THE volleyball courts of Bendigo are a world away from the refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border where these teenagers once lived and played.
Even the very idea of their daughters being involved in sport as a regular after-school activity is quite foreign to many of the Karen families who have settled in central Victoria, seeking safety and peace after fleeing violence and upheaval in their former homeland.
But these girls are pioneers in their community – leading the way in showing how sport can help break down the cultural barriers and promote a level playing field in the game of life.
The Bendigo South East Sec- ondary College Karen Dragons team is in its first season of competition, playing in the Bendigo Volleyball Association’s under-15 girls division.
And despite some players having little or no prior experience in the sport, they are serving it up to their opponents and proving to be a smash hit on and off the court.
After seven rounds, they sit third on the ladder with four wins and two draws.
Not that the girls really care about the final scores – they just want to have fun.
“They are not competitive by nature,” says BSE teacher Jenni Shelton, who helped establish the team to give the Karen girls a sporting chance.
“They never know if they are winning or losing and don’t really follow the scoreboard during a match.
“These girls, whether they win or lose a point, clap every time so they are also clapping for their opponents. It is a competition, but everyone is just excited to be playing.”
Mrs Shelton says the girls play by one simple rule: smile at all times.
“I don’t even have to tell them that, they do it anyway. They are just beautiful.”
As an English as a Second Language teacher, Mrs Shelton has regular contact with BSE’s 22 Karen students and volunteers with a support group in the refugee community.
She says while Karen boys have been given plenty of opportunities to showcase their skills in sports like soccer and cricket, there was little on offer for girls.
“I just kept thinking that we had to do something for them,” she says.
“In the Karen culture, the girls usually go home at the end of the school day and learn about domestic things – cooking, cleaning and helping their mums. Some of these girls will have been cooking for their families since they were less than 10 years old.
“So this (volleyball) has been a big thing for some of the parents.
“Some are more ready to try whatever everyone else is doing, but for others.... it’s all new.”
All members of the Karen Dragons came to Australia as refugees, some as recently as the start of this year and others up to four years ago.
Their command of the English language varies widely, according to how long they have been here, so there’s a lot of sign language used to help them learn the skills they need.
Volleyball was a perfect choice of sport for the girls, as most had at least seen it before in their refugee camps and a couple had played it themselves in Thailand.
“They have all taken to it like ducks to water,” says Mrs Shelton. “They have been getting better and better every week.
“They are quite unbelievable – show them something and they will practise it over and over again until they master it.
“When they couldn’t get their serves over the net, they came to the gym for a couple of lunch times and just served the ball up against the wall until they could do it.”
Watching the lightning-quick serve and accurate digging of sisters Snora and Ba Blu Soe, two of the more experienced players, it’s clear the girls have plenty of natural talent, too.
Mrs Shelton says the Karen volleyball project has been well supported by the school, the local association and its competition director, Tom Stevens, who is allowing the girls to play in the under-15 division even though a small number of players are slightly over-age.
Opposing teams have also given the newcomers a good reception.
When the Karen girls turned up the first week, they were supposed to do umpiring duty before their match but the game between two Girton teams ended up being forfeited.
Some of those girls instead joined forces and had a fun hit-out against the Karen side, with the Girton coach offering tips along the way.
“They played that scratch match, then they played their own game, and I think if I hadn’t said it was time for them to go home, they would have been happy to just keep playing,” Mrs Shelton recalls.
Fifteen-year-old Say Ka Trace says she loves taking to the volleyball every week, even though it had been a big challenge learning to serve, dig, set and spike the ball.
“It is very exciting,” the year nine student says, adding that playing the sport made her feel happy and helped keep her fit. “I want to become really good at it.”
Say Ka Trace arrived in Australia in July 2009 from the Mae La refugee camp in Thailand.
She spent her first four months in Werribee, then moved to Bendigo with her parents, two brothers and two sisters to be near an aunt and uncle who had already settled here.
“A lot of things are different here – the schools, the people, the clothes, the language, the food and the housing,” she says.
Say Ka Trace had seen volleyball played in the Mae La camp and her older sister had also played, but she’d never had a go herself until this year.
She says her parents were happy for her to be involved as they had been encouraging her to “go outside and be around other people”.
The Karen Dragons are coached by two former BSE students, Caillin Malloy and Lauren Harvey, who are now in year 12 at Bendigo Senior Secondary College and play for their school in the volleyball association’s division two women’s competition.
They have developed a wonderful rapport with the girls and are enjoying the experience.
Mrs Shelton says although Karen girls don’t usually take part in organised sport, they do play a game similar to the old-fashioned “elastics” jumping activity popular with Western girls.
This helps them become very agile and develops their vertical leap – both attributes that are valuable on a volleyball court.
Their involvement in the sport has also had a positive flow-on effect in the school ground.
BSE sports manager Jan Mannes says playing volleyball has given them something in common with their Australian peers and is helping break down the barriers.
Ms Mannes and Mrs Shelton relate the story of how one of the Karen girls had been approached at school by a student from a rival BSE volleyball team on the day the two teams were due to play each other.
“The Aussie year nine girl asked what time the game was that evening,” Mrs Shelton says.
“And the Karen girl was so excited because it was a girl who had never spoken to her before.”
Having their sisters playing sport is also proving a novel experience for the Karen boys.
“At first, some of them wondered why the girls would want to play,” Mrs Shelton says. “Now, they always want to know if the girls have won, and often don’t believe what their sisters tell them – they check up with me when they get to school the following day!
“This is a wonderful story – I feel like I have the best job in the world.”