Husband and wife Lin and Lian Thuam Cin are former refugees from Myanmar turned essential workers. This is their story of wanting to help a nation in need after having been helped themselves.
It’s an April morning in Wellington, yet it’s surprisingly warm and unusually quiet, with almost no one on the streets. But for Lin and Lian Thuam Cin, it’s a morning like any other.
Lian is making her way to Cashmere Hospital in Johnsonville where the elderly people she cares for are starting their day. Lin, her husband, is on his way to the Newlands Bus Depot where the number 52 bus is waiting to depart for Wellington.
There’s no traffic on the road today, making for a quick commute for the Thuam Cin family. Most New Zealanders, however, won’t be going out today – the country has just moved to Covid-19 alert level four and people are being asked to stay home. Only certain workers are allowed to commute to work, many of whom work in jobs that are often taken for granted. Now, they’re considered essential to supporting the country in lockdown like bus drivers and caregivers.
This is Lin and Lian’s story.
A long journey to safety
Lin and Lian both grew up in Mandalay, the second biggest city in Myanmar, located in the centre of the country. They found each other through their local church, fell in love, and married in 2005.
Lin worked as a delivery man, driving his ute around the country to drop off medicine, while Lian looked after their home. Their lives were like any other until one day in 2005, during one of Lin’s many delivery trips around the country, everything turned upside down.
“It was just me in a small truck, and I went around the bottom of Myanmar then around the country, and finished at the Thai border,” explains Lin.
“In Thailand, I met an old classmate of mine who asked me to bring a parcel back to his family in Myanmar. I took it and left it on the dashboard in my truck.”
“I stopped on the way to use the bathroom and when I came back, I saw the military officers surround my truck and point out the parcel, asking people who the driver of the truck was.”
“The parcel had political connections and wording criticising the military regime, which was illegal. I knew I had to leave immediately otherwise I would be beaten up and they would look for my wife too So, I left my truck and all my belongings, and fled the country.”
Once across the border in Thailand, Lin immediately called his wife to explain what had happened. Knowing there was only one choice for her, Lian packed her things and fled Myanmar to meet her husband. This was just the beginning of what was to be a far longer trip than they could’ve imagined.
Knowing Thailand wasn’t somewhere they’d be able to settle permanently, the pair undertook a perilous journey to Malaysia where they hoped to find safety and opportunity. They paid someone familiar with the route to lead them there step-by-step. For three nights and three days, across dense jungles and churning rivers, they travelled.
“When the agent said ‘go, go, go’, we would go,” describes Lin, gesturing the winding steps they took through the jungle. “When they said ‘stop’, we’d stop and keep quiet, and when they said ‘hide’, we’d hide. It was frightening. Where was I? I had no idea!”
“We had no choice because if we went back, there was no way. We just followed the agent,” adds Lian.
But arriving in Malaysia wasn’t the end of their struggle to safety. Life at this time was incredibly difficult. The couple would do whatever jobs they could find and slept wherever there was space – sometimes in an apartment, sometimes in the jungle. Without identity documents, they lived in constant fear of being arrested.
“Life was hard. I don’t know how many times the police caught me. Once, they pulled me over. They wanted to send me to jail and wanted a lot of money. I said ‘can you do a deal? I have a cellphone and bit of money. Take it all and can you make me free?’ I was very nervous. I never forgot that one time, it was very scary,” says Lin.
Like millions of displaced people around the world, Lin and Lian approached the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to be recognised as refugees and seek protection. Being recognised as a refugee means the UNHCR acknowledges that your life would be at risk if you returned to the country you’ve fled.
When Lin and Lian received refugee status, that meant they were now protected by international law. They would also become part of the 1% of all refugees who are eventually resettled in a country other than the one they sought asylum in, because after five long years living in fear, Lin and Lian finally found safety in New Zealand.
A new life in Aotearoa
Lin and Lian landed in Auckland in 2009. It was a huge change for the couple who had never heard of the country before Immigration New Zealand approached them in Malaysia. But, nonetheless, they were thrilled to be moving to a safe country.
