Outside the
comfort zone

UQ graduate finds purpose telling the stories of displaced people in Myanmar

Photo by Kimberley Phillips of Burmese people of varying ages

Image: Kimberley Phillips

Image: Kimberley Phillips

If you’d told a teenage Kimberley Phillips she would become a TV newsreader in her early 20s and then work for the United Nations, one suspects she would have been equal parts startled and intimidated.

“I grew up on the Sunshine Coast,” explained the UQ graduate, now based permanently in the South East Asian nation of Myanmar.

“The Coast is a really nice place, but is kind of homogenous, and at times it feels like there isn’t a great deal of consciousness about what’s happening in the outside world.

Kimberley Phillips uses an unconventional tripod for a photojournalism assignment.

“When I became aware I could study something called International Relations at university, the opportunity to meet different people and see things from different perspectives really appealed to me.

“I’ve always been interested in the stories behind people’s backgrounds.

“I love to talk to real people and learn.”

Kimberley Phillips uses an unconventional tripod for a photojournalism assignment.

Kimberley Phillips uses an unconventional tripod for a photojournalism assignment.

Kimberley Phillips uses an unconventional tripod for a photojournalism assignment.

Phillips interviews the Swedish Human Rights Ambassador.

Phillips interviews the Swedish Human Rights Ambassador for Democratic Voice of Burma.

Phillips interviews the Swedish Human Rights Ambassador for Democratic Voice of Burma.

With that ethos firmly entrenched, Phillips describes it as the “perfect complement” that she was able to combine a Bachelor of Journalism with a Bachelor of International Relations and Affairs.

Phillips, who graduated from UQ in 2015, said her time at university also saw her volunteer as part of the UQ Refugee Tutoring Program, further cultivating a seed which has blossomed in recent years.

“I saw an internship advertised… to work as a reporter for the Democratic Voice of Burma,” Phillips said.

“It seemed like something interesting and out of the ordinary, but I didn’t really think I’d be a chance.

“To my surprise I was selected and it meant I was based in Chang Mai in Thailand and would travel into Myanmar regularly.

“The plan was to be there two or three months, but I ended up reading the nightly news five-days-a-week at the age of 22–23 in what was really my first experience working and learning overseas.”

While Phillips describes her time with Democratic Voice of Burma as “wildly valuable”, it’s since relocating to Myanmar full-time and joining the UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency – that she has found her true calling.

You see, it was during childhood that Phillips witnessed what would be her making as a humanitarian.

In 2001, in quick succession, Australia dealt with both the Tampa affair and the children overboard saga, both involving the plight of refugees trying to enter the nation via maritime routes.

“As a kid back then, the rhetoric really confused me,” said Phillips, currently employed as a public information officer with the UNHCR.

“I didn’t understand the fear-mongering, the vitriol and hostility.

“It was very interesting to me, but also heart-breaking at the same time.

“If there is one moment that piqued my interest (in international affairs), but simultaneously made me feel very frustrated, then that was it.”

As tempting as it is though, Phillips doesn’t see the topics of refugees or geopolitics as black-and-white.

Indeed, she notes the many shades of grey and circumstantial nuances that bolster her resolve to attempt to maintain objectivity.

Instead of fixating on the despair, Phillips finds inspiration in those who have defied the odds.

“I’m very lucky to work alongside incredibly inspiring colleagues,” she said.

“Some of my closest friends grew up in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps.

“Their ability to carve out careers and lives, or to speak five languages, or even to send their children to school… you can’t help but be inspired.

“After everything these people have been through, some are still running community events, selflessly trying to create a sense of solidarity in the face of challenges.

“You really do learn a lot about what people can endure and accomplish with very little.”

Images: Kimberley Phillips

That’s not to say that Phillips is impervious to the pain and fear she encounters on a daily basis.

She has found it particularly difficult to ease concerns for the women and children who find themselves displaced.

“For everyone in a displacement situation, it’s a tough environment, but for women and girls the risks are heightened,” she said.

“The women in these scenarios are already living with immense upheaval, but then there is increased likelihood of gender-based violence and sexual assault.

“They may fall into the hands of people who will prey on them and deliver them to a life of slavery.

“Women may have very restricted access to employment, might not have access to wash facilities and the correct sanitary equipment. It disproportionately affects them.”

Phillips admits it is difficult to relay what it is like to be in life-or-death environments constantly, particularly for those back in Australia who are removed from the heart of the issue.

However, she said she accepts what is happening in Myanmar cannot be front-and-centre of everybody’s minds.

When she returns to the Sunshine Coast to visit, she prefers not to get weighed down by preaching to family and friends, and instead has a simple mindset to follow.

“If you don’t have money to donate to a cause or aren’t in a position where you can travel overseas, you can still help,” Phillips said.

“Something like the Refugee Tutoring Program or reaching out to the new family that has moved into your neighbourhood can put the face to the issue which is so important.

“We really need to see people as people. They’re members of your community.

“Being invited to dinner is something that everybody appreciates.

“It is the younger generation which will craft policy in years to come, so beginning by encouraging your university to offer assistance or scholarships or housing to those from displaced backgrounds is a positive step.

“I guess the key is using whatever platform you have when you can.

“There is this distance between Australia and this abstract idea of civil war and refugees, but you’d be surprised - if you talk to people from different backgrounds - just how quickly you can achieve an appreciation.”

World Refugee Day is observed on 20 June. To find out more and ways you can support, visit Australia for UNHCR at www.unrefugees.org.au

Have you had an experience with refugees that made you more empathetic to their plight?

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