• Bwe Thay and wife, Corrie Fanai, cook up a Burmese vegetable stir-fry in Melbourne. (Supplied )
How do you adapt to Australia's plentiful food lifestyle after you're been living in a refugee camp for years, eating dried food rations? A new research project sought to find out.
By
Yasmin Noone

20 Aug 2019 - 3:53 PM  UPDATED 21 Aug 2019 - 10:19 AM

Bwe Thay came to Australia almost a decade ago after living in one of the nine refugee camps located along the Thai-Myanmar border for around six years. 

Thay reflects on what he ate day-to-day in a camp that’s twice the size of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, with about 50,000 people living on-site.

“People could not go outside the camps to source food: that’s just the law,” says Thay, who’s now a community liaison officer and advocate for Myanmar refugees at Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology.

“So in the camps, we had very limited food because we relied on food rations.”

“Personally, I found the fact that there was so much food to be very strange because of my lived experience of poverty and the refugee lifestyle."

The rations provided were mostly dried foods like rice, lentils and dried chilli. “But sometimes, NGO staff would come into the camps and teach refugees how skills to grow vegetables [on small spaces of land]. Through that program, we had a bit of supplementary food to eat but it was very limited.”

When Thay arrived and settled in Australia, it shocked him just how much food was available here.

“Personally, I found the fact that there was so much food to be very strange because of my lived experience of poverty and the refugee lifestyle.

“It’s a massive change to go from being displaced and living in a refugee camp for years, to living here in Australia where you have so much freedom and food. How do you adapt?”

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It was this question, thinking about new refugee arrivals, that led Thay to team up with three Swinburne University researchers. In 2018, dietetics lecturer Annie Lassemillante led a project involving Thay and others, which sought to examine refugees’ perception of food in Australia.

The research team recruited 27 males and females from the Adult Migrant English Program at Swinburne, who had spent time living in a Myanmar refugee camp prior to coming to Australia through the humanitarian assistance program.

The refugees participated in focus groups and were asked what they thought about the food in Australia and what they needed to get better access to healthy food.

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Access to fresh food isn't guaranteed

Lassemillante says the program’s results revealed how the refugees were surprised that food was so plentiful in Australia. They were also grateful to be living in Australia and wanted to give something back.

However, they also acknowledged that our vast food supply wasn't accessible to all because of its high cost in comparison to their limited incomes. Some refugees also lacked access because they didn’t have a car, needed to drive to fresh fruit markets.

However, participants explained that they had a good general understanding of what healthy eating should look like.

“Participants told us they had a strong knowledge of how to eat healthily,” Lassemillante says.

"Back in Myanmar, they ate a lot of healthy plant food from their home gardens. The food grown was organic and they knew what went into the soil. But, they told us, they don’t know if the fruit and vegetables sold in Australian supermarkets were healthy, organic or could be trusted.”

“They wanted to know what to buy from the supermarket and how to incorporate ingredients available in Australia into their way of cooking.”

Not everyone had enough space to grow food at their Melbourne home. Those who did have a small amount of room were very creative in using their limited space to grow fresh fruit and vegetables.

Understanding Aussie-sold fruit and vegetables

One of the biggest issues raised by refugees was that they needed help to translate traditional knowledge about fruits and vegetables into an Australian context.

“They wanted to know what to buy from the supermarket and how to incorporate ingredients available in Australia into their way of cooking.”

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As Bwe explains, traditional ingredients used in Burmese cooking like Chinese watercress, or betel and roselle leaves, are hard to come by in many mainstream supermarkets throughout Australia. However, as Burma shares a border with Thailand, India, Laos and Bangladesh, several vegetables used throughout these cuisines also feature in Burmese cooking.

“Some of the ingredients can be found in local Asian grocery stores, as well as Melbourne markets like those in Box Hill or Springvale," Bwe tells SBS. 

“The only barrier is that our community is one of the new and emerging communities in Australia, and many find it challenging to travel [to these markets located] about an hour each way [in Melbourne from where the communities live] by public transportation.”

“If you’ve lived in a refugee camp for a long time and you’ve not had access to certain vegetables, the palette is very new. And you just need to introduce foods bit by bit." 

Bwe also says the research also showed it was common for new arrivals to need time to develop the taste for fresh foods.

“If you’ve lived in a refugee camp for a long time and you’ve not had access to certain vegetables, the palette is very new. And you just need to introduce foods bit by bit." 

Looking forward

The project is currently ongoing. Lassemillante says the team will repeat the interviews conducted with Myanmar refugees with health care providers to get a different perspective of the food issues facing these new arrivals. 

The results of phase two, led by nutrition and dietetics lecturer Carrie Wong, will help to co-design a health intervention or promotion program, specific to the food health needs of Myanmar refugees.

One idea, Bwe suggests, is to possibly develop a resource to provide to Myanmar refugees explaining what each fruit and vegetable is in Australia and how it can be used in traditional recipes. 

“Back home we never had access to broccoli, but we had access to cabbage. So living in Australia, we could swap cabbage with broccoli in a recipe.”

In the meantime, Bwe recommends that new Myanmar refugees who come from an agricultural or farming background participate in a community garden project in their local area.

“It would be a good idea so they can grow fresh fruits and vegetables," says Bwe. "It helps to boost health and build a strong sense of social belonging. It may be a daunting aspect, but if we look at in the last 10 years our community has integrated into Australian society very well.

“So be active, put a foot forward and be part of these community gardening activities to grow your own fruit and vegetables.”

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