Featured in this photo essay is Ree Meh & Shay Meh – a mother and daughter from Burma/Myanmar, living in the Illawarra – in conversation with SCARF Volunteers and Communications Team Members, Sarah Pulling & Maddie Burkitt.


Further essays will follow over the coming weeks and months. To read the introduction and background to this series, click here.

As a photo essay, this is best viewed on a desktop or laptop computer.


We sat down with Shay Meh & Ree Meh, at their home in Wollongong to talk about their lives, Burmese culture, and their wants for the future.

“I was born in Burma / Myanmar. I will have been in Australia for 2 years in April, 2018. I was in the refugee camp in Thailand from 2004 to 2016, for 12 years. I do not know my exact date of birth, but I estimate 69 yrs old…


[I have] four children – two in Burma, one (re-settled) in America, and Shay Meh, here. We keep in contact using the internet. He is doing well there, but he misses his mother so wanted to come to Australia, but it’s too late now.


I miss my sons in the village, and country, but I cannot go home now. It costs a lot of money to talk to someone in Burma, on a phone call.” – Ree Meh, as translated by SCARF Community Mobiliser, Francis.

What was life like for you in Burma / Myanmar?

“I was a farmer. I grew plants – rice, and seasonal crops. I cut wood for firewood. When it was time for harvesting, I would harvest. When it was time to plow the land, I would plow. I would follow the seasons of the year. It was a kind of mobile farming. Slash and burn. You cannot grow in the same place for more than 3 years, because of the fertility of the soil. So after 3 years [we] would find another piece of land.


We would grow just for family consumption. Sometimes in those good years, it was enough for the whole year, but when we had drought, or went to the wrong plot of land, and we did not have good produce, it was not enough. I did most of the job. Their father did not help me much.”

Can you describe where you lived?

The village we are from is in the middle of the Karenni state in the eastern part of Burma, bordering Thailand called Loikaw. “Loikaw” means “Between the mountains.”


Before, when I was young, there were a lot of trees, big forest, thick forest but year-by-year lots of people would cut trees for firewood, so now not many trees are left. Now they rely on the stream, there’s a small stream next to the village. If we cut all the trees there would be no water from the village. The village is still there now.


When I was in Burma, there were about 30 houses, now there are about 100 houses, it has expanded. Because the young people get married, and the village grows. Before, the houses were made of wood and bamboo, but now wood is becoming scarce and not available anymore. Now they build houses with bricks, it is a new trend now. It was normal to see houses with wood, and people did not value wood as they do now.”

What did you like about living in Loikaw?

Back home, you owned the house, you owned the land, so you don’t worry, you don’t have to pay for rent. But here, you don’t own the house, so sometimes you feel you are walking in the air. You can be asked to vacate at any time, if someone sells their house, so there’s a difference between living in Burma and living here, the feeling of uncertainty.


[Before, when we were living in Loikaw], the ownership is not that strong, you can plow any piece of land in the forest. The whole concept of ownership came about in 2010. So everyone tries to claim the land.


There are two types of farming, low land – where you use irrigation, and dry land – where you rely on the rain water. For the dry land – it depends on the rain. But for the low land – it has to do with the irrigation system. The low land farming system is more expensive, but for the dry land, people can move from one place to the other.”

Can you describe Karenni culture?

We have our own yearly festivals. We have our own traditional religion. The closest religion is sometimes said to be Animist, but we believe in the supreme being.


During the festivals, normally it would last 2-3 days, and we invite friends and relatives. This is a time when friends and relatives come together and cook delicious food and share food. If the relatives cannot come to our festivals, they normally send the food to us. If we live in different places we have different festivals, and so we take turns at sending food.


Normally women prepare food at home and welcome the guests.

What did you enjoy doing for leisure, when you lived in Burma?
Leisure is a strange concept. We don’t have time to relax. There is always something to do or to work. Like we need to prepare for summer, we need to prepare for rainy season, so always need to prepare for the next season, there is no time to relax.
There are three seasons in Burma. In summer, we clean the bushes, cut out the trees and then burn them. In the rainy season, we plant the seeds, then wait 3-4 months, then it’s winter and is time for harvesting. There is no time to rest and relax. There is always something to do to prepare for the next season.”

“The two most expensive coins in Burma are King George the First and Queen Elizabeth the First. Britain occupied Burma for over 100 years 1824 to 1947.


We use them for dowrys now, so if you have a lot of sons you need a lot of coins (laughs). Some people sold these coins to us when we were in Burma.


It is worth 500 Bhat for 1 coin. There may be 4-30 coins in a dowry. It depends on the girl and her social status.


$1 AUD = ~1000 Bhat. 


This is a Karenni necklace and Karenni earrings.  I made the necklace and the earrings. I used to wear the earrings 30 years ago, they are heavy and stretch the earlobe.”

What was your life like in the refugee camp in Thailand?

There was nothing to do for the uneducated people. But if you have some education there are some jobs in offices – called CBOs – Camp Based Organisations. Like teaching, clinic, waste management, and workshops, women only organisations… weaving, and other vocations.


I babysat my grandchildren so that my son in law could work. I only had 2 friends, and did not have any relative in the camp.”

What challenges did you face in the camp?

In the camp it was quite difficult to get access to the basic needs or material needs. But here, the basic needs – health, education, and material – tv, proper house, a proper place we can call home – are met.”

What do you enjoy doing now that you are in Australia?

Watching tv, cooking, a little bit of gardening. I am losing my vision, and I’m not good at anything. I want to do everything, but my physical health is failing me.”