“I was very happy because when I knew when I arrived in New Zealand, my life would be changed,” says Lin.
After six weeks at the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre where they lived with other former refugee families who’d recently arrived to New Zealand, Lin and Lian settled in Wellington. The weather caught them off-guard, but they were amazed by their new home.
“This house is very big [with] three bedrooms. In Malaysia, we lived in very small rooms. They were half the size of our lounge here and we could only fit one bed. So we thought, ‘this is such a big house!’ Everything was already set up with lots of blankets, a fridge, microwave … We are very happy,” says Lian.
Not long after settling in Wellington, Lian gave birth to her first son Daniel. Two years later came David. The boys are now seven and nine years old and have picked up the New Zealand accent while Zomi culture remains present all over the house.
A pathway to employment
When a friend of Lin’s suggested he consider becoming a bus driver, Lin did not think he was confident enough to drive such a large vehicle. But after some more encouragement, Lin put his fears aside and accepted a job as a bus driver-in-training.
After three weeks following bus drivers around the city, studying bus routes, and learning to drive a long vehicle, Lin was told he could start driving by himself.
“Oh, there was a lot of shaking!” laughs Lin. “When I arrived in Johnsonville, I didn’t know where to park the bus. So I reversed to park where I thought it should be. I reversed like a small car, but the distances are different, and the visibility too and… I hit the next bus and the window was smashed into pieces!”
“I had just started and already I make an accident! I was so shaken. I had no idea what happened. The bus driver I hit said ‘don’t worry’. My supervisor called and asked if I was okay to drive. I was fine so I carried on.”
“I was worried because in my country, if something like that happens, you have to pay for the bus and the damage, and you would lose your job. So I thought I’d lost my job. I was very anxious. But the next morning, no one said anything.”
Despite the incident on his first day on the job, Lin has since grown in confidence and says he enjoys driving people around Wellington.
“My colleagues were very friendly and helpful. They teach me a lot and now I am a lot more confident. It’s been four years now. I am fine, I enjoy it.”
While Lin can be found transporting people, his wife can be found looking after them. Lian went to study at WelTec to become a health care assistant and found a job at Cashmere Hospital in Johnsonville working five to six days a week.
“We help with everything. If someone is not well, or someone can’t walk, we assist with everything they need. For example, we help with showering, going to the bathroom, eating and dressing,” explains Lian.
“Being a caregiver is good for me, I like to look after the old people. I like to think about them as a mum, dad, grandma or grandpa.”
The way things worked changed slightly for these two essential workers. Lin would see fewer people use his bus and they’d be sitting further back, keeping their physical distance from him. Meanwhile, Lian had to wear protective gear and go through special training to protect herself and the residents.
“I was quite worried about the virus. They told us that if someone at work got it, we wouldn’t be able to go home. We would have to stay and we would have to tell our families, which would be very hard,” says Lian.
“The residents were not allowed visitors, so we tried to make them happy. Some days they wanted to see their families. They would cry and say, ‘I want to see my daughter’ or ‘I want to see my son’. It was very hard.”
“[But] I like working there and I like to make fun, by talking or singing a song! Some of the patients have dementia so I want them to have fun and make them happy. Sometimes we write to them or sometimes we use sign language.”
Lin feared he would bring the virus home too, which could have a terrible impact on his elderly mother who now lives with him in Wellington. He always made sure to change his clothes and wash his hands thoroughly before entering the house.
Thankfully, both Lin and Lian kept themselves and their family well. They supported New Zealanders during incredibly uncertain times, just like how New Zealand supported the pair 11 years ago.
“We are so happy, I’m always thanking this country and its people are so kind. The government let me come here, it changed my life and I’m always thinking about how I can give back to them. Working as a bus driver is one way,” Lin says with a warm smile.
All across Aotearoa, thousands of former refugees are doing amazing things in their communities. Some are essential workers who supported Kiwis during the Covid-19 lockdown. Over the next few days, in the run-up to World Refugee Day on June 20 and in collaboration with the New Zealand Red Cross, we’re sharing some of their stories.