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The Karen of Nhill: an experiment in regional settlement

17 February 20149 comments

A program to settle Karen-Burmese refugees at Nhill, in western Victoria, is emerging as a model not only for refugee settlement but also for the revival of struggling rural towns. About 150 Karen refugees have been settled in Nhill, attracted by jobs being offered by local poultry producer Luv-a-Duck.

Local leaders say the arrival of the Karen has breathed new life into the town, bringing economic benefits and enriching its cultural life.

Hal Loo is emblematic of the Karen experience in Nhill. The 25-year-old apprentice mechanic at the local Halfway Motors loves his job and his community. “I love coming to work and I love to go fishing,” he says.  “Nhill is a good place for us Karen.”

Hal, his parents, two brothers and three sisters spent years living in a tent in a United Nations refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border after the Burmese government burnt his village. The Burmese Government has persecuted the Karen hill-tribe people since 1949 and there are an estimated 150,000 Karen living in camps.

Hal came to the town, about 350km west of Melbourne, when his parents moved to the area to work for Luv-a-Duck. “Coming here gave me the opportunity to see my dream of working with cars and machines come true,” Hal said. For all of the Karen of Nhill, it has been an incredible and unlikely journey from the rain-drenched jungles of South-East Asia to the broad wheat fields and silos of the Wimmera.

Local heroes

The settlement program was effectively begun by John Millington OAM, who in 2009 was General Manager of Luv-a-Duck.

With a lack of local labour to facilitate the company’s expansion, Mr Millington turned to settlement agency AMES to see whether there were any refugees willing to relocate to Nhill. After arranging for a group of Karen to visit the Luv-a-Duck plant and Nhill, four workers were hired.

Now there are more than 50 Karen working at the plant and on local farms servicing it. “We learnt very quickly that it was important that the partners and kids of the workers were involved. We knew that they had to be looked after, engaged and connected to the community or the whole thing would fall over,” Mr Millington said.

“You can’t have the wife sitting at home not knowing anyone and it’s the same with the kids. You just have to put them in touch with people and away they go,” he said. As Mr Millington learned more about the Karen and their plight, bringing them to Nhill became more than just a business initiative.

“For me learning about the Karen was a light bulb moment. I thought I must find out more about these people. I googled them and put together their story,” he said. “The Karen needed some help and given their nature and the terrible experiences they had endured, I thought they might be a good fit for the community at Nhill.”

There were, however, cultural obstacles to overcome, including a fear of persecution by the authorities. “I had showed them a map of where Nhill was and I told them it was ‘near the border’ – meaning the border with South Australia. They were worried because they thought I meant the Thai border,” Mr Millington said.

“We took them on a bus tour around town. We stopped at the police station and on gets the local rural cop. There was silence and then the police sergeant smiled and said ‘hello’ and you could hear the sighs of relief,” he said.

“We were worried about what the locals would think about us bringing a group of Asians to town so we brought all the community leaders together as well as the police, the mayor and the local priests.

“Initially, we took on four workers at Luv-a-Duck and we made sure they were good representatives of their community. Then they asked ‘can we bring another friend’ and it went from there.”

Mr Millington said that having local people champion the Karen was vital to the program’s success. “One of the key things that made the whole thing work was that the woman who lived directly opposite the house where we initially house the Karen was incredibly welcoming – she is a wonderfully caring person,” he said. “I went to see her and told her I needed a grandma for the Karen and she responded. It was important because she is a person who knows everyone and everything that goes on in town.

“She was just wonderful and one of the main reasons the thing succeeded in the early days – she was someone looking out for the Karen on a daily basis,” Mr Millington said. He also spoke to Luv-a-Duck staff, explaining who the Karen were and when they had come from while giving assurances that the Karen would only get jobs that could not be filled by locals. “We had no problems, no bad blood. It was quite the opposite. The Karen were accepted and everyone was very welcoming,” Mr Millington said.

