Nelly

There are countries in this world that face the problem of over-population. In the state in Burma where I am from, Chin State, we have the opposite problem. Every day we are losing more and more of our population; we are disappearing from our home land. We are losing our culture, literature, customs, and traditions.

My name is Nelly. I am 21. I was born in Chin State, Burma. Four months ago I arrived in Brisbane under the UNHCR program. I came with my three sisters and one brother and my parents. In the five years before I came here to Australia my life was truly miserable. I lived in India for five years. It was the hardest time in my life. I will never forget it.

In 2005 when my family arrived there were no refugee camps in India. There are still no refugee camps in India. There are thousands of Chin refugees right now are struggling to survive in New Delhi. They receive no money, or food and they are close to starving; some are even dying. So my family was forced to rent a house but it was very, very difficult for my family to earn enough money to pay the rent. It took us two years to receive the proper paperwork to be recognised as true refugees. (You cannot be resettled to another country without this special certificate.) Those two years were terrible for us because we were not granted working certificates so we had to work for very little pay. For the first two years my father was not with us. We were working on a rice farm but we did not have enough money to buy any rice. We were always hungry. We had to sneak into the marketplace and and look for the leaves and potatoes and tomatoes the stallholders planned to put in the bin.

After two years, my older sister and I worked really hard as maid servants in India. My parents worked long hours in a metal factory. My brother washed dishes in a cafe. My younger sisters who were 9 and 13 stayed home all day without anyone to care for them. Our monthly rent bill was $37 a month. Even though we had five of us earning money, we still did not have enough food to eat. We all worked every day for 12 hours a day but we were only collectively paid between $56 and $75 dollars a month. A bag of rice lasted us two weeks and cost 22 dollars; so for a month we paid 44 dollars for food and 37 dollars for rent. So as you can see we were always short. And some of us did not eat every day. Sometimes the people we worked for did not want to give us the money. As a maid servant rich men who stayed in the hotel where I worked would try and kiss and touch me and even rape me. There was nothing I could do. I could not tell my manager or I would not have a job and my family would be in even more trouble. In India my family could not study. It was a very, very hard life in India.

I grew up in a beautiful, small village on top of a mountain. The name of my village is Zongte. Most of Chin State is hilly. We have no roads, and because of this there are at least nine different languages spoken in Chin State. Chin State is in the western part of Burma bordering the Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur states of India. It’s a beautiful mountainous region with orchids, cherry trees, blooming roses, and wild animals. My favourite plant in Chin State is called Sawkhlei, which you call rhododendrons. It has a red flower that you can eat. Chin state is split into nine different townships, with a population of about half a million Chin living there. In the village where I grew up there were 51 houses and about 200 people. All the people in the village lived like one big family. We all loved each other and we shared everything we had. We were surrounded by other small villages and we visited each other.

I loved going to school, and I finished Year 10. My school days are my most precious and memorable days of my life. I started helping my parents on the rice farm when I was just five years old: that’s normal in Burma. It was my job to carry the water to the workers and also look out for Burmese soldiers. If I ever spied Burmese soldiers I had to scream out in a very loud voice to alert all the workers so we could run away together. I woke every morning at 5am, and walked for 20 minutes to fetch drinking water before walking another 30 minutes up and down mountains to reach the rice farm. At 8.15am I walked for 30 minutes to our school and studied until 3pm. After we finished school, my sisters and I would prepare and cook our family dinner because our parents would work on the farm until it was dark. My parents worked from sun up, to sun down. At night we studied without electricity using our lamp to finish our homework. But some of my neighbours did not have lamps so they could not study into the night. I love and miss my village very much. I did not realise that one day I would be forced to leave my homeland.

In 2005, my family; my brother and three sisters and my mother, we had to leave our village very quickly. There were rumours that because my father was the village leader that he was going to be killed. So my father fled first. But before the rest of us could flee, the Burmese soldiers came into our village and found my mother and me and my brothers and sisters. They slapped us around the face, pulling our hair and shaking our bodies. I was very afraid. I was thinking: “we have to go to India!” So we walked throughout one day and one night to reach the safety of the Indian border. It was very scary because we didn’t know if we would be captured as we tried to escape.

I was 16 when we fled. We were all crying. The anguish we felt suffocated us. It was like all the air had been sucked out of our lungs. It was difficult to keep moving. The place where we crossed is called Mizoram; it means land of the Hill People. It is in North-Eastern India. But for me, Mizoram will always mean misery. There are about sixty thousand Chin people who have fled into areas like Mizoram in India to escape forced labour and religious persecution. I am a Christian but in my homeland I am not allowed to practise my religion. People in Chin State who openly practise being a Christian are persecuted and imprisoned. Churches have been burned, all our crosses have been destroyed and many of our religious leaders have been murdered. These kinds of activities are going on right now in Burma, without being noticed by the world at large.

In Chin state we are not allowed to study our own language and cultural practices and traditions or learn about our own state’s history. This is just one of the ways the brutal regime that runs Burma is trying to ethnic cleanse us out. I have heard of many Chin women who have been sexually and mentally abused by Burmese soldiers, bashed to death and murdered. The Burmese soldiers steal them for wives, or pleasure-women. It is common knowledge that soldiers are given money or rewards if they can father a child with a Chin woman. Despite these hardships in Chin state, life for me and for my family in India was much more difficult. The Chin in Mizoram live in constant fear of physical abuse and eviction from their homes. We worked tirelessly but we could not earn enough money even for our daily bread. We never had peace of mind. We never felt like we belonged. We faced discrimination at every turn. We did not have enough money to buy medicine, so I have seen many friends from Chin State who have died in Mizoram from curable diseases. As I said earlier, Mizoram equals misery for my people. As a minority group, with different looking faces, without the local language, with a different culture, and a different religion, there was great discrimination. Because Mizoram is so remote, non-government organisations that are in big numbers on the Thailand and Burma border helping the Karen simply do not exist in India. It is very difficult to restart your lives when there is no opportunity and your hope has been extinguished. We had no opportunity to study in India.

But now I am studying again.

I am learning English in a land where I feel safe for the first time in a long, long time. I have been warmly welcomed to Australia, I have met kind and caring people who are interested in my story. Many of my burdens and worries have been lifted. But I will never forget my people and their struggles. I will never stop praying for my people.

This is a transcript of a speech delivered by Nelly for Footsteps for Burma at the Blackall Range Zonta Club’s International Women’s Day function on March 8 2012.