‘This Is Home Now’: The Karen People’s Journey from Myanmar to Australia

Escaping persecution and conflict, many Karen people of southern and southeastern Myanmar have migrated to Thailand, settling primarily in refugee camps at the Myanmar-Thailand border. As Margaret Simons reports on SBS, about 200 Karen people have since found a new home in Nhill, a country town halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide in Australia. Their presence has brought new life to the town — jobs, connections, and a sense of community — making Nhill a model for the rest of the country.

A board outside the shop announces, in the exotic Brahmin script of Myanmar, Kay’s great act of generosity and now her cause for hope. She has given, rent free, the space at the rear of her store to Karen community leader Kaw Doh Htoo. There, he has opened a grocery store for the Karen people who have made this remote country town their home. . . .

He sits at the formica table and tries to describe how he came to live here, in this little declining town with its wide streets and closed shops speaking of past prosperity. The Karen come from the hills and mountains of Karen state, part of Myanmar near the Thai border. He gets choked up.

This is home now, he says. It is a good place. But he misses the hills and jungle. Ask him what he hopes for his children, and he weeps.

Hope, after all, can be as sharp as a knife. . . .

But there are other things here, too — less visible to the passing eye. Nhill has a higher rate of volunteering than the nation as a whole. It has what Deloitte Access Economics has termed unusually high levels of social capital. Put more simply, it is a town with a big heart and, over the last six years, it has come to stand for a very different kind of Australian story.

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