The Karen road to Nhill

Famous for 1997 movie The Road to Nhill, the town of that name is now home to 200 Karen refugees from Myanmar. Far from dividing locals, the huge influx of newcomers – many of whom arrived traumatised, unfamiliar with western society – has brought new life to the community. Is this a model for the rest of Australia?

Words by Margaret Simons
Pictures by Damien Pleming

It’s too quiet in Kay’s Kreations flower and gift shop. There aren’t any fresh flowers. The proprietor, Kay Frost, stopped stocking them after she had to throw out $200 worth without selling a single bloom. Outside, the sky is hard and blue, but beams of sun don’t penetrate past the deep verandas of Nhill’s main street. So Kay sits behind the counter in the still gloom.

Then it changes. The shift has ended at Nhill’s Luv-a-Duck factory on the edge of town and the door swings open again and again. The Karen are coming to shop – men in tracksuits, women in the bright geometric designs of their traditional dress. It is a kind of miracle. But they are all going to the back of the store.

A board outside the shop announces, in the exotic Brahmin script of Myanmar, Kay’s great act of generosity and now her cause for hope. She has given, rent free, the space at the rear of her store to Karen community leader Kaw Doh Htoo. There, he has opened a grocery store for the Karen people who have made this remote country town their home.

Frost smiles at the customers who brush past her goods on their way to the grocery, and they smile at her. As another shopkeeper says, there is a lot of smiling and nodding in Nhill these days. “They seem to want to get on with us, the Karen. But you talk to them and I’m not sure how much they understand.”

Kaw Doh Htoo in his Nhill grocery store.

Kaw Doh Htoo in his Nhill grocery store.

Meanwhile, in the windowless back room, Kaw Doh shows off his wares. He has jasmine rice and many different kinds of noodles. There are sweet treats for the children. There is fish paste and dried betel leaf and a few vegetables, grown in the Karen community garden on the edge of town.

This is home now, he says. It is a good place.

He sits at the formica table and tries to describe how he came to live here, in this little declining town with its wide streets and closed shops speaking of past prosperity. The Karen come from the hills and mountains of Karen state, part of Myanmar near the Thai border. He gets choked up.

This is home now, he says. It is a good place. But he misses the hills and jungle. Ask him what he hopes for his children, and he weeps.

Hope, after all, can be as sharp as a knife.

The town of Nhill sits halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide, on the western highway. This is the Wimmera, where the roads run like rulers past vast paddocks and the weather sweeps across what is surely the biggest sky in the world. Today it is a bowl of blue. Later, it will be curtained with approaching rain.

There are too many empty shops in the main street. This is the story of a thousand Australian country towns.

The wide streets and grand old bank buildings and pubs are testament to Australia’s agricultural past, when places like Nhill were the centres of prosperity. The farms used to be small – a few thousand acres – and they supported whole families. Now they are three or four times the size, big industrialised growing spaces worked with labour-saving machines. The town has been bled of a generation of young, working people and now has a population of just 2278, with a median age of 47. There are too many empty shops in the main street. This is the story of a thousand Australian country towns.

Nhill is helped by being the halfway stop between Melbourne and Adelaide. Spend an hour here and the locals will assume you are part of the passing parade on the way to somewhere else. Stop more than one day and they want your life story. By evening, that story will be all over town.

But there are other things here, too – less visible to the passing eye. Nhill has a higher rate of volunteering than the nation as a whole. It has what Deloitte Access Economics has termed unusually high levels of social capital. Put more simply, it is a town with a big heart and, over the last six years, it has come to stand for a very different kind of Australian story.

Through a combination of happenstance and determined local leadership, Nhill has become a centre of resettlement for Karen people drawn from the refugee camps on the Myanmar-Thai border. Karen people now make up about 10 per cent of the population, or around 200 people in all.

Family reunion means that Karen are now arriving direct from the jungle refugee camps of Thailand to the great flat plains of the Wimmera. Nhill has been transformed from a monoculture into a multicultural success story.

The town is a little surprised at itself, and proud. Kay Frost is not the only one who sees hope. Perhaps, she says, her new tenant Kaw Doh will do well enough with his grocery to take over the lease of her shop, saving her bacon. Perhaps in the future, he might even give her a job.

English lessons at the Nhill Learning Centre.

