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In our Summer Love series, Ginger Gorman explores different kinds of heart-warming Canberra relationships.
Ten years ago, Cate, 56, did something which changed her life. She went to an Amnesty International event at Commonwealth Park in Canberra called “The Refugee Experience.”
“It was profoundly affecting,” she recalls, “It still makes me cry.”
Until that moment, Cate didn’t really understand—on an emotional level—the pain and dispossession of being stateless. True to her word, there are tears in her eyes as she recollects this experience.
After this, Cate realised she wanted to take direct and personal action: “It brought home to me that I had to do more than protest marches, donations and petitions and really get involved in personal, local help.”
This led Cate to a local organisation called Canberra Refugee Support (CRS).
“What started as one-hour per a week volunteering gig to help Nan begin to learn English back in 2014 has become a most heart-filling and life-changing friendship,” she says, “This inspiring, courageous, generous gentle family opened their lives to me and I feel so much richer for it.”
From the first day Cate met Nan, 44, and her family, the Australian had a special bond with them.
“I’ve felt involved and welcomed in the house from the first day I came,” Cate says, “Nan would give me this amazing Burmese and Thai food. There was just that welcoming generosity and we had so many laughs.”
Mostly these funny moments occurred because Cate would try and draw pictures to communicate—and Nan just couldn’t understand what she meant.
When I ask Nan when she felt Cate was her friend, and not just a volunteer who routinely assisted her, the former refugee says something profound: “In my culture, a friend is something a bit different. Cate is more important [than that]. She’s a person that is very kind and a person that we trust. She’s more like family.”
“Cate has helped with everything a human would want. Houses, jobs, resumes…all my goals now are fulfilled,” Nan continues, smiling at Cate.
The pair laugh, thinking back to how nervous they were before their first meeting seven years ago. Nan spoke no English and worried she wouldn’t be able to communicate with Cate at all. Likewise, Cate had never taught English before and was concerned they wouldn’t understand each other.
“And then I walked into the room and I thought: ‘She’s so brave! We can do this!’” Cate recollects.
“We drew a lot of pictures, didn’t we?” Cate says to Nan, “We started with food and health topics. Just words. We didn’t try to do sentences at the start.”
One of the hardest things for Nan was trying to drive a car in a foreign country and pass her driver’s test in English: “Oh my god!” she exclaims, “I couldn’t read English so I would memorise the questions by the start and end words and then memorise the answers for that question.”
“The citizenship test came much later and by then her English was much better,” Cate adds.
Nan and her husband Chan, 35, separately fled from the ongoing minority group persecutions in Mon, their home province in Myanmar. The couple met in the relative safety of Thailand in 2004.
But it was a long road before the Burmese family were reunited in Australia. Chan got his Australian Citizenship in 2005 and then managed to find secure work. He visited Nan and their-then toddler daughter, Sa Taung, in 2009.
Finally, in 2013 Nan, Sa Taung and their newer daughter Eim Bloy, now 10 years old, were able to join Chan here in Canberra.
With help from Companion House, the local Mon community, CRS and the ACT and Australian governments the family set up home, got the girls into school and began their new life together in earnest. Their youngest daughter, Lwi Proa was born in 2014.
Throughout our conversation in their Canberra home, Sa Taung, now 15, is helping her mother translate. She tells me that she sees Cate as her Australian grandmother. And they do all kinds of things together—art, knitting, swimming lessons and even a first aid course.
“Sometimes Cate will come to parent-teacher meetings at the school because Dad is at work and Mum wouldn’t understand,” Sa Tuang says.
“The entire family are now happily Australian Citizens, all three girls are flourishing at school and doing amazingly well,” Cate says with pride.
With language assistance from Sa Tuang, Nan says one of the things she most appreciates about her Aussie friend is that when she was learning English, Cate would take extreme care to make sure she understood, carefully sounding words out and often miscommunication would lead to them falling about laughing.
“We did some fun things. One of Nan’s first job interviews [in Australia] we did together,” Cate says, “because Nan was nervous.”
Nan told her interviewer: “I’m not frightened of the work. I’m just frightened of the English.”
Cate remembers being awed by Nan and thinking: “This is someone so strong.”
Nan got that job—so now she’s working both in the hospitality and cleaning sector. She has two permanent part-time gigs and a casual job too. Nan has also completed the Adult Migrant English program.
For his part, Chan is employed full-time installing air conditioning, and, thanks to frugal living, the couple are just about to buy a house.
When I ask what the most memorable event they’ve shared, Cate says—with tears in her eyes again—she was blown away witnessing the first time Lwi walked.
“I don’t have children, so for me that was a profound thing to be included in and sharing with the family,” Cate says.
Feature image: Cate with Nan (who is sitting far right), Sa Taung (second right), Lwi (middle), Eim Bloy (left) sitting on the front doorstep. Credit: Ginger Gorman.