Come hell or high water, Su Meh comes to work as a senior farmhand at Illawarra urban farm Green Connect.
She’s the smiling face on many of the social enterprise’s marketing assets, and the busy hands that have sown, grown, harvested and packed the farm’s produce are often hers.
In fact, as the higher-ups will tell you, it’s a battle to get Su Meh to take time off – she has an unshakeable work ethic and profound gratitude that stems from a childhood most people in Australia cannot fathom.
Su Meh’s earliest memories are of the refugee camp on the Thailand border where she was born and raised after her parents fled conflict in Myanmar.
“Growing up in a refugee camp is not a happy life,” she says.
“You’re always in the camp, you never get to leave, you only know the camp. It’s like a jail.”
She came to Australia in 2007 with her young daughter.
“I was 23, and it was a new life. We started from zero,” she says.
“I had no education, I didn’t speak any English. I didn’t know how I could get a job.”
Fortunately Green Connect, which employs former refugees and disadvantaged youths at its sustainable urban farm, took her on as a casual supported staff member before promoting her to permanent senior farmhand.
Green Connect has about 15 managers and coordinators, 86 casual supported staff, four permanent senior farmhands and about 100 volunteers.
The farm doesn’t break even on the sale of its fresh, organic produce at farmers’ markets and online, and the enterprise relies on a multi-pronged approach to ensure its continued operations, including its op shops, which have diverted tonnes of waste from landfill.
Like all community services, COVID, extreme weather and the rising cost of living have created a perfect storm for Green Connect, reducing its production and capacity while increasing demand for its services.
Green Connect’s new general manager Robert Servine, who owned his own organic farm in the US where he ran a program to employ homeless youths, says volunteer numbers have tapered off, too. Overall, it “has been a tough few years”.
“Right now I would say we’re about 80 per cent self-funded and 20 per cent dependent on grants and other funding,” he says.
“Grants are not as readily available, though, and there’s more competition for them.”
The organisation is constantly pivoting to incorporate new revenue-raising initiatives, such as its recent sold-out “school holiday farm play days”, farm tours, gardening and landscaping services, and zero-waste consultancy.
And fortunately, employees such as Su Meh are fiercely dedicated and determined to ensure its success.
For Su Meh, the job was the gift that kept on giving – the chance to upskill, learn English and meet other people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
Though her former refugee camp is another world away, the values she learned there remain close to her heart.
In addition to her now-18-year-old daughter who, like her, was born in the refugee camp, Su Meh now has two pre-teen children – a son and a daughter. It is her dearest wish that they understand the fortune of their lives compared with the reality of her past.
This is why, heavily laden with donations, she recently returned to her former refugee camp with her two youngest in tow.
“They were born here. They have only known a happy life,” she says.
“I want them to understand what’s happening to people in the refugee camps – how they’re living, what they eat, how they sleep, how they’re doing.
“My children saw this and said, ‘This is a terrible life. Thank you for bringing us to Australia’.”
Back on the Green Connect farms, it might not be humanly possible for Su Meh to be any more dedicated to the cause, but her resolve is stronger than ever.
“Here we all come from different countries, different cultures, some from Africa, some from Burma and other places. We only speak English to each other, to learn the language. We become friends. I love it, we’re helping each other,” she says.
“We have to build this business, make it bigger and bigger, create more jobs for people like me.”
If you’re keen to volunteer at Green Connect on the farm, op shops or elsewhere, if you’d like more information about its landscaping, gardening, zero-waste or other services, or if you’re after some of the freshest organic produce serving a good cause in the Illawarra, visit Green Connect.