By Daniel Hopper
Meet our newest Australian family – Oo Reh (husband), Phray Meh (wife), Soe (16), Christina (14), Joseph (10) and Leh Leh (7) – who only this week celebrated receiving their Australian citizenship. Prior to coming to Australia they had spent ten years in a refugee camp. They, along with 600 other migrants, refugees and members of all our cultural communities will be attending the annual “Many Cultures, One in Christ” Mass and Cultural Celebration at St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral in Wollongong at 2pm on Sunday 26 August.
Oo grew up in a remote lowland village in Karenni State (a former independent state in Burma) and worked as a policeman. In his early twenties he met Phray who lived with her family in a small mountain village with 40 other families. After they married, Oo moved into Phray’s village, where they lived a subsistence lifestyle, without electricity, in a region regarded as one of the least accessible and poorest areas in the Union of Burma.In 1997 the Burmese Military murdered Phray’s father who was the village leader. Oo and Phray, now with a six-month-old daughter, Soe, decided to flee the village to escape the constant threat of Oo being forcibly taken away by the Military and subjected to hard labour and life threatening activities, such as land mine scouting.
Oo and Phray evaded detection by the Burmese Military and met up with a Karenni soldier who accompanied them on a dangerous ten-day trek with their infant daughter to a United Nations (UN) refugee camp located on the Thai/Burma border. The camp housed well over 1,000 refugees and was just one of many camps scattered along the border.
Once in the camp, which had no electricity or firewood, they had to build their own makeshift hut. The UN provided the bamboo for building, as well as basic food and charcoal for cooking and heating. Using his skills developed as a policeman, Oo worked in the camp as a leader, coordinating 175 other families and assisting with food distribution and record keeping. During this time Oo and Phray’s other children – Christina, Joseph and Leh Leh were born.
Seven years passed in the camp without their hearing a word about their future. Physical and mental illness such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder were widespread in the camp. Eventually the UN told them that the United States was no longer taking any refugees (Oo has a brother in the U.S.). They waited another three years before learning of their chance of re-settlement from the UN. With a smile on his face, Oo recalls the conversation with the UN officer, “When they asked me what country we would like to go to, I said ‘any country’! We waited another month and then I got a letter saying that we were going to Australia.” When asked what they knew about Australia then, Oo and Phray laugh, “Nothing! We did not even know it existed. We did not know what the weather was like or anything.”
The family was excited yet apprehensive about starting their new life in Australia. Phray did not speak English and Oo knew only a few basic English words. From their arrival in Australia in May 2007 language has been a struggle. Oo and Phray again laugh as they call to mind the greeting they received at the airport. “Everyone kept saying ‘morning’ to us. I looked at my watch and it was 8pm. We didn’t understand what they meant.”
The family were driven to Bulli Beach Tourist Park where they spent their first month in Australia before being resettled in Wollongong. They immediately registered for English classes at TAFE and enrolled their school-aged children at Coniston Primary School. The two youngest children are now at Coniston Primary School and the two older girls attend Holy Spirit College, Bellambi.
The first six months were by far the hardest as they struggled to adapt to a new language and culture. However, being a strong Catholic family, the universal nature of the Catholic faith provided them with a familiar ‘home’. They turned up one Sunday morning at St Therese Catholic Church in West Wollongong and were warmly received by the priest, Fr David O’Brien, and a local nun, Sr Elaine Troy OLSH.
Having grown up in a single-parent family without a father, and with one brother, Sr Elaine had learnt how to fix things from a young age. Such skills included stripping-down and rebuilding bicycles. She immediately recognised that Oo and his family needed help with basic essentials such as transport. She put an ad in the Church bulletin asking for bicycles to give to the family. The next week she was swamped with 14 of them. She stripped them down and re-built them for the family. She continues to provide friendship and support to the family, as needed. In this she is assisted by many parishioners who provide English lessons, donated goods, and friendship to the several other Karenni families who live in the district. Sr Elaine said, “They are delightful friends – gracious and grateful – with a wonderful sense of humour.”
Other community organisations in the Illawarra such as the Strategic Community Assistance to Refugee Families (SCARF) also helped Oo and his family during their resettlement in Wollongong. SCARF President, Ted Booth, has formed a strong bond with the family as a family mentor and was present at the Australian Citizenship ceremony this week sporting a beaming smile like a proud parent. When asked of his fondness for the family, Ted said, “I am just so proud of them. They are a beautiful family and a wonderful success story. They have done everything they can do to learn the language and improve their skills for employment. Oo has bought a car and completed a Certificate II course in Horticulture and we have helped him establish his own small fully insured Mowing and Cleaning business. If anyone out there wants to support their family by contracting Oo’s services they can contact me on 02 4229 3284.”
Bishop Peter Ingham also praised families such as Oo’s, “The Catholic Church joins with all people of goodwill in working for basic human rights for all. Refugees are sometimes misunderstood yet they are ordinary people who have had to deal with extraordinary hardship. As Australians, we are called upon to offer them a fair go, just as Jesus Christ would have done.”
Each year, the Catholic Church celebrates the contribution of migrants, refugees and all our cultural communities to the richness and diversity of our country. This year’s ‘Many Cultures, One in Christ’ Mass, which is followed by a celebration of cultural displays and food sampling, will be held at 2pm on Sunday 26 August at St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral (Harbour Street, Wollongong). The cultural celebration after Mass will be at St Mary’s Star of the Sea College Hall (opposite the Cathedral). Everyone is warmly invited.