Eyewitness - Life for a Burmese child refugee

From Eyewitness, 3:35 pm on 9 December 2015

He was only three years of age when his mother May Lay first left their home in Nay Pyi Taw the capital of Myanmar. It was 1999, she was forced to run because of her family's outspoken political allegiance with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition politician and chairperson of the National League for Democracy in Burma. May Lay's mother and aunties were all imprisoned. May Lay would have been next.

Eyewitness - Life for Burmese Child Refugee

May Lay and her sister in Myanmar just before she fled Photo: Photo courtesy the Soe family

Aung San Suu Kyi's recent historic democratic victory in the Myanmar elections seems to have brought positive change for the country but for a whole generation of former child refugees, life was conflict ridden. Burmese born Ngelay Aung Thu Soe fled Myanmar as a child with his family to find a better life here.

I'm in South Auckland at the family home where Aung, his older brother Si Thu Myo Myat, May Lay and husband Hla Soe describe how Aung and his family survived years of separation and turmoil to turn their lives around, with help from some dedicated community leaders and an Outward Bound course.

May Lay struggles with English so Aung helps with translations. She tells me she escaped Myanmar to work as an illegal immigrant in Malaysia. She was arrested and imprisoned several times while there, once serving 4 months inside a Malaysian jail.

Each time she was released and sent back across the border, she would try to rescue her children and sneak them out of Myanmar without success. The lengthy separation from her children and repeated imprisonment caused May Lay to suffer serious bouts of depression, bought on by post-traumatic stress.

May Lay tells me various people including and extended family, members of the Burmese community and UNHCR staff supported her through these dark times but it was her children she desperately wanted to be reunited with, in a safe country. She would scavenge for work and send money back home to the family. She would try to make monthly telephone calls but these were sporadic.

Aung and Si Thu both tell me that even though they were young children, they understood how frightened the adults were of more family members being imprisoned, the adults fear was tangible. As children Aung and his brother knew this fear at a very deep level and it was part of daily life. Aung tells me he hardly knew his mother as he grew up in conflict ridden Myanmar.

Finally when Aung was eight, May Lay crept back into Myanmar and this time she would not leave without her two boys and their step-father Hla Soe.

May Lay recalls how Aung did not recognise her when she turned up at their home, it was only her voice that Aung could recall. May Lay says she cried and cried when Aung first ran away from this 'stranger' - his mother.

Flight across borders

The family's flight across the border to refugee camps on the Thai border and then subsequent travel down to Malaysia was fraught, Aung recalls endless walking across the countryside into the night. They left with other refugees, many strangers. They heard gunfire just across the fields in the dark of the night.

May Lay tells me at one point in the tracks along the border her eldest son accidentally became separated from the family. Si Thu (who was only 13 at the time) went missing for hours. May Lay struggled not to cry when she recalls her immense relief at finding him, when the family were reunited to continue their flight across the border into Thailand and then Malaysia.

Aung recalls how they went without food and water 24hour stretches as they fled on foot and then how he and Si Thu had to lie hidden at the back of trucks to slip out of Myanmar.

They finally arrived with UNHCR refugee status in Auckland in 2008. However even resettlement was a struggle with Hla Soe confined to hospital with tuberculosis for the first two months.

Aung recalls not being able to speak a word of English and being terrified at his first day at primary school in Auckland. He returned home in tears begging his mother not to send him back to school, but May Lay proudly thrusts a little cup at me. Aung explains that it was an award for "Best in English" at his school, given within his first year in New Zealand.

Eyewitness - Life for Burmese Child Refugee

Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Community Spirit

There's a bit of a commotion, it's time for the family to head to the Panmure Community Centre. 146 ethnic groups with its 123 dialects make up the incredible diversity of the Burmese people in Myanmar. The Burmese community in Auckland are fundraising for disaster relief at the local community centre.

Along the way I ask what Aung's dreams are for the future. He tells me he's always wanted to join the NZ Army but lacked the self confidence to do so. Then an Outward Bound Course helped change all of that.

The community centre is thronging with people. It seems like the entire Auckland Burmese community are present. Every single ethnic group is represented among the food and craft stalls. It's noisy, festive and full of children. A screen at the back of the hall depicts scenes of the flooding along the Burmese Delta, the Burmese community are keen to raise as much as they can for their families back in their homeland.

Aung shows me around before introducing me to community leader Priscilla Dawson and her husband Edward. Priscilla and her husband Edward care deeply for the many Burmese youth now living in the South Auckland region. It was Priscilla’s idea to get Aung involved with Outward Bound, held once a year at Anakiwa in Marlborough Sounds. The challenging 21 day course is designed for 18 to 26 year olds from all nationalities. 

Outward Bound

Aung tells me the Outward Bound course meant meeting new people, getting over his shyness and learning to kayak, swim, run and sail among many other physically challenging sports. It gave him the confidence to try again for the NZ Army.

Eyewitness - Life for Burmese Child Refugee

Photo: Photo courtesy Outward Bound and the Soe family

He's twenty now and Aung has more confidence, has made life-long friends through his Outward Bound course and still dreams of joining the NZ Army on the road towards working for the U.N. His older brother Si Thu Myo Myat is keen to join the NZ Police Force. May Lay is terrifically proud of her two sons.

Aung tells me he and his brother are very proud of their mother too. They understand how much she sacrificed in her determination to get them out of Myanmar and to the safety of New Zealand, their new home. This family have been to hell and back but they've turned their lives around. Now they want to give back to the country that first took them in with open arms.