By Deirdre Robert: Pacific Media Centre
It has been eight years since Cicilia Dwe and her family left their United Nations refugee camp in Thailand and set foot on New Zealand soil.
The Burmese 18-year-old is now looking to the future with her eyes set on gaining a politics degree at the University of Auckland, beginning in July.
The road to a brighter future has led from a tumultuous past.
Her parents fled Burma in 1988 during the student-led protests for democratic change, in which 3000 people are believed to have killed.
Cicilia Dwe (pictured) says her parents feared the ruling military junta of Burma and felt it was not safe to stay.
“In Burma the government can take away anything you own. If they decide to develop an area they can just take away your land. You have no rights.”
Dwe has family in Burma she has never seen and may never get the chance to meet.
Even as New Zealand citizens, Dwe and her family are on the blacklist, meaning if they return to Burma they could be at risk.
Born in Thailand, Dwe’s move to life in a refugee camp was sudden.
One day her sister picked her up from school and they went straight to the UN refugee camp where they were joined by their mother, father, three sisters and one brother.
The family spent two years at the camp before being offered a permanent home in New Zealand.
Dwe’s parents chose New Zealand because it provided better future prospects and opportunities for their children.
Culturally, life in New Zealand is very different says, Dwe.
If she were still in Thailand she would likely be married. In that country the focus is on “getting married, looking after your kids and being a housewife”.
She says in New Zealand there are a wider range of opportunities for education and career.
Being young proved an advantage to her integration into New Zealand society.
She was well received at primary school and had support from her fellow students from the start.
Family sponsors have also played a big role in the family’s settlement.
Local North Shore volunteer Catherine Geeves is one of the family’s main sponsors and was heavily involved in their integration.
She helped enrol the kids in school, found the family a local GP and negotiated with Housing New Zealand for a family home.
Being a sponsor is “enormously rewarding”, she says.
She is extremely proud of the way Cicilia and her older sister Elizabeth have managed to get themselves to university.
“I think they are an inspiration and show what you can achieve if you work hard.”
She says the whole family is a huge asset to the community.
While being a sponsor is a very involved task, Geeves says it is a “two-way street”.
When her mother died later that year, the entire Dwe family prepared food for the funeral.
“There is a huge willingness to muck in and help,” says Geeves.
Dwe echoes these sentiments.
“The sponsors are part of our family and we are part of their family.”
Now firmly a part of New Zealand, Dwe is herself looking at becoming a refugee sponsor.
Beyond that, and with her life experience as motivation and inspiration, she envisions herself working for the UN or the Human Rights Commission as a social worker.
Deirdre Robert is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student at AUT University.
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