A block back from the western highway, in the converted house that serves as the Nhill Learning Centre, an English lesson is underway. Seven Karen ranging in age from 21 to 56 sit around a table and chant as the teacher points out shapes drawn on the whiteboard.


Mu Kree, a 50-year-old Karen woman, had never been in a classroom before she began to attend these English lessons. She lived in a Karen village peacefully until the troubles came and she fled across the border to face years effectively imprisoned in the Thai refugee camp.

“I love that here I am a citizen, and I can move freely.”

In 2014 she came here to join her brother and son, who have jobs in the Luv-A-Duck factory. “I love that here I am a citizen, and I can move freely,” she says. But the winters are cold, and the language is so hard.

Nhill, says 56-year-old Naw Phe, reminds her of home. It seems strange, given that the hard plains are so different from the jungle where she grew up. “Not the land,” she says. “It is the quiet. And the farming. And the love of the people.”

The Karen don’t talk much about the suffering they have been through. Partly this is about language. For most of them, the barriers between thinking and speaking English have yet to grow porous. But also, one suspects, they don’t want to burden their new lives or the community that has welcomed them with such heavy memories.

The middle-aged Karen remember village life. They were subsistence farmers, growing rice and vegetables and raising a few animals, living in houses built from the materials that grew all around – bamboo and palm leaves.

Then the Myanmar military regime began a program of persecution and conflict. Soldiers came and burnt their houses. Men were forced to act as army porters, on pain of death for their families. Crops were looted, women raped and children shot indiscriminately. Today, more than 140,000 Karen refugees live in refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border.

“I want to care for Australians.”

For the younger Karen, such as Wah Ka Paw La, 21, there are no memories of Karen state. They were born in the refugee camps. There was no freedom, and no chance of a job. Now, sponsored by relatives who have found jobs in Nhill, Wah Ka Paw La says her entire aim is to learn enough English to get a job – probably in aged care. “I want to care for Australians,” she says, through an interpreter.

Most of the Nhill Karen began their Australian lives in the Melbourne suburb of Werribee. It was an overwhelming experience. Asked what they remember of their first Australian home, they talk about traffic and crowds and constant noise. They were bemused, at sea, knowing little about life in any city, let alone one on the other side of the world.

The concept of buying a ticket for public transport was new to them. They couldn’t fill in forms. They didn’t have driving licences. It was, effectively, another refugee camp – a place of no hope and little chance of finding work. They were imprisoned by their lack of English and by their life experience.

And then, in 2009, they first heard of a place called Nhill.

Wah Ka Paw La, left, among new growth in Nhill.

Wah Ka Paw La, left, among new growth in Nhill.

Faces settle, once one passes a certain age, into the lines of habit. John and Margaret Millington are normally smiling, and seemingly never still. They are involved in everything that moves in Nhill. But catch them when they are not aware of being watched and you can see the lines of grief. The worst thing that can happen to a parent is to bury a child. The Millingtons have lost three.

It is the kind of tragedy that would leave many people cursing God. Instead, as committed Catholics, they have responded by seeking to serve God more fully. The Karen are part of that story.

In the early 1980s, the Millingtons were pheasant farmers in Gippsland when their 2-year-old daughter was killed in an agricultural accident. “I thought the grief would kill me,” says Margaret. It was like a pit beneath them, a tunnel from which they couldn’t emerge.

The Millingtons intended to stay a year in Nhill, but that turned into more than 30 years.

Still weighed by grief, they moved to Nhill when John got a job as manager of Luv-a-Duck, which is one of two factories that supply the majority of duck meat to the Australian market. (The other is Pepe’s Ducks, based in New South Wales).

The Millingtons intended to stay a year, but that turned into more than 30 years. They quickly became central to the community – officeholders in Rotary, active in the community, their children attending local schools. They raised four more children. Then, 11 years ago, their 18-year-old son Daniel was killed in a motorcycle accident. The tunnel of grief opened once again.

Not long after that, their other son, Simon, was involved in a car accident that left him with multiple injuries. He was prescribed opiate painkillers and developed an addiction to them.

Those who have done the classic 12-step program for addicts and those who support them know that the first lesson is the need to accept your life is out of control. The Millingtons travelled that journey with their son, trapped in the vortex of trying to control the uncontrollable, as he doctor-shopped across the country, each medico unaware or uninterested in knowing just how many pills he had acquired.

