From war-torn Myanmar to a toy owl business in Canberra

On a rainy night in 2009, 24-year-old Pakao Sorn fled her hometown in Mon State, Myanmar, in search of a life free from war.

The days that followed were the longest of her life.

Pakao Sorn fled from Burma in her early twenties.  Photo: Elesa Kurtz

Pakao Sorn fled from Burma in her early twenties. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

After a two-hour trek to the Thai border, she rode a bus to a town near the border of Malaysia, a country which had taken in almost 70,000 refugees from Myanmar at the time.

There had been accounts of border officials being bribed to send Myanmarese refugees back, and other refugees being taken into crowded detention centres without food. For Sorn, the stakes were high. And then there was the rain.

After her bus ride, she endured a night of rough terrain and heavy rainfall, nearly drowning in the process. But the next day, she had made it to Malaysia.

Nearly a decade later, the memories of this journey still make her cry. "It was not easy,” she says. She is soft in the way she speaks and cries, but she’s clearly made of something fierce.

Before leaving for Malaysia, Sorn had lived in Mon land with her family. She fondly recalls the owls which would roost peacefully in the trees behind her house, birds friendly enough for she and her sister to play with.

Pakao Sorn and her handmade owls. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

Pakao Sorn and her handmade owls. Photo: Elesa Kurtz

When asked why she decided to leave, she says: "I don't know how to say it, what the word is for it. There was ... violence?"

The violence she speaks of includes sexual violence against women and children. This has allegedly been rampant for years due to flaws in the country’s judicial system and an oppressive military presence.

The military junta was granted immunity from prosecution for crimes against the civilian population under Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution. This means allegations of rape were rarely investigated, and to this day still aren't.

She had to leave.

After her turbulent journey, Pakao Sorn settled in Kuala Lumpur as a refugee with the Mon Women’s Refugee Organisation. It was here that she learned how to sew.

Over time, she watched as her friends were sent away to lead new lives in Canada and the United States. She was the only one in her group going to Australia.

"I was very worried and scared, but excited. I didn't speak much English. I didn't know how to ask questions and how to tell people how scared and worried I was,” Sorn says.

In October 2012, she arrived in Canberra.

She developed her language skills at the Canberra Institute of Technology for the following months and went on to study business administration.

"I went to Lincraft every week to see if they had special prices for sewing machines. I saved my money for months," she says.

She eventually founded Red Owl, her homemade toy business.

Red is the colour of Mon State. "When people from Burma see the red of the owls, they know where I come from," she says.

Due to Sorn's limited language skills and education, it's difficult for her to find work. But after completing a course, she is pleased to say she's found a job working full-time in childcare at the ANU.

In April this year, after gaining Australian citizenship, she returned to Myanmar for the first time in almost a decade. When everyone saw her, they cried. When she tells this story, she cries too.

Sorn was also one of the first "sisters" of Global Sisters, an organisation founded in 2013 which provides free business education to refugee women across Australia.

It runs Sister School, which has nine training modules and is run through community partners.

In Canberra, their current program at the Canberra Institute of Technology has 16 sisters.

Sorn has loved seeing the number of sisters grow over the years, and she loves helping out the new arrivals.

“We all start from zero,” Sorn says.

“I’m not stopping, I’m still going. This is what makes me happy.”