Seventeen-year-old Paw was born in Myanmar’s Karen state. When she was seven, her village was attacked and she saw her father killed. She hid in the jungle with her mother and younger brother, they were separated from her grandparents and older sister, and Paw doesn’t know what happened to them.
Paw and her family travelled in the jungle for months, hiding from soldiers and eating whatever food they could find. Finally, they reached a refugee camp on the Thai–Myanmar border, but it was many months before they were eligible for food rations.
In the camp, they built a simple hut to live in and had to queue daily for water. Paw’s mother was distraught because of her husband’s death, and her daughter and other family members’ disappearances. She was also worried the camp would be attacked and Paw and her brother would be harmed. Paw often found it difficult to sleep due to nightmares she had about her experiences.
Paw went to the camp’s school, where classes were large because there were many students and few teachers. Students had to rote learn and Paw found that very difficult, especially when she was tired or hungry. Paw often couldn’t attend school at all because she had to collect rations and firewood, or help her mother in the sewing business they’d started.
Paw loved to socialise with her friends. Sometimes they sat together and sewed, other times they walked and talked. They did schoolwork together and Paw often wished she had more time to spend with them.
Her family moved to a small flat in Melbourne when she was 16 and Paw found city life in Australia very difficult. She missed her friends back in the camp and initially found everything strange and confusing. She went to an English language school (ELS) for a year, where she learnt how Australian schools work. She found English and Maths very demanding, and couldn’t get used to giving her opinion in class or people looking at her when she spoke.
Paw wanted to be a nurse because she had seen the good work they did in the camp. She was keen to study in order to achieve her goal, but when she started Year 10 she didn’t understand what teachers said because they spoke too fast. She also worried that teachers would ask her a question and everyone would laugh at her.
One teacher always asked Paw how she was feeling and helped her with her work. She liked going to his class, and after a while she made a couple of friends. That made school easier.
Paw’s mother needed help with appointments and Centrelink, and Paw had to miss school to help her. Paw’s teachers became frustrated about this and told her that her Centrelink payments might be stopped. Paw, however, began to think that didn’t matter. She felt she could never learn enough, would never be a nurse, so it would be easier not to go to school.