alive is only through a cultural connection. There is a saying, ‘the day when you lose your culture is the day when you lost your identity’. It does not matter where we live, our community wants to keep their culture alive for our future generations.”

Werribee, Melbourne. Young members of the Australian Karen Organisation Dance group — So Win, Kaing Kyi and See Mee share a joke after performing at the closing ceremony of the Australian Ethnic Communities of Burma Conference. The national conference was held in Melbourne and aimed to bring the various communities together to discuss any issues, both local and international, facing the groups. As a vestige of having spent their formative years in refugee camps, the Karen youth maintain pride in their heritage and culture, and have a deep-rooted respect for the elders of the community. Photograph by Christopher N Hopkins.

A regular on the WCEC excursion program Ay Myuang couples his cultural work within the community with the lessons he learns on the excursions. Relaying his experiences back to his family with a sense of positivity, a welcome contrast to recent hyperbole:

“I learn that this country is young, it has a bright future. This makes me happy knowing that it will be there for my children and grand-children.”

After nervously taking part in the excursion program Naw Su recently began volunteering her time and expertise with Ay Myuang’s weaving enterprise.

She greets everyone with a hug.