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Courage and resilience revealed in a smile

20 January 20170 comments

They say a smile is the light in the window of your soul.

For Karen refugee Eh Hta Dah Shee, his beaming face belies a lifetime of struggle, deprivation and hardship.

After more than a decade in a refugee camp and battles with depression and learning disabilities, his infectious grin says that the he’s finally found his place in the world.

The 25-year-old, known affectionately as ‘Dutchie’, has spent the past four years volunteering at Werribee Park Mansion and at Serendip wildlife sanctuary, in Melbourne’s west.

Dutchie’s new found lease on life is largely because of a volunteering program run by Parks Victoria and migrant and refugee settlement agency AMES Australia called ‘Working Beyond the Boundaries’, which is designed to help members of the local refugee communities gain the skills and confidence necessary to find employment.

Werribee Park head ranger James Brincat says Dutchie is fluent in English, Karen and speaks Thai yet he cannot read and write.

“He has learnt all of these languages through a kind of osmosis,” Mr Brincat said.

“Dutchie has a learning disability and has special needs yet he has been able to achieve an incredible amount in terms of being able to learn how the gardens here operate and he is making an amazing contribution,” he said.

After leaving school Dutchie suffered isolation and depression.

“As all of his siblings have now left home, so he was spending all of his day-time at home alone, bored and lonely,” Mr Brincat said.

“His mother encouraged him to volunteer here at the gardens as there are many Karen here and his mother thought would be good for him to make a contribution to the community and perhaps being with the park rangers may help boost his confidence.

“Since he started with us his English is now fluent and he is more confident in communicating with Europeans,” he said.

Dutchie says working at Werribee Park has given him purpose and a meaningful life.

“I am very happy here. It is good to come here and do something. I love working with plants and working with the people here is good,” ‘Dutchie’ said.

He said life in the refugee camp was very tough; and his first years in Australia were only slightly easier with making friends proving difficult.

He arrived in Australia at age 13, the youngest of five siblings. Like many Karen who found their way to Australia, his family had lived in Mae La refugee camp in Thailand’s Tak province, near the Burma border.

Dutchie said the area around the camp was a violent place.

“The people were fighting or hurting each other, and when I come here I was scared of people … They kill each other, they don’t care. No one cares about it. They pull them to the side of the road and just leave them,” he said.

“There was not much to do and no opportunities but life is much better here for us.

“In Thailand I knew nothing about growing plants and I could not speak English but now I am learning about horticulture and I can speak to people in Australia in English.

“Also I was very shy and nervous when I came to Australia but now I am more confident and happy,” Dutchie said.

But he said at first he was uncertain about volunteering in the garden.

“When I first started I was shy and nervous when I saw the people, the new people,” Dutchie said.

“I looking used to look down at the ground when the people talked to me – I was shy and tried hide. Now I am getting good. I can speak with the people.

“When I was in Thailand I did not imagine that Australia would be like this, that I would be here in the country growing vegetables. I am very lucky,” Dutchie said.

Hundreds of thousands of Karen people were killed in the conflict and about 140,000 made it across the border to refugee camps in Thailand. Just over 3,000 have been settled in Victoria.

Many Karen refugees volunteer in at Werribee Park growing vegetables, pruning, and weeding as well as looking after the chooks.

Each month 3500 volunteer hours are essential to the upkeep of Werribee Park’s extensive grounds and facilities.

If you are interested in volunteering at Werribee Park, contact James Brincat on 0418 131 684 or via email: or Colleen Miller on 0410 164 468 or via email:

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist