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Horticulture replaces hardship and horror – a refugee’s journey

15 January 20156 comments

Hsar receives a pair of secateurs from Parks Victoria.

A former refugee born in a camp on the Thai-Burma border who spoke no English when he arrived in Australia just five years ago has become the first adult trainee hired by Parks Victoria.

Hsar Thein Ju was too old to qualify for the traditional apprenticeships offered by the agency that looks after Victoria’s 188 national and state parks.

But because of his “huge contribution” as a volunteer at Werribee Park, in Melbourne’s west and his “amazing aptitude” for working with plants, he was offered the first ever traineeship.

This week Hsar received a pair of secateurs from Parks Victoria in a long-standing tradition and he now has ahead of him two years of intensive training and mentoring in horticulture and ranger skills including four-wheel-driving, pesticide use and conflict resolution.

“It’s very exciting. It’s been my aim, my dream, to one day become a park ranger,” Hsar said.

“I love working with the natural environment; with plants and trees,” he said.

Hsar started volunteering at Werribee Park in May, 2013. He arrived in Australia in 2009 as a 17-year-old after spending his entire life in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border.

His work has included weeding, pruning, stabilising river banks and a range of environmental work.

“When I first came, I couldn’t speak English at all,” the 22-year-old said.

“But now I’m very happy and my mum and dad are very proud,” he said.

Hsar hopes his achievements will serve as inspiration for other young Karen and people from other refugee communities. He says hard work and persistence was the key to his success.

“It’s all about hard work, keeping going and being able to communicate – so obviously language is very important,” Hsar said.

“I hope people will look at me and realise they can achieve things too,” he said

James Brincat, Ranger in Charge at Werribee Park, says communication is large part of the job of a park ranger.

“Hsar is a very good communicator especially with members of his own community. He’s made a huge contribution as a volunteer and he has an amazing aptitude for working in gardens,” he said.

James said the ranger team at Werribee Park was very keen to have Hsar join as a full-time member.

“We had an apprenticeship vacancy and when we asked the staff about it that all said they wanted Hsar,” he said.

So Parks Victoria management were persuaded to give Hsar an opportunity.

“Hsar had already learned a lot of the skills required as a ranger. He has learned most of our procedures, even procedures for emergencies,” James said.

Hsar’s appointment is the result of a program called “Working Beyond the Boundaries”, a partnership between Parks Victoria, settlement agency AMES and Werribee Mansion Hotel which has seen dozens of Karen refugees from the local community volunteer in the park.

AMES program manager Dr Melika Yassin Sheikh-Eldin says that people from several emerging communities have been attracted to the park’s volunteer program.

“Many of them have come from difficult circumstance or have spent years in refugee camps. Members of these communities, who are striving to adjust to a new country, are encouraged to join the program so that as well as garden they can learn new skills, develop social networks and gain an understanding of a new culture,” she said.

“The program has helped many people overcome health or social issues and it can offer a pathway to meaningful employment.” Dr Sheikh-Eldin said.

The Karen people gravitated to the Werribee area after the first of them who arrived in Victoria as refugees were settled there.

The ethnic minority Karen have been persecuted by the Burmese government for 30 years. There are estimated 150,000 Karen living in refugee camps in or on the Thai border.

The Burmese army have systematically destroyed Karen villages and in operations described by human rights groups as ethnic cleansing.

A largely agrarian and village-based people, Karen refugees have often encountered difficulties when settled in urban locations around the world.

Traditionally, they are gardeners and cultivators and living in an urban environment has left many of them dislocated and suffering depression. But being able to volunteer in the gardens of Werribee Park has had a remarkably positive effect on many of them.

Hsar says life in the refugee camp where he was born was difficult but now he faces the future with a new sense of optimism.

“It was a very hard life in the camp. We had to stay in the camp. We had a very low level of schooling, no money and often not enough food,” Hsar said.

“I am so lucky and grateful to be here and to be given this opportunity,” he said.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Senior Journalist