Cambodian refugee's new mushrooming career

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Mushrooming the business (Sarina Locke)
By Sarina Locke from Murrumbateman 2582
ABC Rural (Australia)

"I survived through the war by eating caterpillars, I survived through the war by eating cockroaches."

"We were forced to come out (to Australia), if not we get raped or killed. "

Helen Chu is not angry or bitter, but she does carry the mental scars of seeing Khmer Rouge soldiers torture and murder friends and family.

She was lucky enough to arrive in Australia as a child and to benefit from a good education, despite her experience of racism in Cabramatta, Sydney.

She attended University, became a teacher and then five years ago, bought land at Murrumbateman to establish a sophisticated mushroom farm, selling to Canberra consumers.

Helen Chu was born Heang Pao, but she doesn't know her exact date of birth, as the documents were destroyed before she arrived in Australia in 1982.

As a little girl of just four or five years of age, she witnessed appalling atrocities by Khmer Rouge soldiers, under Pol Pot in 1978.

"Women got caught by Khmer Rouge soldiers, and five of them tied a lady to a tree.

"I witnessed them ripping off her clothes and cutting her breasts up, and as a child we were hiding behind bushes."

It was the Vietnamese soldiers who helped them escape to a Thai refugee camp in 1979.

"Anybody who could speak another language would get killed. Dad was a teacher, if you're well educated you get killed. Dad lied and said he was a bus driver.

"Our surname was Heang, of Chinese descent, and we changed our name, and I don't look Cambodian so we rubbed dirt in our faces to look darker in order to survive.

"When the Vietnamese soldiers came in my mother spoke Vietnamese and everyone was quite shocked. Some of the Khmer Rouge, some were oriented into society were disappointed they didn't kill mum and the whole family.

"Mum helped with the translation and sewing, and they helped us escape from one province to the next.

The only way to leave Cambodia was by foot to the Thai border.

"We had to split up, even the children so it didn't look too obvious. There were bombs that went off, body parts that blown off.

"You had to walk on the path, if you stepped off the path you'd get blown up by mines."

Three of Helen's siblings died in the war. Her family - including the six remaining children waited in the Thai refugee camp for for three years for Australia to accept them.

They arrived in winter, in what they stood up in.

"When we came we stayed in a refugee hostel for a week, then my auntie found us a place for us to rent, and my mum started sewing, that was the skill she had.

"She can't speak English and just worked, making 10 cent profit, She had six kids to raise and that's how she started."

Helen and Ian Chu's mushroom farm is now a rapidly expanding operation, at Murrumbateman, from 2.5 tonnes a week, today, to 20 tonnes a week very soon.

She's also bringing up five children.

"I'm raising five kids, my sister's kids and my own. I'm a mum, auntie and businesswoman."

She says her experiences early in life have given her the motivation to succeed.

"Definitely it motivates me, I don't know about growing food in particular but it motivates me to do well, to make the most of this country, the freedom, the peacefulness that Australia offers refugees."

She worries about some attitudes to to refugees.

"People say 'go back to your own country!' But we didn't have a choice everything was taken away from us."


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