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Refugee fabric business flourishing

1 September 20170 comments

A social enterprise business venture launched by a group of Karen refugee women in regional Victoria has won a prestigious diversity innovation award.

Paw Po, which means ‘little flower’ in Karen, is a shop and workplace in the main street of Nhill, in western Victoria, selling colourful and artistic products that combine contemporary design and creativity with traditional, loom-woven fabrics.

Launched with the help of the Nhill Learning Centre almost two years ago, the shop has increased its range of products and is looking to launch an online sales push.

The women, who number around 25, have been gathering at the Nhill Learning Centre to sew the products which feature traditional Karen designs and which are on display in the previously vacant shop.

The gatherings began as English and lifestyle classes at the Learning Centre which won the Diversity Innovation category at this year’s Victorian Learn Local Awards.

One of the women working at Paw Po is Reehta Say, who came to Australia in 2006 after living for many years in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border.

“I like to come here to the shop. It gives me something to do,” Reehta said.

Reehta was born the youngest of five children in Burma.  When she was two her mother passed away and this led to her father moving with his children to a refugee camp.

Reehta remembers her father as a good, loving man who took very good care of his family. But she only attended school for a year and then at the age of 9 began working as a housekeeper to help support the family.

She was married at 16 and had four children while living in the camp.  She moved to Australia when she was 30 years old.

In 2012 the family moved to Nhill, when her husband got work at the Luv-a-duck processing plant.  Reehta says she loves to sing, sew and garden.  She hopes her children are able to get work, have their own homes and a better life than her.

“It’s very good living in Australia, my children are safe and they can have future here, she said.

“But I feel sad for my family and friends who are still living in the hard conditions in the camps,” she said.

Another of the women at Paw Po is Law Eh, who was born almost deaf and mute.  Her parents passed away when she was four and she was raised by her elder brothers.

Law eh was married and had three children while living in the camps.

She came to Australia in 2016 and initially settled in Werribee. In 2016 she moved to Nhill. Law Eh loves weaving and embroidery and, unlike in the camps, enjoys being able to travel freely in Australia.

Nhill Learning Centre Executive Officer Annette Creek has been one of the driving forces behind the project which was created to offer training opportunities for the Karen women.

She said Paw Po was part of the Learning Centre’s strategy to build skills in the area and especially empower women which saw it win the AMES Australia Diversity Innovation Award in the 2017 Victorian Learn Local Awards.

“It’s been great for the ladies and also good for the town. We really just followed the ladies’ lead as they wanted to do something with their own fabrics and we understood their desire to work with their fabrics,” Ms Creek said.

Many of the women had never sewn before but now they have gained competency and confidence, she said.

“It’s exciting to look back and see how things have developed,” Ms Creek said.

Located half-way between Melbourne and Adelaide, on the Western Highway, Nhill has become a centre of re-settlement for Karen people, who now make up about 10 per cent of the population, or around 200 people in all.

Most began their Australian lives in the Melbourne suburb of Werribee, before settling in the town in 2010.

The move was initiated following the employment of about five Karen at Nhill’s Luv-a-Duck factory, which was seeking to expand its workforce at the time.


Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist