Two seconds. The blink of an eye. A sip of tea. The length of time it takes for another person to be forcibly driven from their home.
A staggering 70.8 million people worldwide are currently displaced, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This is the highest total since World War II. And more than half are children.
Curtin business graduate Vesna Samreth knows what it’s like to be a child refugee.
Her family were forced to flee their home in Cambodia during Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge-led genocide in the late 1970s.
Escaping to Thailand, the family lived in a refugee camp for more than five years.
Samreth was three months old when her family received the remarkable news they were headed to a new home in Western Australia.
“My first memories are of living in the Swanbourne army barracks near Cottesloe beach,” she remembers.
“Everything was new and strange and my parents thought the food was terrible!”
The family of eight was eventually provided with state housing, in Kensington, Perth.
Samreth is grateful to the community who welcomed her displaced family.
“I don’t take anything for granted,” she says. “I know I was very lucky to be among the one per cent of refugees resettled in a third country.”
As a child, she was viscerally aware of her refugee status.
“My sisters and I were the only Asian kids in our primary school, born in another country, that could speak another language,” she recalls.
“We stood out like sore thumbs. But that made us try hard to fit in and excel at sports and be ‘Australian’ very fast.
“I couldn’t speak English on my first day of Year 1, but by Year 2, I was fluent.”
Keen to find work in their new home, Samreth’s parents mastered the English language, spending every spare hour studying and listening to audio tapes.
Inspired by her hard-working, entrepreneurial mother, she enrolled in a business course at Curtin.
“I really enjoyed the diverse environment at Curtin and learning and studying with people from all over the world,” she says.
“It really prepared me for my current career overseas.”
Uniting passion with purpose
Since graduating from Curtin with a Bachelor of Commerce, the management and marketing grad has worked in multiple marketing roles interstate and overseas. But it is her role today for the UNHCR that she describes as a ‘dream job’ – a perfect blend of her digital skills and humanitarian drive.
“I’m the Associate Officer (Digital) for the UNHCR regional office in Bangkok,” Samreth smiles.
“It’s been incredible to work in the country I was born in – and with the organisation that helped my family.”
As a UNHCR officer, Samreth travels globally, collaborating with international colleagues, but also confronting the harrowing refugee reality her own family faced.
In 2018, she travelled to Lebanon to meet with a Syrian refugee family.
“I went with the Middle East Regional team,” she says. “We met a family of two parents and five children aged between two and twelve, and the grandma all living in one room.
“It was very cold and they had no heating. The children had no school to go to or toys to play with.
“They just had each other. It was all too real. You don’t choose to be in that situation, unless it’s life or death.”
Samreth learned that the family survived on just $3 per person per day but most of the money went to the grandmother’s treatment for cancer.
“It was very hard for me not to cry,” she says. “My mother, my hero, passed away in Perth from cancer last year. I can’t imagine how we would have coped if my mum had got cancer in the conditions this family was living in.”
It was Samreth’s mother who saved to take her six children to visit Cambodia and Thailand when the humanitarian worker was eighteen.
“It was my mum’s dream to take us all to visit our grandfather before he passed,” she recalls. “It was an amazing experience travelling all over the country with my family and seeing the village that my mum grew up in. I even saw the tiny dirt hut where my older siblings were born.”
But it was not until she returned to Cambodia as an Australian Youth Ambassador in 2012 that Samreth discovered the extent of the struggles her family had faced.
“Growing up, I never heard about the conflict we fled in Cambodia – it was too traumatic for my parents and brothers to speak about,” she says.
“But working in Cambodia, I learned more about how my parents and brothers escaped.
“I finally understood what a traumatic time it was for them and their fears about me going to live and work in a country they fled from.”
This life-changing experience inspired the Curtin grad to pursue work in the humanitarian field.
Samreth initially worked for ‘Australia for UNHCR’ in Sydney before relocating to Thailand. The Australian not-for-profit raises awareness and funds to support UNHCR’s global emergency response to refugee and humanitarian crises.
“I had an amazing time working in the Australian office on huge campaigns for a cause that I truly believed in – empowering and protecting refugees,” she recalls with pride.
“No one wants to leave their home. It’s simply about wanting to survive – and live.”
June 20 is World Refugee Day. Find out how you can support refugee families like Samreth’s at unrefugees.org.au.
Name: Vesna Samreth
Role: Associate Officer (Digital) at UNHCR, Bangkok
Studied: Bachelor of Commerce (Management and Marketing)