The rural refugees helping to raise bushfire awareness


Karen refugees living in the Victorian town of Nhill have produced a fire safety video for newcomers to the community.

For Thahser Blehndah, life in rural Victoria is far more peaceful than the Thai refugee camp he grew up in, but it comes with a different sort of risk.

“We don’t have bushfires in Thailand, because we live in [the tropics],” he tells SBS News.

Mr Blehndah is one of about 250 Karen refugees (an ethic minority originally form Myanmar and western Thailand) who have resettled in Nhill, in the state’s west.

He is hoping to help inform his community about fire safety by starring in a new video, written by, and for, Karen migrants.

Mura Htoo, another Karen migrant, says Nhill’s small, close-knit community has been very welcoming.

“I do really love living here, it’s really nice and warm,” she says. “It just feels like home.”

But the hot, dry summers of western Victoria bring a danger few migrants have had exposure to.

Members of Nhill's Karen community.
Members of Nhill's Karen community.
Rhiannon Elston / SBS News

Country Fire Authority (CFA) volunteer Trevor Schwarz says Nhill usually has at least one catastrophic fire danger day each year.

“The bushfire risk in this area is huge,” he says.

Annette Creek, executive officer of the Nhill Learning Centre, says there have been a few problems with fires in the community, “purely from a gap in knowledge,” she says.

“There was an incident where one of the Karen community accidentally started a fire from cooking fish by the river, but that was of no willfulness on their part, it was just that they didn’t understand.”

Attempts to close the gap in knowledge have been difficult, in part, says CFA’s Mr Schwarz, because some members of the Karen community associate uniforms with the military regimes they feared in their home countries.

“Largely, our uniforms were threatening to them,” he says.

Bushfire awareness in Nhil, Adelaide.
Bushfire awareness in Nhill, Adelaide.
Nhill Learning Centre

Scott Hanson-Easey, a research associate from the School of Public Health at the University of Adelaide, worked with the Nhill community to design a new way of communicating the fire safety message.

He says the project emerged after research showed public information about natural hazards weren’t always well accessed or understood by new migrant communities, particularly those from refugee backgrounds who don’t have high levels of English.

“This was a real gap, and a concerning gap, because it was leaving out a number of groups around Australia who weren’t getting the message about how to be safe in emergencies and disasters,” he says.

Thablay Sher, one of the video’s participants, says she thinks the model will be effective, because of the high level of involvement from Karen migrants.

“It’s all about community, a Karen person educating another person,” she says.

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