A passport to the world

Having to flee her homeland gave Burmese migrant Sanda Aye a licence to explore the globe.

For Burmese migrant Sanda Aye life has always been a path less travelled.

From working in a fish cannery in Alaska to becoming a fashion consultant for a giant US department store, running a successful international photo library, she has always seized every opportunity and embraced diversity and change.

After fleeing Burma’s brutal military dictatorship in the 1970s, immersing herself in Seattle’s grunge culture and dropping out for a year in Cairns Sanda’s life reads like a travel classic.

Her CV also extends to managing a fashion retail store, working in international sales and event management in the commercial marine industry and running her own business designing computer backpacks made in Victoria.

“I think adaptability and flexibility have been the key to my life. For me travel is joy and I’ve always travelled as much as I can,” Sanda said.

Now semi-retired and living in inner-city Footscray, she volunteers to help newly arrived refugees adapt to their new circumstances.

And, in a circuitous stroke of fate, some of the people she helps also are from Burma.  

“I left Burma in 1978. I lived in Malaysia for a year and then migrated to the US where I lived until 1989,” Sanda said.

In 1978 Burma was ruled by a brutal military government headed by General Ne Win.

Through the 1970s student-led protests against the government were crushed by the military. In one incident in 1974 thousands of students and workers were shot at a textile factory.  

“We left Burma out of political necessity. My parents had fallen into disfavour with the government and the ambassador to Malaysia brokered a deal where my father got a contract to work at a new medical university in Malaysia,” she said.

“He was a Professor of Medicine, an FRCP, specialised in Malariology and they needed someone to head the department of medicine in a new medical school.

“When we got out of Burma we had freedom, it was fantastic,” Sanda said. But like most migrants, Sanda and her family experienced setback and challenges when they left behind all that they had known and loved.   

“When we arrived in Kuala Lumpur because of the Malaysian bureaucratic system, my father was not paid for six months and because my parents could not bring any currency out of Burma except US$ 8 per person, we had no money.

“My mother had worked for oil companies in Burma and through these contacts some friends gave us interest free loans.

“I was just 20-years old and I had just graduated with a BA in English. I had planned to do my masters. “However, the Malaysian authorities decided that I was no longer a dependent of my parents and I was given a one year tourist visa.

“I migrated to the US and went to live in Seattle, Washington,  worked for the first two summers in Alaska – in a canning factory, mopping floors and making beds for the fishermen.

“It was a very strange world but I was paid an obscene amount of money which meant I didn’t have to work in the winters that I spent hanging out in Seattle,” she said.
Eventually, Sanda got into the fashion industry in the US and ended up working for Seattle-based department store giant Nordstrom.

When her father’s contract in Malaysia expired her parents moved to Hong Kong where her father worked in a hospital.

Unable to return to Burma, they applied for political asylum and were accepted for settlement in Brisbane.

“My parents moved to Sydney soon after and settled down there,” Sanda said.

It was on a trip to Sydney for her sister’s wedding that she met her future husband.

“My sister set me up with a French wildlife photographer and we ended up having a long-distance relationship. I would fly across the Pacific for long weekends,” Sanda said.

“Finally it was easier for me to move to Australia because my husband had a business based here,” she said.

She arrived in Sydney in 1989 and worked in a fashion for a time before helping her husband run the flourishing photo library.

Her marriage broke up after seven years and she followed her best friend who later became her husband to Cairns.

“After a year in Cairns, we came to Melbourne and we’ve been here 21 years. Melbourne is the city I have always wanted to live in for its rich culture, music and food scene. And I love the weather – you get sense of the four seasons here," Sanda said.

Recently, Sanda has been volunteering with refugee and migrant settlement agency AMES Australia to support recently arrived refugees. Her ability to speak Burmese means she can make a valuable contribution in helping newly arrived to Australia navigate an unfamiliar society.

“I was looking for something to get involved in and they told me at AMES they needed people who could speak Burmese and English. After my husband passed away in January I jumped at the opportunity,” Sanda said.

“I love volunteering to help people new to this country. I was new here once and I can understand the challenges people have. I am also grateful for the opportunity as work with AMES has given me tremendous form and structure in reconstructing life after my loss,” she said.

Reflecting on the colourful and exciting twists and turns of her life, Sanda said she has no regrets.

“I’ve truly enjoyed every minute of it and I still am. I would not have had it any other way,” she said.

“Growing up in Burma, we had no freedom. The only time we were issued a passport was when we were leaving the country for good.

“But I feel lucky that we did leave - it gave me a passport to the world,” Sanda said.