After almost 25 years, she’s been acknowledged for her work among the Karen refugees. Nathan Brown looks at the life-work of a remarkable Australian.
The Australia Day Honours 2006 list stretches to about 60 pages—hundreds of Australians recognised for their contributions to Australia and the wider world. So after you read past the first couple of well-known names, it would be easy to skip some of those in the smaller print. But most of those brief citations belie the remarkable stories represented by those names.
One such citation reads: “Ms Helen Margaret Hall, Mae Sot, Tak, Thailand. For service to international relations, particularly in the establishment of educational facilities in Thailand.”
It’s hardly an adequate description of almost 25 years working among the Karen refugees on the Thai–Myanmar border, often in difficult and dangerous conditions, but it seems almost predictable that Helen’s indignant response is on behalf of the forgotten people. “It didn’t mention the Karen—or the refugees,” she says.
The Karen people she works with are tribal villagers from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), some of whom have been living as refugees for the past 50 years. Helen’s adopted home is the Maelae camp on the Thai–Myanmar border, which accommodates about 60,000 of the 160,000 Karen refugees.
And the refugees keep coming. “They had bomb blasts in Rangoon and [the Myanmar military government] have accused the tribal people of being responsible for these bombs,” says Helen. “And so they’ve been burning villages and arresting people and so they were all fleeing. And they’re on the border and aid agencies are feeding them but they’re not allowed to cross into Thailand.”
It is a story Helen has become all too familiar with since her first visit in the early 1980s. “I always felt here that I wasn’t in the place where God wanted me to be,” she explains. “And I didn’t know where that place was.”
Helen says she was looking for a place to work, whether in her profession as a teacher or in some other voluntary role. Nothing was working out until she met a woman who had been working with the Karen people. “She talked Karen all the weekend,” Helen recalls. “She said, ‘You must come with me.’ That’s how I got there. And then when I got there I just clicked and knew that was it.”
Helen says the resilience of the people was her strongest impression of her first arrival. “There were attacks and bombings going on all the time, and yet they helped each other and they stuck in there no matter how hard it was,” she reflects. “One woman came from Rangoon, a teacher. She walked up over the mountains with what she had on—nothing else. And they told her she was coming to run this big school. It was a grass hut with a dirt floor and a blackboard, but there was no lack of kids. There were only two trained teachers on the whole border, so when I came in I was welcomed with open arms and I felt I could do something. So I stayed.”
“I started off for two years in what they call the government school and that was a good experience. Everybody learned by rote memory, and there were no partitions between the rooms. When I started teaching English by doing things, the whole school stopped work and kept looking at us all the time, until finally they asked me if I would teach in my house because it was too disruptive.”
Helen completed an English-as-a-second-language course from Australia and began to employ these teaching methods in her new setting, soon becoming a teacher to the teachers. “I did two training sessions for them and then they gradually swapped over [their teaching methods],” Helen recounts. “They wouldn’t do it first because the government said unless every school can do it, you can’t do it. Then the teachers all went on strike because they wanted to do it. And eventually it came in. But then after two years they said to me, ‘Look you’re going to get nowhere like this. Go and start your own school.’”
So that’s what she did. Beginning with 80 students and poorly trained teachers, Helen says the first years were tough. “It was very hard,” she says. “Some of those teachers I trained were with me up there and are still with me now.”
In those early, years the risk from fighting was a fact of life. “We spent many years running,” Helen recalls. “Every week we’d have to run two or three times—get up in the middle of the night, grab the kids and run up to this place that we called Lay Cloo, which had rocks around it, because the Burmese were just across the river firing their guns. This went on many times and that was tough.”
Today the school is limited in size by facilities and resources to about 800 students and one of Helen’s hardest tasks is to turn away would-be students. But for Helen simply seeing this need is what has kept her going. “The young people are like birds flapping against a cage. They want to get out, no matter how they get out. Inside the camp are all the problems of teenagers growing up here, plus all the problems of their refugee situation as well.
“I thought if we can only train some kids rightly, then they can go back and work with their own people and what they can do would be marvellous,” she explains. “For example, we’ve got a former student on the [Myanmar] side who is running a school in an area where no-one can go. Our kids are sought everywhere now because they have some education. The non-government organisations that work on the border are always pinching my good kids because they can do things that other people cannot do.”
For Helen it has been a difficult journey. From stories of hazardous travel to regular threats from warring factions and nights spent sheltering from gunfire, she lists numerous situations in which she believes God has saved her life. And despite having “retired” a number of years ago, at 67 she has no plans to return to Australia yet. “While God gives me strength, and I can still manage to keep up, I can [keep going],” she says. “If I find I just can’t cope anymore, then I’ll think it’s time to come home. But at the moment God has blessed me with good health and I seem to be immune to malaria, which some people think is a wonderful gift. I had it three times, but after that I haven’t had it at all. And they did blood tests and they said they’d never seen as many antibodies. So I’m fine. I don’t have to take anything.”
Helen is grateful for the recognition the Order of Australia medal represents. “I think that it will be of help to our people and to the work I’m doing,” she explains. “I was starting to get queries from people in the government as to why I was out of the country so much. They thought I should be here or I might lose my pension.”
“For a long time I felt that I was in the middle of nowhere and nobody knew, and sometimes I used to feel nobody cared because I was battling so much to try to do anything. It’s never easy. It’s what you call almost impossible, but never impossible with God. It’s just so close all the time. People say, ‘How can you stand it out there?’ I’ve always thought, ‘If other people can live like this, there’s no reason why I can’t, just because I was blessed to be born in Australia.’”
Of course, Helen is quick to share the credit. “We’ve had a lot of volunteers, and I really feel that this medal is not mine. It belongs to hundreds of people in Australia who have been so faithful for many years in helping us.”
For Helen personally, such recognition takes second place to the responses she receives from her former students. “I get emails from people all over the world now, from kids. And they’re beautiful,” she says. “The ones at college write and they say, ‘Helen, you look after your health. Don’t work too hard.’ Someone will write and say, ‘Make sure you get enough sleep.’ They’re like mothers to me.”
“Last year was a real tough year and one [former student] wrote anonymously, ‘Don’t be discouraged and give up on us now. I know it’s hard, but stick in there.’ I was really thrilled to get this letter.”
“And many people whom I hadn’t heard from in years have written. These are former students—kids who were tough kids, even some kids we had to send out—now write and say they realise what we were trying to do for them and they thank me. And that’s great because you feel you’ve really got somewhere.”