By PRISCELLA MABOR
THE Community Migrant Resource Centre (CMRC) opened its doors 25 years ago in Parramatta.
Since 1996, there has been a continuum of new migrants who have sought asylum in Australia, with a shared vision to achieve safety, security and a ballast to set up their tent poles on a new life for their children and for those left behind.
Australia signed the UN’s Refugee Convention in 1951 following WWII and migration has charted a path forward for this nation ever since.
However like most civil rights changes undertaken throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, there have been incremental levels of understanding about the true implications of migration.
Once packaged as a digestible story bite- increase our culinary repertoire- there have been a multitude of migration-related implications when wave upon wave of new arrive at Sydney airport and undertake a settlement journey that may not necessarily have a start and end date.
CMRC has supported a range of communities from Ethiopia, Afghanistan, South Sudan, The Democratic Republic of Congo, El Salvador, Sierra Leone, Bosnia and the Kingdom of Bhutan.
If we look at the years between 2004 – 2010, Australia welcomed large numbers, however not all arrived in equal size or visibility.
Naturally, some larger communities who are granted humanitarian visas, tend to receive more media coverage. But there have been communities who arrived and perhaps are the quiet Australians who do not announce themselves or seek undue attention.
The Karen community from Burma (Myanmar) is one of those. The Karen (pronounced KAH-REN) arrived over three consecutive waves of migration. The second large one was during the 60s, and then post 2006 came the majority. Most settled in Sydney and Melbourne, and some gradually moved into regional areas to access agricultural opportunities.
I recently sat down to talk to Padoh Saw who arrived in 1992 and found himself living in a dormitory in Kensington.
“All I needed was rice but I couldn’t find any at the Kensington Shopping Mall. I had to buy this big bag of bread instead. There were huge slices wrapped in plastic. I had never eaten this type of bread. Later I would see people eating meat with vegetables. I had never seen meat served without rice. It was very strange to me,” he told me.
The Karen number living in NSW total about 1, 200. Like most Australian citizens, when COVID happened they were caught up in the Government responses to a global pandemic: restrictions of movement, restrictions on business, mandatory health orders in relation to mask wearing and social distancing.
For many Australians, this was the first time their individual rights were restricted, for the greater community good.
For many this was confronting but eventually the majority responded. However, for many refugee communities, the democratic rights we enjoy in Australia is as precious as gold, especially for those fleeing persecution and discrimination.
Democracy is like oxygen: we all know we need it, we can’t exactly see it but we feel comforted by its silent protections of our civil rights.
“My father named me by another name. I grew up with nine brothers and sisters who all were Karen by birth.
“Our parents were Karen, our grandparents, and their parents. The Karen are descended from Mongolia from 700BC. Yet we all carried two names. Burmese names which were on all identify documents, but at home we were known by our Karen names.
“If I had been given a Karen name, my father knew we would be in danger and be discriminated against and wouldn’t be get able to get a job.”
Burma has re-captured the headlines this year as on February 1st, the democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her party were removed from power by a military coup. So again, our attention has turned to this small country that borders two superpowers (China, India) and snakes along Thailand.
Surrounded by beauty
Surrounded by beautiful Asian pears and damson plums, Pandoh lived outside his home state KAREN STATE.
He grew up in the capital city of Yangoon.
“I grew up in my grandmothers’ house on my mothers’ side. It was a wooden house that sat on small stilts so we could store charcoal underneath. We also kept a lot of chickens, he said.
“Partly to feed ourselves but more importantly to feed guests. In Karen culture it is very important that we share food with visitors and share our blessings. We had enough food to eat as we ate simple meals, fish noodle soup in the day and curries at night. Indian and Chinese influence was everywhere in the city, with Indian spices used in the curries and people making sweet and sour pork dishes. “
Pandoh’s father was a teacher and was well respected.
“I would describe his character as very tough and very strict. My siblings and me had to go to school every day on the bus with my father. He was determined we all study. His students were afraid of him, but they respected him. When he passed away, everyone came to his funeral. Whenever I visit Burma, his students all invite me for lunch so they can talk about him and how much he meant. “
Every year, Pandoh flies to the Thai-Burma border to support all the Karen families housed in the refugee camps like Mae Lae Camp.
There are still over 100, 000 housed there. In Yennora and Guildford Karen families gather every weekend for soccer and social nourishment.
The three most important items Pandoh first shares about his community is the story of the tunics they wear, the history of their flag and most importantly how to say “good day” in Karen.
On Wednesday June 23, CMRC will host Borders/Bonds/Breathing – a Karen Forum and Photo Exhibition at the Riverside Theatre. A great opportunity to find out more about our Quiet Australians who live here and bring a fascinating perspective on what it means to migrate and live a bi-cultural life.
When I ask Pandoh what the first act of kindness was he experienced in Australia, he remembers the Karen family who heard of his arrival and visited.
“They brought chilli, rice and chutney. They were so warm and I ended up staying with them for two weeks. It really made me feel at home,” he said.
Let’s open our hearts on June 23 and join the Karen Community.
Priscella Mabor is Inclusion Strategy & Innovations Manager at the Community Migrant Resource Centre. Visit www.cmrc.com.au