Shall Da Ta Thu – Life Story

My name is Shall Da Ta Thu, I was born in the Karen State in Myanmar/Burma, year 1949. I grew up in the south-eastern village of Yebu, which was within the township of Hlin Bwe. Our village was a farming village, and quite poor. We lived from day to day, always owing the money borrowed to plant crops. It was a cycle: borrow, grow, sell, hand the money back – every season. Families struggled to earn a living, and life was very hard. People couldn’t pay school fees, and simply couldn’t afford healthcare, even in an emergency.

My mother passed away when I was just 6 months of age, so I was brought up by my father and my two aunties, who loved me very much and took wonderful care of me. I went to our village school, finishing the highest level that the school offered. I wanted to learn more and continue to study, but I was unable to because the other schools were too far away, and we could not afford the fees anyway. So I worked around the house, and enjoyed friends coming to visit.

At 18 years of age I began to work with my father and aunties on the farm. We grew rice and vegetables. We had two Ox’s that pulled our plough. I worked on the farm for 13 years. When I was 31 years of age, I married my husband. He was a very hardworking man. After three years of marriage we had our baby son. He was only four months of age when my husband passed away. By the time my son was 8, I had lost both my aunties. It was now just me and my son, as we continued to live in the village I grew up in.

At this time the Government was not supportive of our village people. The Government expected and forced young boys (at the age of 15) to work for them, unless you paid money to keep them safe. This ‘work’ meant walking in front of soldiers carrying artilleries, and to potentially detonate any landmines. If you had a daughter, she was safe. But if you had more than five you also had to pay money to the army to keep them safe. The military controlled Burma.

When my son turned 15, I didn’t want him to have to go and work for the army. It was so dangerous, and no life for anyone, let alone a child. I was terrified, and needed to pay the money required to keep him safe. Unfortunately, I didn’t have all of the money. After many threats from soldiers, I sold a pair of gold earrings to come up with the money. In 1995, my nephew asked my son and me if we wanted to flee to Mae La Refugee Camp, in Thailand. Going there would allow us to escape the war, armed conflict and ethnic persecution. We decided it would be in our best interest to go.

We set out with just the clothes we were wearing, and walked for 24 hour hours through thick forest until we finally reached a road on the border of Burma and Thailand. From there, we were able to catch an extremely crowded public car the rest of the way to the camp. When we arrived, we had to stay under the Thai Government Policy, which meant you could not leave the camp. There was a big fence that surrounded the camp, the fence had barbed wire on it. Thai people could come and go, but anyone that was from Burma had to stay.

We lived in Mae La Refugee Camp for 10 years; it was very much a community there. Together we collected water from the well, built houses and ran a weekend market. We had help from the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and Non-Government Organisations (NGO’s), and I will be forever thankful to the help and support they provided us. These organisations would give us food, shelter, blankets, medicine, and their doctors would take us to hospital if we were sick. One of the NGO’s was a women’s organisation that hired me and other women, to make clothes and handbags. They would sell the products we made and give us back the money – just a little bit of money, but it was very helpful to us and we appreciated it greatly.

After 10 years of living in the Camp, an opportunity was given to come to Australia. If you were registered with the UNHCR you could apply to go to another country, such as: Canada, America, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand or Australia. I chose Australia because it seemed a beautiful country with a Christian belief. My son left for Australia first in 2008, I arrived February 2009. When I arrived, everything was so different from what I was used to; not like my country at all. I could not speak the language, but because my son had been in Australia for a while, he had a job and a house – so that made things easier for me.

There were opportunities to learn the English language, so I went to language school in Werribee, and then continued at Diversitat once we moved to Geelong. The classes helped me a lot, but because I was old I had trouble remembering everything I had learnt. Our teachers organised many day trips for us to enjoy, which also helped us to get familiar with our surroundings.

I am very pleased to be living in Australia. I live with my Son, Daughter In-law and three grandchildren. One of the first places my Son took me to see after my arrival, was the Botanical Gardens. Since then we have been there often. I love spending time outside, I think this is why my Son took me there originally; he knew I would enjoy all the different types of trees, plants and flowers.

In 2014, I was awarded my Australian Citizenship. I enjoy having relationships and making new friends with Australian people, even though the language can still be a barrier. Through Diversitat I learnt of the Kuloo Arts Program, that their Aged Support department runs. I attend the program every Wednesday. The staff are very good to me, to us, and I am happy to be able to keep within my culture by going to this group. We have been on many bus trips and visited many places, and we are able to cook our traditional food and do our weaving, along with other crafts. Through the Kuloo Arts Program, I have made scarfs and entered them into the annual Scarf Festival. Each year my entries sell quickly, this makes me feel very happy and proud.

When I left to come to Australia, I hoped my new life would be happy, and it is.

I would like to thank all of the staff at Diversitat Aged Support, they help us all so much and have been very kind to me. Thank you.