From trauma and fear to a life of freedom

John Pal Say and his wife, Yin Yin Khin Say, with their children, Jason and Jassmin. Pictures: CHRISTOPHER CHAN

John Pal Say and his wife, Yin Yin Khin Say, with their children, Jason and Jassmin. Pictures: CHRISTOPHER CHAN

His house in Myanmar was bulldozed and the garden destroyed. Her home was burnt down when the military set the village on fire.

For many years, John Pal Say and his wife, Yin Yin Khin Say, were unwanted - first in their homeland because of warring factions, then as refugees in Thailand and Malaysia.

But on Sunday, the Corrimal couple will finally stand proud with their two children as they become Australian citizens at Wollongong's citizenship ceremony.

Mr Say met his wife in Mine Hsat, in north-eastern Myanmar, while on a Christian mission delivering medicine and education to children in war zones.

Long-running conflict between rebel groups and the military saw the couple's homes turned into a battlefield.

'We had never been to the beach before, it makes me so happy.' - John Pal Say

Mrs Say then followed her husband-to-be to Malaysia, where she converted from Buddhism to Christianity and they married.

After eight years of living as a refugee in Malaysia, Mr Say's suffocating fear faded when the United Nations handed him an Australian visa in 2009. Anxiety was replaced by a cocktail of emotions: joy, confusion, trepidation and hope.

In Malaysia he worked in the wool industry, at a restaurant and then as a mechanic, which was his original trade.

He had to change jobs constantly to evade Malaysian authorities, as he had no right to work.

The family fled Myanmar (formerly Burma) and will become Australian citizens on Australia Day.

The family fled Myanmar (formerly Burma) and will become Australian citizens on Australia Day.

"Every time the police come, everyone have to run away," he said.

"Some people fall and a few people we heard that they died.

"If you got caught, they might sell you, or they might ask you where you want to go and ask for money."

While on the road looking for work, Mr Say was captured by police more than 10 times, but avoided prison.

"Most of the people they catch and put into jail, they take all their money," he said.

"But the few times it happened to me, it was not very bad.

"Wherever you travel, it's not safe. People pity you and help you, so you stay alive but not safe."

Living in a cramped house with his wife, newborn daughter and nine others, the Seventh Day Adventist Christian said he missed the peaceful feeling of going to church.

"We had to pray quietly, because it is a Muslim country," he said.

"I prayed every day and every night and we believed God would take care of and protect our family."

Although he was told the police in Australia were trustworthy, his instinct was still fear, he said.

Since their arrival in July 2009, the couple have added a son to the family, Jason, 2.

Jassmin, 8, said the best part about Australia was the freedom.

"There is no danger here. It's fun, because I can go anywhere," she said.

Now, Mr Say works as a mechanic and volunteers for Illawarra Multicultural Services as a translator for the Myanmarese community.

While it remains difficult for him and his wife to overcome language barriers, Mr Say said he hoped their children would have opportunities to further their education.

"They can do a degree of what they like," he said.

"I also like many things here - the weather and the beach.

"We had never been to the beach before, it makes me so happy," Mr Say said.

"I have the freedom to go to church every week."

And, one day, Mr Say hopes to help his Karen ethnic group overseas.

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