Leaving In-between Land: From Hardship to Hope

In Australia, the language will be different.
In Australia, the values will be different.
In Australia, the people will be different.
In Australia, everything will be different

Tham Hin at first glance looks like any other rural village in Southeast Asia. Nestled amongst the verdant mountainous landscape of Thailand’s Ratchaburi province 10 kilometres from the Myanmar border, the settlement encompasses a warren of houses constructed of bamboo and plastic sheeting. Some of the dwellings double as shops that provide goods and services such as snacks, clothes and haircuts. Amenities like schools, clinics and places of worship are also present. Save for a guard post and a signboard at the entrance, there is little indication that this community is actually a temporary shelter area for 7000 refugees.

Tham Hin is one of nine temporary shelter areas dotted along the 2100 kilometre border with Myanmar. Set up after thousands fled armed conflict in Myanmar, they collectively hold over 110,000 refugees mainly of ethnic Karen origin. Conditions may be basic but Thai temporary shelters are considered to be some of best around; a far cry from the desperate scenes of refugees living in squalid fenced-in tents cities one is used to seeing in the media. A remarkable sense of normalcy pervades throughout Tham Hin as people go about with their daily activities. Children play with each other while adults warmly greet each other as they walk by.

Yet it is also a world of difference from any typical Thai settlement. In a country where almost 100 percent of the population has access to electricity, the omnipresent tangle of wires that run above the streets are noticeably missing in Tham Hin as it is not connected to the electrical grid. There are also no telephone lines, let alone mobile phone coverage or a connection to the internet. The only way to contact the outside world is via satellite phone which refugees share to stay in touch with family and friends.

Most of Tham Hin’s inhabitants have lived a substantial part of their lives isolated from the rest of the world. Despite the nearest town being only a 45 minute drive away, few have ever set foot in it. For those who arrived at a very young age or were born in Tham Hin, life in the temporary shelter area is all they have ever known. Resettlement to a third country is the most feasible option for them and the bulk are resettled to the United States but substantial numbers are also resettled in Australia, Canada, Finland and Norway amongst others.

The wait however can be a long and arduous one. For those who were amongst the first to arrive like 70 year old Mae and her family, change has been far and few since the temporary shelter was established. Mae, who like most ethnic Karen only go by one name, arrived in 1997 having fled from her village. Her routine has been the same ever since. Every morning at 7am, she would wake up and prepare breakfast in her small bamboo hut before making her way down to a farm for work where she would cultivate flowers and vegetables. This was until 9 months ago when she stopped due to old age. She now spends her time at home with her 19 year old son, Dah Eh. They are the last members of a family of four that remain in Tham Hin. Mae’s two other sons have already resettled in the United States.

Mae and Dah Eh’s wait will soon be over however. After 18 long years in limbo, Australia has offered to take them in. Initially it was only Dah Eh who was selected for resettlement. Mae’s application was however fast-tracked because Dah Eh’s departure would make her a woman-at-risk – a status given to women who face increased vulnerability due to the lack of effective protection normally provided by male family members. It was eventually decided that both of them would be resettled together in Melbourne, a modern, cosmopolitan city of 4.5 million famed for its culture and cuisine.

Mae is naturally nervous about moving to a country she has only heard of but knows little about. “I’m excited about my new life but scared at the same time. I don’t know what to expect”, she says. The resettlement process can be an extremely stressful experience for refugees from the start. With some living in temporary shelter areas for decades, the move to a new life in a foreign land is fraught with worries.

To help mitigate these concerns, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) conducts pre-departure cultural orientation programmes on behalf of third countries. In the case of Mae and Dah Eh, they are attending the Australian Cultural Orientation (AUSCO) Programme, a three to five day course providing refugees accurate information on the departure and settlement processes and an opportunity to ask questions about travel to and life in Australia.