A mentoring program was set up through the local neighbourhood house. “People bent over backwards to help and we had 15 or 20 volunteers in no time. We were very fortunate that this community was prepared to help them,” he said.

Mr Millington’s relationship with the Karen became such that he and his wife and daughters visited Thailand to attend the wedding of community leader Plaw Ganemy-Kunoo in the Mysot refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border.

They were smuggled into the camp at night and experienced first-hand the life of a displaced refugee. “It was an incredible experience and it gives us credibility with the Karen and credibility to speak on their behalf,” Mr Millington said.

A welcoming community

One of the first Karen brought to settle in Nhill was Kaw Doh. He lived in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border for seven years and came to Australia as a refugee seven years ago. He and several other Karen moved from their community in Werribee to take up work in Nhill. “I found it very different at first, I lived in a big house with ten to twenty people,” Kaw Doh said.

“Looking back it was a good experience, coming to live here (in Nhill). Melbourne was very expensive and here we had work,” he said. “Since the Karen settled here eight families, including me, have bought houses.

“In Burma you can just build a house for yourself – every day is free, there is no rent and no insurance. You just build a house on communal land using bamboo and timber from the jungle.

“I miss my home I miss the jungle and the rivers. But life here is good, I like living in Nhill and it’s a good place for my family,” said Kaw Doh, who works on duck farms in the area.

The economic benefit

Hindmarsh Shire Chief Executive Tony Doyle says Nhill has been enriched economically and culturally by the Karen. “The social impact has been extraordinary but to see the way the community had embraced and open their hearts and minds has broadened everyone’s thinking,” he said. “We are all enriched because of the exposure to another culture and it has made Nhill a better place to live,” Mr Doyle said.

He said the challenge for his and other rural shires is population decline which can decimate local economies. “In retail, shops close affecting the viability of the whole town. If you’ve got to go to Horsham to shop for something, you might as well do it all there,” Mr Doyle said.

“There is an impact on the ability of schools and hospitals to be funded and provide services. It affects business at all levels. The shire’s funding is based on population levels and a decline has significant ramifications for us.

“The Karen community has provided an unskilled workforce which has allowed employment participation to grow enormously and feed back into services and shops in the community in a flow on effect.

“The Karen settlement has been really good for us. By allowing Luv-a-Duck to grow, it has increased the company’s demand for more labour and essentially protected us from population decline.”

Mr Doyle said the council was preparing a community plan for the Karen and overall economic development strategy for the town. “We could double the number of Karen if we had housing and jobs,” he said. Mr Doyle said the council planned to lead by example by ensuring it employed Karen.

“Nhill people are special and very community focused and they seem to embrace anyone who comes here,” he said. “The Karen have had an extraordinary impact on transforming the lives of the people in the community they’ve joined. It’s just an incredible story.”

‘Win-win’ is how the people of Nhill talk about the settlement of the Karen. The Karen have won jobs and a refuge; and the town has been given an economic and cultural transfusion.

Hal’s employer Kim Moyle, owner of Halfway Motors, says the town has been given a new lease of life with the arrival of the Karen. “We’ve noticed a big income difference since Hal began working here. The Karen bring their cars in because he works here and because we’re the RACV agent and also because Hal can translate,” Ms Moyle said.

“Hal’s a clever boy, he’s keen to learn and now he’s approaching his second year of an automotive Cert III qualification,” she said. “He goes out on RACV call outs when rostered on and never complains.

“It is difficult to find skilled labour and Hal has been great for us. He’s become part of the family and we take him everywhere. “He loves Nhill and the space here and he loves his job. It was Hal’s persistence that got him the job. He was a special kid.” Ms Moyle said.

She said the settlement of the Karen had had a positive impact on Nhill. “It’s important for Nhill’s future economically but Aussies can also learn a lot from them and their values of community and family.

“They’re conscientious, kind and polite, they work hard and they’re happy,” Ms Moyle said.

* Photo used with the permission of Hindmarsh Shire Council.