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The Last Refuge: Food Stories from Myanmar to Coffs Harbour

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Brigid Veale
Published
21 August 2015
A new documentary highlighting the important role food plays within refugee communities will be a feature of Southern Cross University’s Fusion Festival, with screenings of the film at the Coffs Harbour and Lismore campuses next week.

The documentary titled ‘The Last Refuge: Food Stories from Myanmar to Coffs Harbour’ has been created by Mandy Hughes, an academic and PhD candidate with the University’s School of Arts and Social Sciences.

Ms Hughes, who has a background in media working with the ABC and SBS, produced the film as part of her PhD which is investigating the social and cultural role of food for refugees.

“The documentary is about the social and cultural role of food in settlement for people from refugee backgrounds and it focuses totally on the Myanmar community in Coffs Harbour. It looks at things like, when you arrive what kind of challenges do you face? Things like going shopping, which we take for granted but that’s actually a really challenging thing if you can’t speak English and you can’t find the kind of food you are familiar with,” Ms Hughes said.

“I am also really interested in how food can continue people’s culture and traditions, especially for refugees who fled their homeland with nothing. They have their stories and they have their recipes and their recollection of food, but they don’t necessarily have any material culture with them.

“Coming to a new and unfamiliar country, cooking can be a way to connect to their culture. The other thing I have discovered is there are some really prolific gardeners in the community and they are growing rare Burmese jungle foods and all sorts of herbs and plants that you can’t buy in a supermarket.

“They are sharing seeds and cuttings among the community so they can continue that gardening tradition.”

Ms Hughes said the she hoped the Coffs Harbour and broader community would come and watch the film to learn about the Myanmar community.

“A lot of them are from rural backgrounds, where they are used to subsistence farming. They have come through UNHCR channels and have been officially resettled. Some of these people have spent more than 20 years in refugee camps and their kids have been born in countries such as Thailand and India,” she said.

Ms Hughes said she had shown the documentary to the community and the response had been very positive.

“The most important thing is that the people in the documentary can reconnect with their culture and feel proud about coming from a particular tradition,” she said.

One of the leaders of the Coffs Harbour Myanmar community is Htun Htun Oo, who arrived in Coffs Harbour in 2003. He has since gone on to complete a Bachelor of Nursing degree at SCU and is now working as an intensive care nurse at the Coffs Harbour Health Campus.

He said there were now around 450 people from Myanmar living in the Coffs Harbour community.

“They are quite satisfied with the outcome of the film, they are very happy. Food has its own language, food speaks much more than what we can actually express,” Htun said.

Ms Hughes said Htun had been an integral part of the project.

“Htun acted as a 'cultural broker’ and interpreter for the whole project. It was very much a collaboration between myself and the Myanmar community. Without this immense support from Htun and the community the project would not have happened,” she said.

Ms Hughes said she hoped the documentary would help to identify in gaps in the services provided to the refugee community when they arrived in a new country.

Screenings of ‘The Last Refuge: Food Stories from Myanmar to Coffs Harbour’ will be held at:

Lismore campus, Monday, August 24, 11am, Learning Centre. Coffs Harbour campus, Thursday, August 27, 5pm, D Block theatre.

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