The Refugee Camp in My Neighbourhood: Cultural Series, Auburn 2016

Over the last several years during my time at Macquarie University I have studied and researched refugees merely in terms of statistics; where they are fleeing from, where they are traveling to and how many there are estimated to be. We have covered an array of international treaties and domestic policies that apply to their fundamental rights as human beings.

We have not however, been provided insight into the personal stories and struggles of refugees themselves. We do not learn about the challenges they face in fleeing their country, finding permanent homes or in gaining legal recognition of their rights. We simply do not study refugees in terms of their experiences as individuals, as they seek a safe place to live and work.

It was our tour through the Refugee Camp in My Neighbourhood, as part of GLP’s Cultural Series Day, which gave me the opportunity to hear real stories from refugees themselves. Located in Auburn, a Refugee Welcome Zone as of 2004, the interactive program highlighted to us the extreme difficulties they encounter as they flee their homes in search of somewhere safe to live.


Simulated refugee camp, GLP Cultural Series Auburn, 2016 (photo courtesy Amy Thomas).

The tour consisted of several activities that captured the realities of living in a refugee camp and was itself run by a number of refugees who had experienced their own journey in seeking asylum here in Australia.

We were given two minutes to quickly choose 5 things we would take with us upon being forced to flee the country, while noting asylum seekers often do not have time to do just that. Upon entering the camp we were confronted by security. A man yelled at us in a foreign language, while taking from us our jackets, bags and the few things we had selected to bring.

This gave me a sense of how truly terrifying it would be arriving in a foreign country, where you do not speak the language, do not know what is going to happen to you or your family, and have the few things that were yours taken from your hands.

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#15 The Right to a Nationality (photo courtesy Chloe Spackman).

To register our ‘family’ with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) we were given documents in a foreign language that we simply could not complete. We saw what was meant to be a toilet used by hundreds of people, a mere hole in the ground, while ‘landmines’ throughout the camp reminded us of health hazards, including contaminated water and infectious disease.

The difficult decisions often faced by refugees were highlighted to us, as we were made to choose between either staying in an overcrowded house unfit for our family or risk paying a year’s rent in advance for better accommodation, without the guarantee of finding employment.


Contaminated water demonstration at the simulate Refugee Camp, Auburn (photo courtesy Amy Thomas).

The simulated camp was confronting and opened my eyes to the conditions suffered by millions of asylum seekers globally. Yet the most shocking aspect of the tour for me personally was the stories and pictures drawn by children, pleading to be released from the camps. The drawings showed stick figures crying behind fences, with sunshine and trees on the other side out of reach.

Although it was undeniably upsetting to see, I am grateful I had the opportunity to grasp a greater understanding and awareness of such a significant global issue. I feel the tour has further opened my eyes to the realities suffered by refugees and given me a new perspective on an area I thought I was already familiar with. I know I will take this experience with me through the rest of my studies and into the future as I engage in conversations surrounding human rights and issues of global concern.

Written by Amy Thomas, third year Bachelor of Social Science student and GLPer. 

As part of our ongoing Cultural Series, this month the GLP organised a special one-off opportunity for students to participate in the Refugee Camp in My Neighborhood, an interactive learning experience in Auburn. Developed in collaboration with over 100 community members and led by refugees living in Auburn the experience highlighted the challenges refugees face in finding a permanent home, the daily realities of life in a camp and resettling in Australia. Along with this experience, students received a briefing at the Auburn Gallipoli Mosque and explored the suburb and met with local residents in a scavenger hunt.


Leadership lessons from a local on the Cabramatta Cultural Day

Cabramatta is a cultural hub, busy and full of life. In October I took part in the GLP’s Cultural Day of the suburb to hear from local residents and organisations that work in the community, discover the cultural landmarks and sample some of the South East Asian food! It was an amazing experience and hearing some of the hardships encountered by residents was truly inspiring. From the perspective of a nineteen year old, growing up in a world where everything is in arms reach and there are so many opportunities, we tend to lose touch of how lucky we are. Hearing the diverse stories and hardships of some of the Cabramatta Cultural Day speakers instilled an appreciation for the day to day luxuries that others do not have.


