Saleem Habibullah: Burmese community leader interview

The role of community leaders in Australian multicultural communities is vital. They assist in helping communities come together and share their culture, whilst learning about a life in a different country.  Check out our chat with Saleem Habibullah, a Burmese community leader in Melbourne.

Name: Saleem Habibullah

Community: Burmese

Please tell us about when you moved to Australia:

I left Myanmar/Burma in 1976 and migrated to New Zealand because my father, a foreigner was not allowed to live with us permanently in Burma/Myanmar. Besides we were discriminated due to our racial and religious background so much so that I and my brothers were unable to find proper work or to do any business legally. So we were forced to find a country where we could live as a family unit.

We were finally successful in gaining permanent residency visa to live in New Zealand, based on humanitarian consideration. There was no refugee visas available in those days, at least for the Burmese. Then in 1984, although I liked NZ very much (and still have very fond memories to date), I nevertheless migrated to Melbourne looking for better opportunities, and I have been here ever since. Australia being a bigger country and having a bigger population offered me better opportunities.

In terms of a new migrant’s challenges in a new country, I faced difficulty in NZ since it was my first ever exposure to a western society and life style. Although NZ is now on par with Australia in terms of resources available for migrants, it had not much to offer in terms of practical assistance to new migrants – just like how Australia would have been 40 years ago.

Although it was hard and difficult adapting to a new life in NZ it was on hindsight, a blessing in disguise, as it gave me the impetus to learn things quickly and to not rely on help from others too much.

Having lived for 7 years in NZ put me in good stead when I moved to Australia although I still had to adjust to the differences between the two countries. But I believe I and my family were blessed all along with God’s Grace and finally managed to become quite confident in settling well in Australia with the help of some friends already settled here.

Do you have any stories about your settlement that you would like to share?

I can only relate to my formative years in New Zealand but I would like to think that it would be very similar to other people’s (Australian) stories. The first time we were invited to the house of a white New Zealander (referred to as Pakeha in the Maori language), we were asked if we had tea already so we replied in the affirmative. Little did we know that “tea” refers to dinner and not the beverage!

The other was where I bought clothes for 50 cents per piece and I thought I had found gold because there was nothing one could buy less than $10 for a basic piece in those days. So I bought 2 bags full and lugged them up the hill to our flat. I found out later that no wonder it was dirt cheap because it was a second hand/opportunity shop.

How did you become a translator and what does your role entail?

I lost my job as an IT professional due to the redundancy culture that was quite popular in the early 90s. Due to my age and specialist role I was unable to find another job in the same industry. Whilst looking for a suitable job I discovered that there was a niche in and a demand for language related services.

I decided to sit for the National Authority for Accredited Translators and Interpreters (NAATI) examinations in 1999 and passed both the Interpreters and the Translator’s examinations. It was quite an honour passing the exams because I found out that it was very tough to pass these examinations (still to date) and that I was the only accredited Burmese Interpreter as well as a Burmese Translator in the whole of Victoria until 2008. And as far as I know, I am the only accredited Burmese language translator in the whole of Victoria to date.

I have been working as a Burmese Interpreter and Translator ever since. I work in a wide variety of settings (overseas clients included) which need my language expertise to communicate with their Burmese clients.

What do you think are the barriers to communicating with the Burmese community and how can they be overcome?

The most obvious one is the language barrier and the other one is the cultural differences. Most Burmese now living outside Burma/Myanmar had lived under an oppressive military regime all their lives so they have become quite accustomed to being timid, not being assertive and on the other hand also (due to lack of quality education), are quite lacking in their general knowledge. A lot of them are also dealing with physical and mental health issues so their times are mostly filled with (attending to) medical appointments.

There are no quick and easy ways to overcome these issues but one thing I do find problematic with the average Burmese (from a refugee background) is that they are not accustomed to time management. For instance, if they could be educated properly on using a simple diary to manage their required activities then that would be a great help.

They should be encouraged to use the Telephone Interpreting Services frequently and without any reluctance.

On the other hand, the language providers/agencies should ensure that the interpreters and the translators they employ are qualified practitioners who fully adhere to the AUSIT Code of Ethics. This is because there are a lot of situations where, for instance, the interpreter does not truly have a good command of the language (Burmese, English or sometimes both) or the practitioner intimidates the NESB/CALD or the practitioner not keeping client’s confidential matters. The indifference or the reluctance of the English speaking professionals not giving feedback to the language agency even though they know about these issues also does not help this situation.

What cultural traditions are celebrated within your community in Australia?:

The Burmese community is disparate in terms of race, religion and culture and is not really a monolithic group. The early migrants are mostly English literate and the later arrivals consist of Bamar (the dominant ethnic group in Burma/Myanmar and are usually Buddhists), the Karen (or Kayin) who can be either Buddhists or Christians, the Chin (usually Christians) and lastly the Burmese Muslims who can be of mixed blood. As such the traditions, festivals etc. are celebrated differently. It is not common to see these groups intermixing in the celebration of each other’s festivals or events.

How do you envisage the future of the Burmese community in Australia?

I do not wish to go into the political narrative and I am not being a pessimist but the reality is that the Burmese people as a whole (i.e. consisting the different ethnic and racial groups all over Burma/Myanmar) were unfortunate partly due to being subjected to the divide-and-rule policy of the British colonialists (which is still being exploited by the successive Burmese governments all along) and partly due to the vast number of the different ethnic groups in the make-up of the country – they had never learnt to live peacefully and meaningfully co-exist with each other.

The constant civil war that has existed since the country’s independence in 1948 to date, as well as the assassination of the first modern day leader general Aung San, along with his multi-racial and multi-religion cabinet members in 1947, are a testament to this reality. Ironically, the successive Burmese/Myanmar governments to date have cunningly exploited these weaknesses in the people to keep the population under control while at the same time managed to enrich themselves.

This mistrust and lack of real co-operation between the different ethnic group (and religious groups) have unfortunately being kept alive by default even among the expatriates who have made Australia home. I only see disunity in the Burmese community and do not see one single vibrant and functional Burmese organisation in Victoria that properly serves the Burmese community, event though there exists various groups and organisations.

In such an unfortunate dismal context, I think that the Burmese community will find it very hard to find their place in the Australian society as a successful community any time soon but I pray and hope that they will eventually get there at a much slower pace, after a lot of trials and tribulation, compared to other established community groups.

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