Hard work and humour
After fleeing Burma’s draconian military government and finding refuge in Australia, migrant Hector De Santos has paid back his new homeland in spades
Nobody can tell 72-year-old Burmese migrant Hector De Santos that he hasn’t made the best of it.
In 1962, the Burmese military completed a coup and took over the ineffective post-colonial democracy, bringing an isolationist style of Burmese nationalism and making Buddhism the state religion.
Under the Burmese path to Socialism, the army set about forming a Burmese identity, exclusive of religious and ethnic minorities in the country.
For Hector and his family, it meant discrimination and the risk of poverty.
“They nationalised the economy and did a very bad job, so jobs were already hard to find,” Hector said.
“My father was Portuguese and my mother was half-English, half-Indian,” he said
“We didn’t have a chance. In Australia it is different to Burma because it is equal and you can go outside, not looking around, not feeling in danger.
“Here you see a policeman sometimes, but he is your friend. In Burma, he will try maybe to take your money, and where in Australia will you see an army man? In the city, an army man? No,” Hector said.
As part of a marginalised minority in a failing authoritarian system, Hector and his future wife, Wendy, had to assess their options.
Hector could claim Portuguese citizenship, but was advised he would be conscripted upon arrival and sent to fight in Angola.
Having met Australians through his involvement in the church, they instead aimed to move to Australia where the White Australia Policy was still in place.
“They didn’t want to know your qualification, or your experience, just where your father was from,” Hector recalled.
With the Burmese government censoring letters, the pair used a friend at the British embassy to smuggle their applications out.
“The British embassy was our only real postal service,” Hector said.
“After a long time, they told us I could come, and then once I was in Australia my fiancée would be able to come,” he said.
“I told them ‘no’, we must come together or I will not come.”
Out of options and with pressure building, in 1966 they obtained a one-year travel visa and left for Thailand.
However, the Burmese government’s isolationist policies meant they could not take with them any currency or objects of value.
“All we could bring was my wife’s wedding ring, on her hand, and one of her necklaces, which I wore,” Hector said
Thai officials granted them refuge, at a price.
“In Thailand anything can happen by paying bribes. We didn’t have enough money, so we got ours as a loan, to be paid back within one year,” Hector said.
“We were lucky to find work on a US Navy base, so it was okay. If we hadn’t found work it would have been very hard,” he said
“We had a culture shock on the base. In Burma, the English were very arrogant, you had to say yes sir, no sir, always sir.
“The Americans were so relaxed, they did not care at all. They liked Burmese people, it was the first time being Burmese had actually helped me! This prepared me for Australians,” Hector said, suppressing an infectious laugh.
For three years the young couple worked in Thailand, welcoming the arrival of their daughter Brenda and renewing their application to Australia.
“Once we had shown we could get ourselves out of Burma, and that we could make money, it was easier,” Hector said.
Arriving in Australia, in 1969, the young De Santos family were greeted by parish monsignor Kevin Toomey, who they had met previously through their faith and who played a crucial role in their applications.
Mons. Toomey arranged for Hector to work driving tractors. He also offered him a car to use. Hector refused, opting instead for a bike like he’d ridden to work back home in Burma.
“The people were very kind to us when we arrived here. Even though the government still believed in the White Australia Policy, the people were not thinking like this,” Hector said.
“Wherever you go, you can see the government is not the people,” he said.
“When I was in Russia I met some young people and they asked me ‘What do you think of Russia?’ And I told them that I was a little scared to go but everyone had been very kind to me. They thanked me and said those things are from the government, not the people. It is the same in Burma, I think, and it was the same in Australia then.”
Settling himself in Australia, Hector moved industry to work full-time in a food processing plant. A year later, he began to work part-time in restaurants during the evenings as well.
Eventually, he added the role of wedding photographer during weekends.
“With my background, I could never become an executive, but I could almost make executive money by working 2, 3, 4 jobs,” Hector said.
“Was it hard? Not really, you just become very used to it. It was a lot though, we didn’t sleep very much during that time,” he said.
“In Australia, especially then, there was so much work, if you wanted to work you could. So, I did.”
Hector sent Brenda and his son, Ian, born in 1972, to private schools, from which both have continued on to university. But in 2014, with both children living independently, Hector acknowledged his wife’s poor health and retired.
“I didn’t know what to do for a while,” he said.
After Wendy died, Hector was forced to reach out for the community.
“It’s only recently, through working with AMES, that I’ve met up with some Burmese fellas,” he said.
“It’s hard, not to forget for so long. I have to learn how to speak Burmese again… I forgot because I didn’t speak it for 45 years.
“I teach English now. And I go to meet with Burmese refugees, to tell them about the free English lessons they can get.
“But sometimes they don’t want to, they tell me ‘no, we just want to settle’, after everything they’ve been through.
“They don’t want to go to a class, so I say that’s fair enough, and just try to teach them some basics and get them down to the shops or whatever.
“It’s better to work, to contribute.
“I help out with Friends of Frog Hollow. We plant the native trees around here, which gives the native birds somewhere to be, brings them back to the area,” Hector said.
Having retired from his three jobs to care for his wife and with his two children grown up and out of the home, Hector found himself at a loss after Wendy died.
“I thought, ‘what could I do’?” he said.
“I decided to go backpacking. I thought to myself, I didn’t have the opportunity when I was young, so now I will do it while I’m old.
“Last year I went for six months, and then again for three. This year I will go again. This way I have met many, many friends.
“I love to travel. We always used to go with a Tarago van, go up the coast somewhere.
“In Burma, people cannot move around freely like this.
“I’ll go again soon, see more of the world. I want to go back to Asia, back to Burma,” he said.
As you enter Hector’s house, you are greeted by a large white map of Australia tiled into the floor of the hallway.
“Yeah, I made that myself,” he grins, “Australia welcomed me, now I welcome people to Australia every day.”