Growing up, Say Ka Trace Hlaing never thought she’d one day become a dental nurse.
As a member of Myanmar’s Karen population, an ethnic minority group, she spent the first 12 years of her life in a refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border.
“Every day was the same, I hardly went outside the camp because I was told it wasn’t safe,” she told SBS News.
Ms Hlaing arrived in Australia nine years ago and settled in the city of Bendigo, a former gold rush boom town northwest of Melbourne. She is now among several Karen refugees working in the region’s dental health service.
“I really love Bendigo, it’s very multicultural,” she said.
“There’s a lot of people and I have a lot of friends, and I have a good community.”
Also displaced by the conflict in Myanmar was Nay Chee Aung, who arrived in Bendigo with his family in 2011.
“When we were in Burma most of us lived in small villages, so we tend to prefer regional or the countryside than metropolitan areas,” he said.
It was education, work and services that enabled Mr Aung, his mother and brothers to give back to the community, and he now works as an interpreter and settlement caseworker.
“I think we chose Bendigo as a destination because it’s very friendly, welcoming, and we have a great community in Bendigo. Not just our own, but also the broader community has been very accepting,” he said.
“People find employment here, that’s the biggest attraction I think, for our Karen community. We have so many people working really hard, settled down, buying homes here.”
Karen refugees have been steadily settling in Bendigo since 2007.
Team Manager at Bendigo Community Health Services, Kaye Graves, says the community are now part of the region’s fabric.
“All of our people of refugee backgrounds are working where there are job shortages. They’re also contributing and building our capacity in other job areas.”
“People are thriving here. They’re working, they’re studying, they’re playing sport, we’ve got the best soccer players.”
Over ten years, Bendigo’s Karen community has grown from fewer than a dozen to more than 1,000 today.
Deloitte’s October 2018 Regional Futures report, commissioned by AMES Settlement Services, found the Karen community has injected an estimated $67.1 million into Bendigo’s economy, creating almost 200 new jobs.
In November, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he intended to cut Australia’s permanent migration intake by about 30,000 people, acknowledging public concern about congested cities.
But AMES community engagement officer Laurie Nowell said Bendigo represents the long-term success of migrant settlements.
“There’s also been a significant benefit in social capital,” she said.
Ms Nowell said other regions are “crying out” for more migrants.
“We’re seeing regional towns and cities unable to fill employment vacancies … they’ve got aging populations, young people are moving to the cities, so there are lots of opportunities for migrants and refugees to be settled in the region.”
One of the biggest employers in Bendigo is chicken producer Hazeldenes. Its general manager of marketing Michelle Daniel said Karen employees make up 120 of the 800-strong workforce.
“Essentially we have a whole range of manufacturing jobs that need to be filled, with people that are suitable for those roles and willing and able to do the work.”
“We have a lot of local workers as well and a lot of other nationalities working within the business too, but Karen is our biggest migrant group.”
And it isn’t just a short-term boost to the local economy.
Given the Karen population’s younger demographic, it’s expected the labour force in Bendigo will only continue to grow. And locals believe it’s led to a more inclusive and cohesive society.
For Nay Chee Aung and others, Bendigo is home for life.
“I think I will stay here as long as I am alive, so I will stay here to raise a family, and to bring up, even grandchildren.”
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