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Thae Oo Khaing

From refugee to PhD


Thae Oo Khaing spent the better part of 15 years in a refugee camp on the border of her home country Myanmar and neighbouring Thailand. Today she is undertaking a PhD at ACU Melbourne.

She didn’t even get to say goodbye.

It’s 2005, and Thae Oo Khaing, a Karen ethnic born in Myanmar, arrives home from school. She finds her mother packing a small bag with clothes. The reason? “We’re going to visit some relatives,” she says.

Thae, 15 at the time, thinks nothing of it. Eventually, she, her mother, and grandmother, who is 62, jump into a car headed for a destination unknown. Thae doesn’t recognise the driver.

The journey to “the relatives home” is suspiciously long, but Thae’s mother remains calm. Along the journey, she explains that the group will need to swap cars since the relatives live so far away. 

The new car takes the three women to a river. Later, Thae would discover the river flowed along the border of her home, Myanmar, and neighbouring Thailand. The three women vacate the vehicle, and Thae’s mother leads them to a small boat. They sail to the other side of the riverbank and disembark. There they stay until morning when a new car arrives.

Finally at their destination, Thae notices houses made of bamboo and wood, with teak leaves for roofs. Her mother slowly explains: “We’re going to be living here.”

Political activism poses a threat

Thae’s journey to being a displaced teenager living in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border began decades earlier.

Her uncle was a member of the ‘88 Generation Students group’, a movement comprising of young Burmese who led the 1988 student protests against Myanmar’s military rule. Many students become political prisoners in the country, while others, like Thae’s uncle were “kicked out of the country”. He eventually found refuge and protection in Japan.

But in the aftermath of the protests, Thae’s mother no longer felt safe in her home; she was the matriarch of the house, caring for a teenager girl and her elderly mother. Three women alone in one house.

“My mum said there were always people watching our household, and she could see strangers wandering around our home,” Thae said.

“Because I was quite young, I didn’t notice anything.”

Thae’s mum made the most difficult decision of their lives – to flee the country they called home.

Their relatives arranged everything, all the transportation for the journey – the numerous cars, the boat escape – and the new home in the refugee camp.

“My mum was so brave,” Thae said. “She was the one handling the directions, and where we’re going, all while travelling with a teenager and my very elderly grandma.” 

Thae, her mother and grandmother lived in the refugee camp for the better part of 15 years. 

Education is the path to freedom

Thae’s mother, a primary school teacher, wanted her daughter to become a doctor. That changed when she became a refugee. 

While refugees on the Thai-Burma border do receive a secondary education, the qualifications are not officially recognised by most international countries. Pursuing tertiary education is almost impossible.

“I began to understand that education was the one thing that can help change my life,” Thae said.

“I didn’t want to be stuck in the refugee camp all my life. I wanted to get a better life so I could also help my mum and grandmum, and also help other young refugees like me. 

“There are so many young refugees but we have very limited opportunities to pursue further education, including bridge courses on Thai-Burma border. I was lucky enough to get into one of those courses.”

Younger Thae Oo Khaing

Thae Oo Khaing

Run in partnership with ACU and Palms Australia, Marist Asia Foundation, and York University, with support from the Connected Learning in Crisis Consortium and Chiang Mai University, the program was funded solely by ACU as part of its community engagement program and was open to selected young refugees recruited from the border camps. Students studied a Diploma of Liberal Studies, and Thae admits to being cautiously sceptical the first time she heard about the program.
 
“When I heard there is an entrance exam for ACU, I didn’t know what ACU was. I thought, ‘Is that a legitimate university?’” she said, laughing.

“I understood that they gave a Diploma in Liberal Studies, which you can use to apply for university elsewhere. To me, it was another certificate to reassure my admission for further studies. 

“That ACU Thai-Burma refugee program changed my life. It was such a rich experience that opened my mind. I thought, ‘This is what it feels like to study in a university, this is a taste’. After I studied there for two years, I got my diploma, and right away I was able to get a scholarship to do my honours in a Bachelor of Education in Hong Kong in 2014.”

From refugee to advocate

The opportunity in Hong Kong was a significant milestone in Thae’s life – she was no longer classified as an identifying refugee (asylum seeker) but as a student. Education changed her life, so now, she’s on a mission to change others. 

“In high school I studied to become a doctor, but my focus and my passion changed when I lived in the refugee camp for many years,” Thae said.

“I want to be more like an advocate, to advocate for refugee affairs and education. 

“When I finished my undergraduate studies, I went back to the Thai-Burma border and I worked in community organisations for refugees and teachers and students who are living in the conflict affected area in Burma. 

“Because of my work experience background and my passion, I was one hundred per cent sure I wanted to go through this pathway, to help young refugees in terms of education so we can all have a better life.”

In February, with the support of a scholarship from ACU Engagement, Thae, who is now 30 years old, moved to Melbourne to start her newest education journey – pursuing a PhD in International Development with ACU. Based on ACU’s Melbourne Campus, her research will focus on higher education programs for refugees who live in protracted refugee situations while being displaced for five or more years from their home. 

Dr Jen Couch and Thae Oo Khaing

Dr Jen Couch and Thae Oo Khaing.

“I’m looking at educational programs that are available for them and I want to see the impact they’re having on those refugee students,” she said.

The ACU Thai-Burma program was her first obvious choice, but she is also exploring the opportunities from another course in Malaysia. 

Thae’s doctorate supervisor, ACU senior lecturer Dr Jen Couch, is a former teacher of the Thai-Burma program. Interestingly, the two never crossed paths on the Thai-Burma border. But their pairing is serendipitous – Dr Couch’s own academic research has focused on refugees in forced migration situations, and she has worked closely with displaced communities.

Dr Couch said Thae’s arrival at ACU, the university she once thought wasn’t real, was full of emotions.

“She said she used to dream of what the ACU campus would look like,” Dr Couch said. “I told her that ACU is a relatively small university compared to others in Melbourne, but there’s a lot of training, learning, and graduating at this real university.

“She definitely knows it’s real now.”

Dr Couch said Thae was settling into hew new life in Australia “remarkably well”.

“She’s just slotted into everything – she’s working in a social enterprise, she's on the ACU Cheerleading team, she’s made links with her Karen community in Melbourne and is going to their events,” Dr Couch said.

Thae couldn’t agree more. For the first time in her life, she feels at home. And while she’s only spent six months in Melbourne, she can see herself settling down in Australia permanently.

“I love Australia and I love Melbourne, so my plan after graduation is I to get a job and also go for permanent residency here,” Thae said. “And meanwhile, I’m planning to bring my mum and grandma here so they can stay with me. She led us out of danger in our home country, and now I finally have a chance to give her a home.

“I’m so grateful for everyone carrying me through so I can go on this PhD journey.”

Learn more about the Thai-Burma Border program and ACU. 

Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2022 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G