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New to the Parish: ‘Here you can actually fulfil your dreams’

Say Law La’s family fled Burma and have lived in Castlebar, Co Mayo since 2007

Phaw Shee and Say Law La Say : ‘We had three weeks to study about Ireland and learn the English language.” Photograph: Keith Heneghan/Phocus

The first day of school in Castlebar was a nerve-wracking experience for Say Law La Say. Her family had just arrived from Thailand where they had lived for 10 years in the Ban Don Yang refugee camp near the Burmese border. The family had never used electricity before arriving in Ireland and spoke no English.

“I was very quiet, I would just sit in the corner of the class by myself,” says Say Law La, who was born in the Thai refugee camp. “People would try and talk to me but I couldn’t understand. Back then the talking was like gibberish to us, we couldn’t understand a single word.

“It was a completely new environment for me and I just didn’t understand what the teachers were saying, so I just kind of stood there.”

In 2007, Say Law La Say arrived in Ireland as part of the Government’s refugee resettlement programme with her mother, Phaw Shee, her father, sisters and brother. They were part of a group of nearly 100 refugees relocated to Ireland who had fled their homes in Burma fearing persecution and death.

As members of the ethnic minority Karen community, the family were forced from their village in 1997 after an attack on the region by the Burmese military. They spent a year and a half in a refugee camp in Burma before crossing the border into Thailand in search of greater security.

“We couldn’t stay there,” says Phaw Shee, describing how the family were forced to run to a nearby forest to seek cover from the gunshots ringing out through the village. “They came to attack us and killed the villagers.”

Even though they felt safer in the Ban Don Yang refugee camp, life was not easy. Living in the isolated camp was like being locked inside a jail, says Phaw Shee. “After hours they didn’t allow us to go outside, to celebrate festivals or to buy food. The Thai soldiers told us we had to remain as refugees. We had no country, no house, nothing. We had to stay living a very poor life.”

The family missed the freedom they enjoyed before the violence broke out in their community. “In Burma, we were free because we lived in the forest, in a small village. We could grow our vegetables and work in the fields.”

Seeking asylum

Phaw Shee began working as a social worker and teacher in the camp but was kept busy looking after her family in a home with no electricity. She grew frustrated with the lack of opportunities available to her children and applied for the family to leave Thailand and seek asylum overseas.

“If we moved to another country we could get more confidence living in a safe place with no more fighting.”

After their application was accepted by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the family were surprised to discover they would be moving to a small island in Western Europe called Ireland.

“We had three weeks to study about Ireland and learn the English language. They taught us about the Irish weather, the post office signs, the hospital signs and the school signs. We saw a video and I saw a lot of rain. But it looked beautiful.”

The family left Thailand on September 17th, 2007 – Say Law La’s 6th birthday – and arrived in Ireland the following day where they were transferred to the direct provision centre in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo. They spent 10 weeks at the centre taking English classes and preparing to settle into life in Ireland.

Phaw Shee remembers the friendly teachers who explained how to use a fridge, an electric cooker and a washing machine, and the staff who ensured the Karen community had an endless supply of rice to accompany their fish and chicken dinners.

However, Say Law La was not happy with the change of diet. “I remember when I first arrived I ate something and I got sick because I wasn’t used to it. I’m really picky about food and I just got given food. I didn’t like it at all.”

Leaving Cert

The family moved to Castlebar after receiving refugee status. Say Law La, who is now 14 years old and in 2nd year at Davitt College, says she is lucky to live in Ireland where she can sit her Leaving Cert exams and study at university.

“Here you can actually fulfil your dreams of what you want to be when you’re older. Back then in Thailand, in the refugee camps, you just get brought up, and if you’re a woman you just have to take care of your kids and you don’t really have as many rights as you would here.”

“We moved to a different country to get a better life and a better education. So we’re all just trying to succeed in that . . . we try our best.”

Asked what she would like to work as when she grows up, Say Law La responds without a moment’s hesitation that she wants to be a nurse.

“I’ve always wanted to help people out as much as I can. I want to help people out when they’re sick. I just have it in me that I want to be a nurse. My sister is a nurse working in a nursing home, so I look up to her and what she does.”

Phaw Shee takes great pleasure in watching her children grow up in Co Mayo with access to education and job opportunities.

“They have a better life here, I hope. I’ve told them already to stay here, to make their lives better. Because Mammy and Daddy are old, I say to them. It’s more difficult for us to study.”

In 2017 Phaw Shee plans to bring her youngest daughter on her first visit back home to Burma to visit her family’s native village. Say Law La is eager to learn about her heritage. “It will be nice to see where Karen people grew up and how their lives were compared to their lives now in Ireland. Because I never got to experience living in Burma, I was born in Thailand, so it was completely different.”

We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past five years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com