What do you cook? 

“I prefer vegetables to eat. [I cook] Karenni soup, made of beans, pumpkin leaves.”


What do you grow?

“I grow quite a lot of vegetables, like pumpkin, chilli, eggplants, and a lot of spicy stuff.”

Do you try to teach your children and grandchildren about Karenni culture in Australia?

Not really, I am uneducated and I don’t know how to share my cultural knowledge with the younger generations. Sometimes I feel like I have failed, because I don’t know how to teach my daughter and my grandchildren.”


“[I was] also born in Burma. [I] came to Australia at the same time [as my mother]. I grew up in the refugee camp, in a way. I am 27 years old.


I have two daughters, Beh Meh is 10 yrs and in grade 4 & Pueh Meh is 7 yrs and in grade 1. I also have one son.

What was life like for you in Burma?

I went to school. But my mother wanted to me work, to babysit my other relatives, and help on the farm.


Schooling was secondary to work. I was about 12 when I went to Thailand. I had to babysit most of the time, and help in the farm- planting seeds, cleaning the farm.


As I progressed to higher grades (at school), it got more expensive, and we couldn’t afford it, so I dropped out.


One of my friends is a teacher, and one is a doctor. Kids normally help their parents with farming, and harvesting crops.”

How did life change when you were in the refugee camp in Thailand?

“When I went to Thailand, I studied again. When I went I was in grade 5, I got married, so then I stopped going to school. We met in the camp. We did not have a wedding, because we are not Christians, we are Buddhist – so we have our own Karenni wedding.  We had friends and relatives for a party, to recognise us as husband and wife and give us blessings.


After I stopped going to school and got married, I babysat other kids. Babysitting was another profession for young girls or old ladies, because others were working in offices. After that I had my own baby and worked in an early childhood centre. I made about 900 Bhat per month. I did that for 7 years… All of the 3 children were born in Thailand.

What did you miss about Burma when you were in the camp?

“At first I missed my village, and friends, and country a lot. But then I was happy in the camp, in a way.


One thing that is good about the camp, is we have free access to education, you do not need to pay anything, it is funded by the international NGO. But in Burma you had to pay fees, miscellaneous fees, buy uniforms, etc.”

Why did you decide to leave the refugee camp and seek to be resettled in Australia?

When we went to the camp, we did not own anything. No more farming, no more land. We were not allowed to go outside the camp, because we lived on the Thai-Burma border. We relied on food ration donations from the donors, like for Australia and other countries. But over the years went by, the food rations were reduced, so it was not enough. Therefore we decided, because the future was uncertain whether we remain in Thailand or go back to Burma, we decided to resettle in Australia.

At first, the resettlement was introduced to the camp in 2007, and we never wanted to be resettled, we wanted to be able to go home. We waited for political changes in Burma. One day it was a bright day, another day we heard fighting and conflicts, so we didn’t trust the Burmese government anymore.


We decided to be resettled in the USA, but my mother did not want to go there, because some of her friends who were resettled before talked about their life in America as being quite difficult for the older people. And so we waited for another opportunity, and at last Australia opened the door for us.”

Are there things you try to teach your children so that they remember that they’re from Burma?

“One thing, is language. We do not want to lose the language. At home we try to speak Karenni only.


The eldest daughter has acquired the (English) language a lot, but other two are still struggling.”

What were your first impressions when you arrived in Australia?

There are many things. The first thing, when you land in Australia, is security. You feel safe when you are here. And the other thing, is you have your basic needs. I did not finish school in Burma, or in Thailand, but I feel happy here that I have the opportunity to go back to school here.”

What are you currently doing with your time?

“When I’m free, I bring my kids to different places – parks, pictures, go shopping, or visit my friends. I do not yet drive. Sometimes we walk, sometimes we catch the bus.


[With friends], when we meet, we do our lessons, we ask each other questions, we help each other with our homework, and we also cook our favourite dishes. [Mine is] Burmese noodle.”

What is the strangest thing you noticed when you first arrived here?

“The strangest thing is the public display of affection. Boyfriends and girlfriends kiss each other on the bus or the streets, but in Burma this is something private, so this is a strange thing.”

Do you have a special item or object that you could show us and tell us about?

“This is Karenni dress – they are the colours of the Karenni Flag. These are the dresses for special festivals. There is one for a man and one for a lady. We wear these at the festivals that we mentioned. Some are religious, political or cultural festivals. This is handmade. All they have is cotton, raw cotton, then they turn into threads, then they weave it.


Sometimes [here in Australia] we have parties at schools and we are asked to come in our traditional clothing.”

What do you hope to do for work in the future?


“Probably will work in early childhood, in the same job as in Thailand. At the moment I have a casual job at Green Connect in waste management.”


This project is a collaboration between SCARF, Sarah Pulling of Bear Hunt Photography and individuals from the SCARF community. 
Ree Meh and Shay Meh are the women featured in this essay. A heartfelt thanks is owed to them for sharing their thoughts and stories for this project. 
SCARF is an Illawarra-based, independent not-for-profit organisation that supports people from refugee backgrounds to navigate the personal and practical challenges of building a new life in Australia. By creating connections and generating opportunities, SCARF helps individuals and families to establish a sense of belonging, experience social and economic inclusion and access the tools for self-empowerment and independence. To learn more about what SCARF do, visit
To read more about Sarah Pulling and Bear Hunt Photography, visit here, or to find out about projects she supports through her work as a photographer or how a collaboration might happen in the future, visit here.