FORMER refugee Anthony Gawlu feared that if he had not escaped from Myanmar he would have been recruited as a child soldier and used as a frontline fighter against his own ethnic people.
Instead, years later, the 31-year-old has just completed his first year of study at the Holy Spirit Seminary, Brisbane.
“Despite all that darkness and struggle and tough times I found my hope which is my God, my saviour, Jesus Christ,” he said.
Mr Gawlu fled his native Kachin State in the northern-most state of Myanmar that borders with China, when he was 17.
He grew up in a large, extended Christian family, uncles and aunts and about 20 children on a small farm.
His father died when he was young and his mother became the family breadwinner.
“It was a happy and a crowded house, and all the children related as if we were biological brothers and sisters,” Mr Gawlu said.
“At home every day we had different duties for everyone and a time for reading the Bible, Rosary and hymns in turn.”
Mr Gawlu was baptised in St Paul Catholic Church, in the Kachin capital, Myitkyina, which means “close to the big river” – the Irrawaddy.
“Every Sunday, I went to the church with my family and I was quite curious about the act of the priest at the altar,” he said.
“I wanted to be an altar boy but I was too small.
“In our country, we give high respect to the priests and nuns.”
Even with his religious upbringing, Mr Gawlu admits faith was “inherited from my family … and I didn’t have any personal relationship with God”.
“According to our culture the first boy is offered to become a priest and the first girl, a nun,” he said.
“My older brother went to the seminary, but he left.
“They always want one family member to serve God, to devote their whole life.
“When I left home, I didn’t have that feeling that it would be me.”
Kachin has long been one of Myanmar’s troubled states.
It is bordered by China to the north and east; Shan State to the south, and government Burmese soldiers have waged war with ethnic Kachin rebels for decades.
While in high school, government soldiers confiscated Mr Gawlu’s small family farm.
“The military put the flag in front of our farm and forced us to leave within a month,” he said.
“The military not only confiscated our land but also the lands of many others.
“Year by year, the civil war became worse.
“The worse things were; Kachin and other ethnic women were raped on purpose and Christians were persecuted by military soldiers.
“The Burmese military collected young children and forced them to become soldiers.”
To escape being recruited, Mr Gawlu, together with his brother and mother, slipped across the border into northern Thailand.
He stayed for six months, and then with his mother’s consent, journeyed alone to Malaysia to register for UNHCR refugee status.
He stayed in Kuala Lumpur for six years, struggling to survive by holding down illegal and poorly paid jobs.
Life was hard – working in a spray-painting shop without any protective gear, forced to work late into the night when other workers had left to go home to their families.
When Mr Gawlu finally got home at night he would read the Bible and pray the Rosary.
“I experienced racism, discrimination and the corruption of Malay police, and lack of safety,” he said.
“All migrant refugees had to work tolerantly without any complaints as we did not have any identifications and human rights in Malaysia.”
He felt alone, and watched other refugees in similar circumstances lose hope – some attempted suicide.
“Their life was such a struggle. They didn’t get a job, they are arrested by police many times, all their hard work trying to save money,” Mr Gawlu said.
‘They applied to the UN (for refugee status) again and again and they didn’t get it.
“And I prayed to God ‘Why is this happening to my people? Give them hope’.
“In that moment, somehow I felt God speaking to me: ‘You have something that I want you to do’,” he recalls hearing.
“I found this a defining moment. I had the courage to go out and attend Mass, even without a UN identity card – because it’s very dangerous to go out without any identification.
“I had a girlfriend and somehow the girlfriend left me and then I met a priest and told him my whole story.
“And he said (to me): ‘Well, God might be calling you to something, so just pray and wait’.
“When I thought about my childhood I was surrounded by priests and nuns, and I always admired what the priest does at the altar.
“And I thought maybe God wants me to join the seminary – but I can’t join the seminary in Malaysia. I have no identity, no educational background.”
Mr Gawlu witnessed the fruits of praying and waiting.
He was granted UNHCR refugee status and given the right to come to Australia.
“The priest wrote me a recommendation letter,” he said.
“In Australia, I went to TAFE and studied, and when I was ready to join a seminary I gave that letter to the parish priest (in Coffs Harbour) who introduced me to the vocational director (of Lismore diocese, in NSW).”
Mr Gawlu was sent first to Vianney College seminary in Wagga Wagga, and later to St Anthony’s Parish, Kingscliff, in northern New South Wales.
“And this year, my bishop sent me to Brisbane, much closer to my diocese, and here I have the privilege to study at uni,” he said.
Mr Gawlu completed his first-year studies at Holy Spirit Seminary and Australian Catholic University this year and is looking forward to starting his second year.