Content note: this article discusses sexual assault and violence and may be confronting for some readers.
When I first met Lily, she greeted me with a warm smile and shook my hand. She was mature and kind, and her positivity was contagious. I’d never have anticipated the journey she’d taken to be where she is today.
Lily Kingbawl is from a small town in Burma called Chin Hakha. She’d grown up there with her five sisters, brother and parents.
“Chin Hakha is one of the poorest places in Burma. It was really difficult to live there because of the corrupt government. We lived under a dictator, and we weren’t able to access basic things like food,” Lily tells me.
Her mother ran a farm at their house, and every day after school, Lily and her siblings would come home to help out. Their house didn’t have gas or electricity, so they relied on natural resources, like clay to build their kitchen, and wood to make fires.
“At night when we went to study, we didn’t have any lights, so we used pine tree, which are a red and orange colour, and were able to start fire really quickly. They were really hard to find in the forest, so we had to buy them from other people. We couldn’t afford candles either, they were really expensive.”
The 16-year-old said that the Burmese Army would often visit their home and intimidate her family.
“My house was quite big because we had a big family, so the Army would frequently come to our house and eat all of our food and kill our animals. There was also the threat of rape. I was really young so I didn’t realise how dangerous things were, but for my parents and older siblings, it was very scary,” she says.
In late 2007, someone from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offered to help Lily’s family move to Australia. Her father, brother and two of her sisters would meet them in Malaysia, and her mother would stay in Burma until she was able to join them. The journey took just under two years, and was, according to Lily, one of the hardest experiences of her life.
“We had to go through Malaysia, and there are only two ways to get there, by plane or by car. We didn’t have enough money to go by plane, so we went illegally by boat and car. Even when travelling through Burma, we had to hide. They took us by car, and the car ride was extremely squishy. There were about 10 cars filled with people hiding in the boots,” she says.
After this trip, Lily’s family, and the other refugees who were travelling with them, were dropped off out the front of a Buddhist temple. They were told that their next lift would arrive in thirty minutes. Lily says that three hours later, no one had arrived.
“We had to go and hide in the temple, because if anyone saw us, they would contact the police and we’d be arrested. We stayed there for three days, with no food and no blankets, until someone finally came to pick us up.”
They were picked up by a truck, and were all squished into the back of it like animals.
“Even though I had absolutely no energy left, and just wanted to sit down, I couldn’t. We all had to stand up because there were so many people. I couldn’t even lift up my arms. Everyone was crying and yelling, and punching walls. There was no air to breath; I thought I was going to die. When we got out, everyone just threw themselves out of the truck and onto the ground, and started vomiting everywhere,” she says.
After this traumatic experience, the group had to spend more time waiting to be picked up again.
“They said they’d be back in an hour, but they never came back, so we had to stay there and sleep in the forest in the rain. I was so freaking cold. In the morning they came back with food, which was rice and water. It was like pig food, but we were so hungry we didn’t care.”
They were then taken to another place, and split into two groups. During this process, Lily was separated from her sisters.
“I was so frightened; I thought they’d left me. I was worried that we’d be sent to different countries. I was crying all day and people were comforting me, and luckily I was eventually able to be moved to the other group,” she says.
Lily and her sisters were reunited with their dad and uncles in Malaysia, and lived in a house with the other refugees. Lily says she thought they’d be safe once they arrived in the country. Unfortunately they weren’t.
One of Lily’s friends from the group was raped and murdered right before her and her family were going to move to America. “They chopped up her body, and just left her in the bush. Her parents went crazy when they found out, everyone was incredibly frightened.”
Not only this, but Lily and her sisters had a close encounter with being kidnapped themselves.
“I took my sisters to a local park and this guy came out of his car and offered us candy. This was right after my friend had passed away, so I was more aware, and when he came closer to us I told my sisters to run. As soon as we started running, he got in his car and began driving towards us. Thankfully a car came from the opposite direction and blocked him, so we were able to get away.”
After this experience, Lily was understandably frightened to leave the house.
Lily’s mother arrived in Malaysia after six months, and a year later, the whole family got on a plane to Australia.
“It took my breath away when we arrived in Australia. It was like I could finally breathe,” she says.
The family moved to her uncle’s house in West Heidelberg and became part of the Olympic Village community.
“Everyone was so welcoming. The only English I knew was ‘hello’ and ‘my name is Lily’, but everyone understood me. There were so many multicultural people there too, so that helped me fit in.”
She met people from the Banyule Youth Services team and says watching them help young people opened her heart. They helped her achieve a lifelong dream – to play soccer.
“I just love soccer, but in Burma, girls don’t play it. My parents didn’t like the idea of me playing it, so I had to watch all of the boys play it from the sidelines. When I came to Australia, it was like a dream come true. I was able to take part in interschool sport, and I started playing it in my backyard and at school. When I met Liz from the Youth Services team, she helped me find a club to play with,” she says.
Lily has since attended Multicultural Day and the Banyule Youth Summit, where she was able to discuss issues she’s passionate about.
“When I heard all of the young people’s opinions at the Summit, I was amazed. The topics we discussed were relevant; I discussed domestic violence and mental health. Violence was very common in my country, but I didn’t expect it to be an issue in Australia. When you think about mental health, the first thing that comes to mind is depression and anxiety, but there are lots of things that affect mental health, like TV and our peers.”
Lily never knew what she wanted to be when she was older, but she’s now been inspired to be a social worker. She says she’d also love to continue playing soccer, and maybe even one day play at the World Cup.
“I really do love sport. If I’m not active, I get restless and just can’t stand still.”
Words: Joely Mitchell
Photo: Jason Rohmursanto
If this article raises any issues, give Headspace (1800 650 890 or eheadspace.org.au) or Lifeline (13 11 14) a confidential call. You’re not alone.