Finding meaningful work for refugees: John and Margaret Millington.

Finding meaningful work for refugees: John and Margaret Millington.

Luv-a-Duck, at least, was doing well. John was Managing Director, Margaret his assistant. They were a team. By 2009 the business was ready to expand beyond providing whole birds to restaurants, and into supplying ready to cook meat to supermarkets and butchers. Millington, though, was having trouble sourcing labour. The working population of Nhill was tiny. Nobody, it seemed, was prepared to move to Nhill for work.

He spent thousands advertising locally for skilled labour, before finding a diesel mechanic in South Africa via a single advertisement. He hired more overseas labour, all of which led, in 2009, to Millington being invited to a meeting of Rural Australians for Refugees to give advice on how to settle people from other cultures in rural Australia.

It was there that he heard from the migrant settlement group AMES Australia about the Karen living in Werribee. He told them if the Karen were to be settled in rural Australia, the key was finding them meaningful work.

“I didn’t know much about the Karen, but it was clear to me that they needed help.”

He remembers “Later, I sat outside the meeting in my car and thought about it. I didn’t know much about the Karen, but it was clear to me they had really had trouble, that they needed help.”

Going home that night, he and Margaret googled the Karen, and learned more about the burning of villages, the forced labour, the rape and pillage.

In late 2009, in partnership with AMES, John and Margaret travelled to Werribee armed with a homemade PowerPoint display that showed the Luv-a-Duck factory and various views of Nhill. They were seeking candidates for five unskilled jobs at the factory.

They was some anxiety when the Karen were told that Nhill was near the Victorian-South Australian border. Living near borders, for them, meant military raids and constant risk, not the dry and politically anodyne drawing of dotted maps on lines across the Australian emptiness. Nevertheless, the Karen were keen.

The Millingtons made two presentations, but before they had finished the first, the clipboard provided for people to indicate their interest was already full of names.

A few weeks later, in January 2010, a busload of Karen visited Nhill for the first time. A fortnight later, the first families arrived. Five began to work a Luv-a-Duck.

The Millingtons had done an enormous amount of work in preparation. Other workers at the factory had been prepared. The Learning Centre was ready. A house had been rented. Yet the challenge was still overwhelming.

Margaret Millington recalls: “We told them to call on us anytime, and they did. The Karen needed help with everything, from shopping to dealing with bureaucracy. The cultural gap was immense.” On many nights, the Millingtons had children struggling with their homework in their lounge room.

And at the same time, the Millingtons were once more struggling with tragedy. On the weekend that the first Karen arrived in Nhill, their son Simon died of an overdose of prescription drugs.

It was overwhelming. “We thought we couldn’t cope,” remembers Margaret. But today, she reflects that perhaps they wouldn’t have coped had they not had so much to do, and so much need around them.

“The Karen needed us. But we needed them, too.”

The Karen, so courageous and so determined to live, helped them get through. “The Karen needed us. But we needed them, too.”

The Millingtons are, in theory, retired. Luv-a-Duck is under new management. But they are busier than most people with full time jobs. They continue to lead the Nhill community’s efforts in integrating the Karen. They are active in road trauma support services, and have become important campaigners for real-time monitoring of prescription drugs – a system that, had it been in place, might have saved their son’s life. Both of them have been awarded the Order of Australia for their work in the community.

A few years ago, they attended the wedding of a Karen community leader, held in Thailand. Smuggled in, they spent the night with the refugees. “They had absolutely nothing, but everyone was smiling all the time,” says John. “When we came home, we realised that this house we live in was a palace.”

A few years ago, one of their Karen friends had a child at the local hospital. When the father rang to let them know about the birth, he said in his faulty English, “her face is broken”. The baby girl needed major cranial facial surgery.

When the crisis was over, John asked what they would call their daughter. They had chosen the name Jody.

“It was like a knife to our hearts,” says John. Jody was the name of the daughter they had lost in an accident all those years ago.

“We believe that this life is not important, or rather what is important about it is how you live it. ”

They took it as a sign from God. They were where they were meant to be, doing God’s will in helping the Karen. “We believe,” says Margaret, “that this life is not important, or rather what is important about it is how you live it. If we want to see our children again in heaven, then we must live the best way we know how.”

The executive officer of the Nhill Learning Centre, Annette Creek, remembers when she first heard that the Karen would arrive in Nhill. She was uncertain what it would mean for the town, but it was clear that this little house, previously delivering about 1,600 hours of training per year to the local community, would have to be involved.

