In Summary

  • Written by Serena Seah, Susan Powell and Susan Bradley, Swinburne University of Technology. This edited article is republished from Finding Our Place.

When Chelsea was three years old, her mother, a teacher, was transferred from their town to a village some kilometres away. Chelsea moved with her while her father remained in the town for work purposes.

For the next few years, Chelsea lived in the village with her mother and the three younger brothers. Similar to the others around them, their lives were a struggle due to the family’s low income and the restrictions imposed on them.

Life for the Tials was further disrupted when Chelsea was in Grade 2 or 3. ‘My father decided to escape from Myanmar and go to Malaysia as an illegal immigrant. He did this both for safety and to help our family financially.

Escaping to Malaysia, generally to the Kuala Lumpur area, is a well-trod but risky path for Chin people. Their new lives usually turn out little better than the ones they have left. The refuge and protection they seek does not exist. As they lack legal status, they are open to abuse of rights, oppressive treatment by employers and authorities, and poor levels of housing, education and medical care.

Their hope is for eventual recognition as refugees by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), which makes them eligible for resettlement in a third country. This is what happened to Chelsea’s father, who came to Australia, alone, in 2008.

Reunion with his family finally took place in 2013, in Melbourne.

Life in Chin State

Even with the intermittent financial assistance of her husband in Malaysia when he was able to provide it, Chelsea’s mother found it very hard to provide for her children. ‘On top of that,’ says Chelsea, ‘it was quite difficult to communicate with Dad once he had left.

Determined that her daughter would nonetheless receive a good education, Chelsea’s mother sent her to board with her paternal aunt and her family who lived in the town.

Despite her new school being better than the one in the village, ‘learning in the classroom was not enough, so my mum had to find the money for extra tuition fees outside class. Luckily, I was a good student. I loved to study: it was my first priority and interest, whatever else was going on, and so I did it well.’

Change of plan

Chelsea remained within her aunt’s household until she had completed Matriculation (Year 12), when she left in order to undertake a Bachelor of Science at a university located just over the border from Chin State. Her aim was to become a teacher. ‘I graduated but a further qualification was required for teaching so I then attended a college to do a Diploma in Teacher Education Competency.’

It was in 2012, while she was at the college, that Chelsea and her family received a major but welcome shock: an email arrived from her father in Melbourne, telling them that he had been living there with his cousin independently for some years. Further, now that he’d been able to make contact, he would start the process of applying for his wife and children to join him in Australia.

Chelsea recalls that, ‘I got my Diploma of Teacher Education Competency and had just commenced work as a government primary school teacher when the papers arrived for our migration from Myanmar. Along with my mother and my brothers I arrived here in September 2013.’

Reunion at last

In Melbourne the family had an ‘amazing reunion’. It was also tinged with sadness – their father was chronically unwell.

Shortly after arrival Chelsea enrolled in the Migrant English course at Swinburne, where she was initially placed in Level 2 but very soon moved to Level 3. As she recalls it, ‘Swinburne is a soft landing place and a welcome home for people like us, newly arrived migrants who are nervous all the time’. She found the teachers ‘talented mentors, very honest and caring. They are amazing.’

The helpfulness of a Swinburne counsellor whom Chelsea consulted over her considerable concerns in relation to future study and employment pathways was also greatly appreciated.

Chelsea progressed to higher English studies at the university, with the goal in mind of becoming an Emergency Department nurse. To this end she did a short course at Swinburne in order to become a Patient Services Assistant, which gave her the basic skills to commence employment in her chosen field. She then undertook a Diploma of Nursing, graduating in 2017, while working as an employee at an Eastern Health hospital. Later this year, she intends to commence a Bachelor of Nursing.

‘Australia is my favourite country. I feel now like it’s my home, my actual home.’

This story is available in full in the publication ‘Finding our Place’ by Serena Seah, Susan Powell and Susan Bradley and is available through Swinburne Commons.