Pakao's petite stature and quiet demeanour belie the incredible struggles she has faced and challenges she has overcome to reach Australia and build a new life in the nation's capital. Now, with the help of her new friends, her business - built around her traditional handicraft skills - is thriving.
"My name is Pakao and I am a Mon woman from Burma. The Mon people have lived for centuries in the area of present day Burma and Thailand, and have suffered oppression from the Burmese regime, with many refugees fleeing to Thailand and Malaysia.
"In 2009 I left my on my own from home and family and fled to Malaysia. I made the often very dangerous and frightening journey on foot with two Mon men. At one time I fell down a steep slope into neck deep water, which meant that all that I owned, the clothes on my back, were soaking wet – which is how I arrived in Malaysia.
"When I arrived in Malaysia the Mon Women Refugee Organisation (MWRO) helped me. Through them I started to learn English and skills. I had very little education, as I started school in Burma at 6 years of age and left when I was 12 years of age. I knew no English so had to start at my A, B, C. When I was little in Burma, someone had given me something with A, B, C written on it and now here I was again learning my A, B, C.
"I had also never learnt to sew. My mother sold vegetables in a small shop in Burma, and I spent most of my time helping her or working at home, as many Mon women don’t feel safe to leave their homes in Burma.
"At MWRO I met my best friend Thanda. I was very shy and frightened to talk to anyone. When they spoke English to me, I would not understand what they were saying and what to say back, so I would run away. Thanda told me not to be shy and to learn English, and also gave me the courage to start to work and learn new skills. Thanda is now living in Canada.
"With Thanda I started working with an MWRO project to give Mon women an income, a safe place to work and fair wages. The project is called Kaoprise and makes soap and massage oil. Kaoprise is a winter blossom that women in Burma harvest once a year. For Mon women, the Kaoprise flower is a symbol of livelihood, harmony and collaboration.
"When I first started working, I worked very hard. I started at 6am making soap, then at 12pm went to the shop to sell clothes where I finished at 9pm. I barely had time to eat and was very skinny and unhealthy. In 2010, I started working full-time with MWRO. In 2012 I was recognised by Kaoprise and MWRO for my hard work with Kaoprise for making soap and for being a leader to empower other women from Burma.
"I had found that many women would come to me asking for help, even though I might not have the best English. I worked hard to call, speak to and encourage other Mon women to become involved with Kaoprise, as it is so important to work to be financially independent and work somewhere that is safe and treats you well. I also told them how important it is to learn skills so when you find your new home in Australia, Canada or somewhere else, you can have skills to work and learn.
"Being a leader in your community is hard and needs much patience, but I did this because I wanted other Mon women like me to have a better life.
"In Malaysia I also worked hard to start learning English, including with the UNHCR, and other skills such as crisis intervention skills training with the International Catholic Migration Commission. The Catholic churches in Malaysia were very good to the Mon women. We sold our soap and sewing products, which sold very well, and they would also feed us lunch, as they knew many of us weren’t able to eat properly.
"On 10 October 2012, I arrived Australia. I came by plane to Sydney and then to Canberra. I am studying at CIT and already have my Certificate II in spoken and written English, and certificate for skills for education and employment. I am also just starting to learn to drive.
"I miss my mother, father, young bother and sister very much. When I first arrived in Australia I cried every night as I missed them so much. I still cry sometimes, but tell myself I have to be strong for them.
"Companion House has been very good to me. When I went there I saw that there were many people like me, who were in a place they didn’t know and on their own. All these different people and groups work together to help and teach each other. When I was a refugee in Malaysia, I had training at an organisation called Tanma, which means strong – women from Burma together we are strong. It was women from all different groups in Burma working together, and I see that now in Canberra – women and people from all different groups and countries helping each other.
"I am very excited to be a part of Global Sisters. I am making the soap as I learnt to with MWRO, and passing on the traditions of Mon women. This will give me the chance to be an independent woman in Australia."