Fruit is highly valued: it was rare in the Thai refugee camp where NooZeRaBi Ba Lie and her family spent 10 years.
Bananas helped them survive many gruelling weeks spent in forests as they fled to Thailand.
Safe in Palmerston North, you are likely to find grandmother and matriarch NooZeRaBi, originally from Myanmar, in the company of several of her six children and her four grandchildren.
You will be made very welcome. NooZeRaBi is known for her warm, hospitable nature. She is learning English in classes run by English Language Partners and one of her greatest pleasures is now being able to say, “Hello, how are you?”
At first NooZeRaBi was bewildered by all the things available in New Zealand supermarkets: after decades of poverty, she was also afraid to spend too much, even on fruit for the family. Now she shops with confidence and enjoys conversation with people at the checkout.
Best of all, she can communicate in English with her grandchildren, aged from one to 11. “I am happy,” she says, as she talks about her grandchildren.
NooZeRaBi’s own children, aged 16 to 29 are all in Palmerston North, and are supportive of their mother and proud of her English progress. They are also grateful for her determination, hard work and sacrifices on their behalf as the family made their way from Myanmar to Thailand.
The story of their journey is dramatic: NooZeRaBi’s eldest daughter Lahe, now 21, helps translate and adds her own memories.
Fifteen years ago, the family fled soldiers advancing on their village in Myanmar, making their way through many kilometres of dense forest. NooZeRaBi was pregnant with her youngest child and the other five were very young. For the first few days they ran as fast as they could, using up the small amount of food the older boys had been able to carry from the village.
“The food ran out,” says Lahe. “Then we would look for banana trees and eat the bananas. We also built ourselves a little house made of banana leaves.” Mosquitoes were a constant problem. NooZeRaBi groans and swats her face at the memory and Lahe talks about how long the bites would take to heal.
At times they were forced to drink stagnant, often toxic water, which killed members of other fleeing families. “And we worried about animals, especially snakes and tigers,” says Lahe. When they eventually arrived at the Thai camp, there was little available. “Too many people,” says NooZeRaBi.
They had to build another house, this time from bamboo, and had to rebuild every year because of flooding. To get money for food, the children went back into the forest to help their mother gather bamboo to sell to other refugees.
They started a garden and sold some of their beans, corn and cucumber, but money was still short.
So NooZeRaBi and Lahe, then 11, went to work, tramping to the nearest city to pick chillies in the big gardens. NooZeRaBi and Lahe remember trying to get rid of the burning sting of the chillies on their hands.
Their pay was small, but Lahe once used most of hers to buy a treat for her brothers and sisters. “They wanted to eat an apple. So I bought one. I could only afford one. We cut it up into little slices and shared it.”
In 2007, they took up the opportunity provided by the NZ Government to travel to Auckland as refugees. After six weeks in the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre they moved to Palmerston North, where NooZeRaBi was pleased to find a house big enough for all of her children.
NooZeRaBi is now 47 but usually says, “I am 55,” when asked. “I feel older,” she says, “from all that looking after the children.” She is proud of her progress with English: “But it is easier when you are younger”.
Her tutor Catherine Taylor says Noo- ZeRaBi was shy but has come out of her shell.
She says NooZeRaBi stands confidently at the front of the class and “makes us all feel welcome”.