“I’ve never seen the beach before. I would like to learn how to swim.” 

On a gloomy Wednesday morning, Htoo* and 14 others are on their third day of a week-long course which aims to introduce them to life in Australia before they resettle. 

Although his parents originate from Myanmar’s Kayin State, Htoo has spent his whole life in Mae La – a temporary shelter in north-western Thailand which hosts over 34,000 refugees. 

He holds up a photo card with the phrase ‘freedom of religion’, sharing that, in Australia, he and his family would be free to practice their faith. Other participants go through different concepts featured on their cards: friends hugging in public is acceptable, urinating in public is forbidden, refusing to shake someone’s hand can be considered impolite and so on. 

He is part of the 1,000th class delivered by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for Australia-bound humanitarian program visa holders residing in Thailand, and participants are feeling the magnitude of the occasion while juggling mixed emotions. Excitement, fear, hope. 

Usually delivered over five days, the course covers a wide range of topics and addresses specific knowledge gaps amongst different populations. Photo: IOM/Miko Alazas

Established in 2003 and now in its 20th year, IOM’s Australian Cultural Orientation Programme (AUSCO) has reached over 125,000 individuals through classes in 16 permanent and over 60 mobile locations across the globe. 

“The programme’s objective is to equip participants with information and tools to adapt with more ease culturally, socially and economically in their new communities,” explains Constanze Voelkel-Hutchison, AUSCO Global Coordinator. 

Course content includes travel to Australia, education, employment, health, housing, law and services, among others, and is tailored to meet the specific needs of participants, considering age, gender, literacy and education levels. 

IOM’s dedicated trainers are at the heart of the programme. Mingkhwan, who has been working with AUSCO for 17 years, speaks to the group about differences between Karen and Australian culture. In Karen culture, for example, crossing one’s arms may be viewed as a sign of respect. In Australia, it might be considered impolite, depending also on the accompanying expressions that could be linked to someone wishing to demonstrate their authority, anger or disappointment, she explains.

“It is our hope, that by the end of the course, participants feel optimistic and more prepared to thrive in their new home country,” adds Constanze.

Participants narrate their daily life in Mae La, reflecting on how things might be different in Australia. Photo: IOM/Miko Alazas

Recently, beneficiaries of the milestone class were pleased to put their newfound skills to the test when welcoming a special guest: The Hon. Andrew Giles MP, Australian Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs. 

They introduced themselves in English, greeted the Minister and each shook his hand. “This type of interaction shows confidence and respect,” described one participant. 

One group presented the product of an exercise the day before, called ‘Sunrise to Sunset’. After explaining what daily life is like for them in Mae La, they plotted out what they assume it would look like in their new homes, with trainers providing insights to ensure that expectations are realistic. 

After presenting certificates to the participants and receiving tokens of appreciation – drawings symbolizing their vision of life in Australia – Minister Giles conveyed his support: “I am incredibly proud that we will soon be welcoming you with open arms. I do not want you to feel nervous or anxious. This class is providing you with good preparation to start your new lives.” 

Participants received warm words of encouragement from Minister Giles. Photo: IOM/Miko Alazas

As the rain starts to trickle down, the participants share some final reflections before wrapping up the day. 

“In these classes, I am learning important steps that will help me adapt. I know it will be difficult, but I need to try hard,” says one elderly participant. 

Htoo is optimistic about his future. “I hope to improve my English, go to school, make friends and get used to a new environment.” 

In a few weeks’ time, each of them will be boarding a plane for the first time, hoping to integrate into a community they can call their own. 

Excitement, fear, hope. They leave the classroom once again with these mixed emotions – but all determined to make the most of what would be a new beginning. 


*Name changed 

Story written by Miko Alazas, IOM Thailand’s Media and Communications Officer