Today, thanks to the Karen, the centre has expanded, received extra government funding, taken on new staff and built new classrooms in the backyard. It now delivers 18,000 hours a year of community education.

As well as the English classes, there are lifestyle classes, job ready classes and even classes in Karen for those Australians who want to learn to communicate with the new arrivals.

In 2010, Karen woman Ku Po Mya wanted to buy a house. She was the first of her community to do so. She went to the bank for a loan, but had no savings history. Her salary from Luv-a-Duck went in, and was instantly withdrawn.

It emerged that she was keeping all her savings in a bag at her home. In Karen state, buying houses was simply a matter of trading. Her experience led the Learning Centre to conduct a course in how to buy a house. Local solicitors and bank managers came along to lend a hand.

A sewing class for the Karen women has recently led to the setting up of a new business. A group of Karen conducted a lightning trip to Ikea in Adelaide to buy furniture. Now one of the closed up shops in the main street is full of chatter as the women weave, sew and work their way through the complexities of erecting Ikea flat packs.

From a sewing class to a new business called Paw Po.

From a sewing class to a new business called Paw Po.

They have called the business Paw Po, meaning “little flower” in Karen. The window is full of handmade products using traditional fabrics. There are cushions, oven gloves, mats and little rope baskets. They hope to sell through a website, as well as to locals and passing traffic. Inquiries have been received from trendy shops in Melbourne and Sydney, keen to source these unique goods. The challenge is building up the stock fast enough.

One of the older women sitting at the spinning wheels spent her first months in Nhill isolated at home, too traumatised or culture shocked to go out. Now she plans to build a business of her own, supplying woven fabric to Paw Po. “Even if the business doesn’t succeed,” says Annette Creek, “having her here today is an outcome.”

There are several candidates for the title of hero of the Nhill story. The Millingtons deny that they qualify for the title.

They claim that the true heroes are the Karen themselves, and the town of Nhill. In March 2010, the first Harmony Day celebration was held, with the Karen taking part. By June, businesses other than Luv-a-Duck began employing Karen. Today, there are 12 separate employers of Karen, other than Luv-a-Duck. More than nine families have bought their own houses.

Early on, the Karen heard about Anzac Day. Without any warning to the RSL, they turned up in traditional dress for the dawn service, clearly planning to march. The Nhill community got an education in the role of the Karen supporting the British in Burma against the Japanese.

Karen New Year, traditionally celebrated at the end of the rice harvest, has become an annual event at Nhill.

In 2014, when the Hindmarsh Landcare Network asked for volunteers, more than 50 Karen turned up and spent the day singing traditional songs as they planted more than 5,000 trees on the shore of a local lake. More recently, the Rotary Club called for a working bee to restore a boardwalk, and more Karen came than old time Nhillians.

Karen New Year, traditionally celebrated at the end of the rice harvest, has become an annual event at Nhill. The Karen invite the locals and provide a traditional feast to all comers for free.

Part of the New Year ceremony is the bamboo dance – which involves hopping between lengths of bamboo held in a grid pattern. At first, the Karen used lengths of poly-pipe, but the local community decided that wouldn’t do, and helped with a nationwide search to find suitable lengths of bamboo.

These days, the shire office staff wear name tags in both English and Karen.

Acting chief executive officer of the Hindmarsh Shire Council, Anne Champness, describes dealing with the Karen as “a challenge and a privilege”. The shire, she says, is in an ongoing dialogue with the federal government about providing resources to help make the settlement a success. The Hindmarsh Shire has issued a Karen Community plan in two languages and employed Karen man Tha Hser Bleh Dah as liaison officer. These days, the shire office staff wear name tags in both English and Karen.

The West Wimmera Health Service, which runs the local hospital, has reoriented from providing for an aging monoculture, to also supplying services to the Karen, including their young families. They have learned, says senior officer John Smith, how to build trust with people who have never had access to a modern health service before. Hospital staff have taken training in how to deal with the after-effects of trauma and torture. The hospital is also one of the main employers of Karen.

At the Nhill Learning Centre, Annette Creek acknowledges that good news stories must surely be qualified. She agrees that common sense suggests Nhill must have its share of prejudice and xenophobia.

