First days at school are often angst-filled occasions, equally forgettable as they are memorable.
For 12-year-old Thai refugee Gai Porh Soe La Myint, who had only mastered one English word – ‘hi’, it was the latter.
The bustling playground at Weerona College was a world away from the Nu Poe refugee camp in provincial Thailand.
“It was very difficult – the first day I hated it,” she said.
“It was so hard because I didn’t know the language, I felt so uncomfortable, I didn’t know what to say.”
Fortunately, things improved for Gai Porh
After initially being placed in a class with Karen-only students, her English progressed to the extent that aged 15, the youngster was placed into general classes with the masses.
“That’s when you start writing essays and reading books – that’s another level again,” she said.
When studying became too onerous, or the language barrier seemingly too obstructive, Gai Porh would always reflect on the refugee camp where she grew up.
“There was not much opportunity for when you grow up. If you went to Thailand to study and go back to the provinces there are minimal jobs – only teachers, doctors, nurses.”
“In year 11 and 12 when everything is a lot harder I thought to myself ‘I will try my best to get into whatever course I could because let’s face it we’re in Australia now’.”
With the help of federal MP Lisa Chesters and tutors from La Trobe University, study groups were created for Karen students in 2015.
Tutors – generally students from the university – volunteered their time to provide fortnightly classes.
Former La Trobe University student engagement officer Abhishek Awasthi helped find students willing to volunteer their time and expertise.
Gai Porh is the first study group ‘graduate’ to go to university, studying pharmacy.
Her inquisitive nature meant she was always asking questions.
“I would ask extra help from Luke to come and help on the weekend,” she said.
Since the study groups began – where numbers could range from four to five students – around 15 to 20 students currently attend sessions.
The weight of number offers one explanation.
With almost 200 families, the Karen community has topped 1000 people in the municipality – a far cry from the seven it started off with just 10 years ago.
Karen leader Venerable Ashin Moonieinda has been instrumental in that change, relocating numerous families living in Australia to Bendigo.
Perhaps the more logical explanation is Gai Porh’s success.
“There is a lot more now (that want to go to university) which I’m really happy with. A few of them are pretty smart too,” said Gai Porh, who now tutors when she can at the study groups.
“Because of the language barrier I ask the younger children to keep studying instead of going on social media.
“When you go to university its a big deal, you need to put more effort in”
Gai Porh explained that for every two hours her Australian friends studied, she had to do six – a fact she has drilled into her proteges.
Through her success in reaching unversity, Gai Porh is gradually changing perceptions within the Karen community of what jobs they can do, and perhaps more importantly, what they can aspire to do.
“I wanted to make sure I could go out and do something different rather than working in a factory,” she said.
The older cohort in the local Karen community were restricted in the type of work they could pursue because their English was functional at best, she said.
“You have to start young – but then again even if you start old and have a bit of English you can go through, but its going to be hard,” she said.
“Me going to university is hoping that others will follow the same step, I’m hoping to get as many people graduating from Australian university as possible.”
The Karen community has had a turbulent past few months.
Earlier this year, the last piece of a planning jigsaw for Bendigo’s Karen monastery was put in place with the City of Greater Bendigo approving amended plans for a multi-faith place of worship in Eaglehawk.
Venerable Moonieinda said at the time he believed the monastery would be the first of its kind in Australia and would assist in the Bhuddist monk’s quest to build a thriving refugee community in the city.
The community is still awaiting the outcome of an application for $750,000 from the Victorian Multicultrual Commission for the monastery and community centre.
Last month, proposed changed by the federal government to strengthen Australian Citizenship requirements left the Karen community feeling vulnerable.
The major changes, which were introduced into federal parliament recently, include a university-standard English test, and increasing the residency requirement from one to four years.
“A lot of the community don’t have high levels of English – they don’t do much reading and writing,” Venerable Moonieinda said.
“It will make it very hard to pass the test.”
Entrants to Australia are currently entitled to 510 hours of free English lessons.
For Gai Porh and her resilient Karen community, it’s just another challenge to overcome.