The main aim of the course is to help present a realistic picture of life in Australia. “Resettled refugees often face difficulties adjusting to life outside temporary shelters” says Beam Teasdale, an IOM trainer for AUSCO. “Add a language barrier to a culture that is completely foreign and things become hard.” Beam understands the issues faced by refugees well. As a trainer with nine years of experience, she has listened to the concerns of hundreds. “Some with high hopes and dreams soon realise that achieving them is not as easy as they once thought. The AUSCO course encourages refugees to manage their expectations and gives them an opportunity to express their feelings in a safe environment. Where they come from and where they will be living will be very different situations”, she explains.

Today is the second day of the course. At 9.30am, Mae and Dah Eh, together with another family of six, walk single file into a makeshift classroom decorated with Australian flags, brochures, maps and pictures of famous landmarks and aboriginal artwork. Looking slightly anxious, they quietly sit and wait on plastic chairs. Beam greets the group with a wide smile and starts the session with a game to help them relax. In groups of three, they are told to join their hands to form houses with one person in between before being told to quickly form another house with someone else. The refugees smile and laugh as they fumble in their attempts to form new houses with different people.

With the group now feeling more at ease, Beam proceeds to show them pictures of houses and explain the concept of real estate. From using an agent to the importance of paying rent on time, Beam slowly explains to the group the intricacies of one of the first major decisions refugees have to make upon arrival: finding a house. She also touches on public transport and teaches them how to use emergency services amongst other topics. Her explanations are peppered with reassurances that help is always at hand. “There is no need to be afraid of the police, they are there to help and protect you.”

A lot of planning goes into the AUSCO course. Handbooks written in local languages are regularly updated and trainers are sent for trainings, conferences and exchange programmes annually. The course is also tailored to suit the unique needs and concerns of specific cultural groups. For Karen participants, an emphasis is placed on building confidence and assertiveness. “We Karens are shy and soft-spoken people by nature”, explains Beam, an ethnic Karen herself. Even with her warm enthusiasm and gentle disposition, participants are still shy around her and require some coaxing. “Karens are sometimes hesitant to ask for help for fear of imposing on others. That is why the trainers always encourage them to speak to the case worker if they need anything or experience a problem.”

The AUSCO course also takes on a participant-centred approach as part of its pedagogy. Its interactive nature keeps participants engaged while enabling trainers to get their message across to those who are uneducated. The use of simulations are thus important. On the final day of the course, Mae, Dah Eh and the rest are tasked with finding their airplane seat. The plastic chairs are now lined up in neat rows of six with an aisle in the middle to simulate an aircraft. They are given individual boarding passes and asked to find their allocated seats. Mae, confused with the layout, is unable to find her seat and asks Beam, the mock air stewardess, to help locate her seat. Her anxiety turns into relief upon realising that she will be seated right beside her son.

Beam is confident about Dah Eh’s potential. Having participated enthusiastically throughout the course and being the most educated of the group, he is able to follow the class without much difficulty. She decides to assign him as the leader of the group and will be tasked with the responsibility of leading them during the plane boarding process.

The group will not be left alone upon arrival in Australia. A large network of support given by specialised service providers exists. From case workers to English classes, their needs will be well looked after. Support will also come from communities of already resettled refugees. Resettlement is not only about change but also continuities and this makes the transition easier.

While uncertain about her future, Mae takes comfort in being able to continue attending church services and having a Karen refugee community to reach out to. Her feelings about leaving Tham Hin are bittersweet. “There will be some things I will miss but who knows. The longer I stay in Australia, the less I might miss the familiarity of Tham Hin. Both are nice places in their own way”, she says.

Dah Eh on the other hand is more positive about his future. Despite the uncertainties involved during the resettlement process, the prospect of moving on from their ordeal and to a land of opportunity is often an exciting one for refugees, especially young ones like him. Dah Eh’s immediate ambition is to continue his studies and obtain a university education thereafter. He aspires to be either a professional footballer or a sports teacher in the future. “There will be many new things for me in Australia. I’ll be happy to experience all of them, even more so with new friends. I will make this work and live an independent life”, he concludes.