From horror camps to Canberra

FREYLA FERGUSON looks at a reality and a documentary of refugee life

IN comfortable Canberra, it’s hard to imagine a life torn apart by political unrest and war. But for Burmese refugee Shin Thu Gay, 57, it was a reality for more than 30 years.

On World Refugee Day – June 20 – Shin Thu and her family will celebrate five years of living in Australia.

She tells “CityNews” about fleeing a refugee camp with her sleeping, newborn son, through leech-infested jungle to hide from gunfire, and of stories of soldiers kicking pregnant women with their steel-capped boots.
She speaks of a constant fear of rape and torture from Burmese and Thai soldiers.

Shin Thu was forced from her village at 20-years-old due to the political unrest in her country under the Myanmar military Government.

From 1974 to 2006, Shin Thu moved four times between Burmese refugee camps and in that time she married husband Eh Tar, gave birth to five sons and adopted a son and daughter from within the camps.

“I did not look to come to Australia because in my culture we are happy to live in our village,” Shin Thu explains. “It was our last choice to live in a refugee camp because life in a refugee camp is very difficult. That is where a lot of people die and I thought I will die like them and so will my children.”

However, in the Mae La Camp she decided she would leave Burma thanks to a niece living in Australia who helped her apply for UN High Commissioner for Refugees status.

Now, with the support of the government and local organisations such as not-for-profit Companion House, Shin Thu, her husband, seven children and seven grandchildren are all living in Canberra. One son is planning to attend university.

Her work with other Burmese refugees last year earned her a CIT award for achievement in “Leadership for Diversity – building respect and strong links”.

On Tuesday, June 21, during Refugee Week, SBS will air the first episode of a three-part documentary series called “Go Back To Where You Came From.”

The program follows six ordinary Australians as they travel to Malaysia, Kenya, Jordan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq to experience what it means to be an asylum seeker and a refugee.

Companion House counsellor advocate Elizabeth Price says she hopes a documentary like “Go Back to Where You Came From” gives Australians a better understanding of refugees.

“Everybody has the right to seek asylum,” Ms Price says. “I ask myself would I have the strength to be a survivor or would I just go under after facing the sorts of experiences that the people we meet have faced?

“The fact you are starving a lot of the time and there might not be water and what water there might be is filthy.
“These places are very dangerous. In camps on the Thai-Burma border, which Shin Thu would be familiar with, there’s a very high risk of rape for women on the Thai side and generally. The Burmese army can attack refugee camps and burn them down. Then there’s violence within the camp.”

Former refugee and now Australian citizen and Companion House counsellor advocate Ina Susljik knows first-hand what it’s like to live as a refugee and every day deals with clients with the post-traumatic stress of fleeing a war-torn country.

“The popular perception is that refugees come to Australia to bludge,” she says. “But they come to Australia for a chance of life.”

“Go Back to Where You Came From”, SBS One, 8.30pm, Tuesday June 21, June 28 and July 5.

Companion House will hold its 7th World Refugee Day Soccer Tournament at Cook Oval, 10am-3pm, Saturday, June 18.

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