Whenever Hsay Wah Thu Kree thinks about his favourite childhood memory, it makes him smile. “One day, my older brother gave me his unused old bicycle wheel rim, which made me so happy. As a child, I played with that wheel rim as a hoop, using a stick, running and pushing it the whole day without ever noticing any tiredness. I can still see it in my imagination.”
But that memory is also tinged with sadness. “My best friend passed away in that same year as a result of a high fever. His father, too, was shot to death by Burmese soldiers within a week of that, after Sunday noon service.”
Hsay Wah is one of the Karen refugees from Burma who lives in Wyndham, west of Melbourne. Most of these refugees arrived with little to no personal items and photographs from the past hang with pride in their homes. But beneath the surface of their close-knit community lies isolation and trauma that, if unfettered, could lead to a loss of hope. Many community elders have psychological trauma that can manifest in domestic violence and alcohol abuse.
Now that trauma is being treated with narrative therapy, a form of therapy that aims to raise positive memories of childhood – prior to the experience of war – and bring those precious moments into the present. This enables each to celebrate their identity as a Chin and consolidate their heritage within the fabric of their new life as an Australian.
As part of their therapy, Hsay Wah and 23 other elders from various ethnic minority groups of Burma have shared their childhood memories in a new book, Nostalgia. Beneath each deeply personal vignette lies a bedrock of trauma – some hidden from the audience, but others, like Hsay Wah’s, sitting closer to the surface.
The project was initiated by community settlement worker and author Richard Dove and his team at the Wyndham Community Education Centre, an organisation based in Werribee that assists recent arrivals with settlement issues. “The impetus behind the book, like all our other work at the WCEC Strengthening Unit, is to support the settlement of refugees in our community.
“My work, and the work of our team, is ultimately about good settlement. People who have arrived from another country need to feel as though they belong. And people need to be given an opportunity to belong,” he says.
“This all just doesn’t happen by magic. It takes hard work. You need to work through all of their issues, their trauma, their non-understanding of Australian culture, their belief systems around family, education and employment and nudge it in the right direction,” Dove explains.
“Writing is my own passion. And so is working with refugee communities. One day I typed three words into Google: stories, refugees and trauma. I came across page after page of projects and programs relating to storytelling as a way of supporting refugees through trauma. The more I researched, the more I loved this idea of telling stories as a positive way of redefining the traumatic experience – and so did our team.”
The participants were asked to go back in time, past the traumatic memories from the war with the Burmese army and back to a favourite memory of childhood. Bringing these happy memories to the fore has provided these elders with the power to redefine their life narrative – or at least a small part of it.
“The ultimate intention of the book was to provide an opportunity for the elders from Burma to connect with a favourite memory before the age of 12, as a way of capturing the essence of village life, and to let this be a defining moment for them, rather than the war and trauma that has dominated so much of their lives,” says Dove.
“I was frightened but I learned to calm down,” says Naw Jacqueline Aung Min as she recounted the experience of dictating her cheeky story about a childhood friend being bitten while sitting on an ant’s nest. “But now I have a story written down and this I can share with my grandchildren.”
The book also assists the community’s younger generation, providing young people from Burma, who are growing up in Australia and removed from their culture, to understand who they are and where their families have originated. It’s a way for them to better understand their place in Australia’s migrant history.
Hae Mu recounts childhood memories of sadness surrounding the death of her mother as a time in which she began recognising the simple pleasures of “the clear sky” and “the sound of gibbons calling” as she helped her father raise her younger siblings. The war and recent political turmoil in Myanmar have meant Hae Mu and her compatriots cannot return, yet it is these memories that enable her to pass on their cultural idiosyncrasies.
“I remember my father’s love for me and my siblings. And through this book I can share the same with my grandchildren.”
Assimilation is a myth, says Dove. “I believe it is a falsehood to think that when a person leaves behind their country of birth, they also need to leave behind their identity. Knowing one’s identity, and where one fits into the fabric, is what creates the sense of belonging – not the opposite. Of course, a person must fit in and contribute and ultimately accept their new country as their own – but one should never forget where they came from.”