And yet, if there is bad feeling in Nhill towards the Karen, it is hard to find signs. There are memories of the early days when the Karen went fishing, and put the catch out to dry in their backyards, causing a stink. “We explained it was a cultural thing, not a good thing or a bad thing, just a cultural thing,” says Creek. Nhill adapted, and the Karen learned different ways.

“I like to think we would have opened our hearts to them regardless of religion, but it might have been harder for some people to do that.”

Margaret Millington acknowledges that Nhill’s acceptance of the Karen might have been harder if they had been Muslims. Instead, they are mostly either Christian or Buddhist, and have fitted in well with local congregations. “I like to think we would have opened our hearts to them regardless of religion, but it might have been harder for some people to do that,” she says.

There are moral complexities here, too. Luv-a-Duck, for example, is a factory farm – and has had its share of attention from Animal Liberationists horrified at what this means for the ducks. Yet without Luv-a-Duck, the Karen would still be stuck in Werribee, struggling to find their feet.

Nor is Nhill necessarily in favour of allowing boat people to settle in Australia. John Millington is against the idea that Australia can settle all those who want to come. Boat people, he says, would take places away from the thousands still waiting in refugee camps.

Nhill now has a constant awareness of the tide of human misery that is summed up by the word ‘refugee’.

For Nhill, this is personal. The Karen have family members they want to bring to Australia. The hope and heartbreak of applications for family reunion are played out here, in local congregations and communities. Nhill now has a connection, a constant awareness of the tide of human misery that is summed up by the word ‘refugee”.

Annette Creek says that like most of the townsfolk, 10 years ago she was largely unaware and unconcerned about the plight of the world’s refugees. “I have learned a lot,” she says. “We are better for it.”

Executive officer of the Nhill Learning Centre, Annette Creek.

Executive officer of the Nhill Learning Centre, Annette Creek.

In 2015, Deloitte Access Economics and AMES published a report on the economic impact of the Karen on Nhill. They found that they had added a total of 70 full-time equivalent positions to the local economy, and the impact of the increased labour supply had added $41.5 million to the local economy. Population decline had been offset, more government money had flowed to the local services, and there had been an increase in social capital. Nhill was revitalised – a model for the nation.

Meanwhile, Luv-a-Duck was able to expand. Today, its brand is visible in supermarket fridges across the nation. Without the Karen, says John Millington, that expansion would either have been slower, or would have had to happen elsewhere, with Luv-a-Duck moving some of its operations closer to a labour supply.

A few months ago, the Karen assembled at the Learning Centre to be helped by volunteers to fill in their census forms – a vital task in a town forced always to argue for its share of the nation’s resources. Every Karen in Nhill was represented on a form. “And that means more for the town,” says Creek. “That is really important for us, and everyone understands that.”

It is evening in Nhill. On the edge of town, near the big asphalt parking area where truck drivers swap rigs in the constant relay between Adelaide and Melbourne, the Karen have gathered at the community garden the shire has built for them. Here they grow coriander, Asian greens and, at John Millington’s urging, silverbeet. The Millingtons are here too, high-fiving the children and shaking the hands of the adults. Margaret is soon laden with more fresh vegetables than she can possibly cook.

Local goal kicker: Ku Htoo Say

Local goal kicker: Ku Htoo Say

Eighteen-year-old Ku Htoo Say is helping with the gardening. He is a student at the local school, currently on work placement at the local sporting club. He has a reputation as a goal kicker for the the Nhill Tigers. He played soccer in the refugee camps, and when he came to Nhill was persuaded to go to Aussie rules footy training. “I said, ‘I am too small, with all these tall Aussie guys’. But I went to training and I kind of liked it.”

There are as yet no marriages between native Nhill and the Karen, but everyone agrees that this will come.

If there is work to do when he leaves school, he says, he will stay in Nhill. The young Karen want to open their own businesses – shops and orchards and farms. They want to supply Luv-a-Duck with baby ducks. They want to become hairdressers, farmers, mechanics and to work in aged care. There are as yet no marriages between native Nhill and the Karen, but everyone agrees that this will come.

Rain is approaching. You can see it a long way off – great sheets of grey and butter yellow to the west, as the sun sets. The Karen pack up their gardening tools and go home. The shops in the main street of Nhill close, the pubs begin the scant evening trade and the trucks sweep past the little town, back and forth between cities, buffeting this Australian story with their wake.