Students on the Cabramatta Cultural Day

During our day we were lucky to meet with Jenny, an immigrant with the most amazing story! Jenny lived through and survived the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. From 1975 to 1979, the communist Khmer Rouge movement evacuated Phnom Penh’s 2.5 million residents. Former civil servants, doctors, teachers and other professionals were stripped of their possessions and forced to toil in the fields as part of a re-education process. Those that complained about the work, concealed their rations or broke rules were usually tortured in detention centres, such as the infamous S-21, and then killed. The bones of people who died from malnutrition or inadequate healthcare filled up mass graves across the country. An estimated 1.5 million people died or were killed during the regime.

Under Pol Pot, the state controlled all aspects of a person’s life. Money, private property, jewelry, gambling and most reading material and religion were outlawed. Agriculture was collectivized, children were taken from their homes and forced into the military and strict rules governing sexual relations, vocabulary and clothing were laid down.

Jenny, who speaks five different languages, came from an educated, wealthy family. Jenny spoke of how they were all stripped of their possessions and marched down to work in a field where she ended up staying for the three years of the Pol Pot regime. Education was not valued and if you had it, you would ‘disappear’ as she put it. For three years, Jenny kept quiet and did not speak to anyone out of fear she would lose her life. She spoke of how she lost 10 family members during this time. Luckily, Jenny escaped Cambodia with her family in the 1970s.


Jenny Tew speaking to students on the Cabramatta Cultural Day

Although she was free from the atrocities in Cambodia, she was not yet completely free. Jenny, her mother and two siblings were taken to a refugee camp. Fortunately, Jenny’s father had encouraged her to learn English and she used her skills to assist fellow refugees with interpreting in the camp. The UN’s refugee agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), arranged for Jenny and her family to be placed in Germany.  However, Jenny’s mother was unhappy with this decision, as she and the family were unable to speak German and would likely have to work in an industrial factory. It was through Jenny’s determination and perseverance that the family migrated to Australia in 1981. Jenny approached a visiting Australian diplomat in the camp and negotiated for the move to Australia.

Jenny’s strength and courage combined with her will to carry on brought her great success in Australia. She has two sons, who are in successful careers, one even studies at Macquarie! Since her first role as an interpreter in healthcare in Australia, Jenny has worked seven days a week, 365 days a year to build two successful businesses. She is currently an education and migration agent, supporting international students and immigrants as they establish themselves in Australia, and also has a shop in Cabramatta, which sells her amazing “bum pants”- a creation of Jenny’s that give women curves in the right places! She was also one of the first women to sell Shiseido make up in Australia!  She is an example of triumph, embodies the true Australian values and is an outstanding leader.

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Freedom Gate in Cabramatta, which is opposite Jenny’s shop

In 2012, Jenny was recognised as a People of Australia Ambassador for her endless work in her community to make sure everyone fits in and is doing well. You can find her vibrant little store on the corner right opposite Freedom Plaza in Cabramatta. It is absolutely worth a look!

I feel that as a young person, Jenny is such an inspiring person to look up to. She has so much strength and determination! She is what it means to be a Global Leader, she has taken every hardship she has endured and has the courage and power to help others and to share her story with us to inspire and teach cross cultural understanding and empathy.


‘Pol Pot’, 2009,,

*By Jacinta Harmer

Jacinta is studying a Bachelor of Law, majoring in Criminology. Next year Jacinta is deferring her degree at Macquarie to join the Navy.

The Cultural Day Series is an opportunity to develop your communication and leadership skills in Sydney’s multicultural hubs through briefings with local organisations and residents, a walking tour and a “Scavenger hunt” with other GLP delegates. The GLP runs two Cultural Days a Session. Keep an eye out on our Facebook group and your student email for details on the first Cultural Day of 2016!