From asylum-seeking camps along the Thai and Burmese border, to the Western Victorian town of Nhill; the journey of the Karen (Kayin) refugees is a great example of how people from different backgrounds can harmoniously both live and grow together.
Troubles in Burma
Since the end of Burmese democratic rule in 1962, the Karen people have been suffering persecution from successive governments. When martial law was declared in 1989 (and the country re-named Myanmar) the situation in the country became much more dangerous for Karen people. This group was forced to flee their homes into the mountains where many found security in refugee camps along the Thai and Burmese border.
In 2011 the nation transitioned to a civilian government via democratic elections; however Myanmar still remains in a state of conflict.
Four years ago, one of the Wimmera’s largest employers invited over a hundred members of the Australian Karen refugee community to join the workforce in Nhill; a town with a population of 3,000. The formation of a soccer team with the Nhill Districts Sports Club was encouraged by local volunteers. Unfortunately, ‘home’ matches were frequently forfeited by other teams not willing to make the long journey to Nhill and the ‘away’ matches were becoming too costly. This inconsistency of matches discouraged the players and, as a result, the team disbanded.
‘One World Cup’
The Hindmarsh City Council received a grant from Sports Without Borders for the Nhill Karen community to participate in the Melbourne ‘One World Cup’ Harmony Day soccer competition. The event was hosted by Victoria Police and was a ‘unique youth project targeted at promoting, encouraging, and celebrating cultural diversity through football’. Female participation was encouraged by ensuring that at least one female, per team, was on the field at all times. Local Nhill Police Sergeant Nelson Barwise joined the team on their journey. “It’s all good for their community, all good for Nhill. (It’s a…) win/win,” Barwise said proudly.
Participation in the sporting event united the Karen refugee community, through the sharing stories of their adventures and this promoted a sense of belonging to the Australian culture.
Hope for the future
Today, over 120 Karen people live in Nhill, including 26 children and 6 infants. They fill the local community hall every year for their New Year celebrations.
The Karen refugees in Australia live in relative security compared to the family and friends still living along the Thai and Burmese border.
The Karen refugee and Nhill communities continue to work together and embrace new friendships with a hope for a peaceful resolution of the ongoing conflict in Myanmar.