Netball shapes many lives – the competitive spirit, teamwork and discipline bring out the best in players, whatever level they’re at.
But few netball players have a back story as powerful as the former Karen refugees who’ve become well-known netballers in the Bendigo region.
The six Karen girls, Haykler Pwe Wah, Paw Eh Thout Kya, Paw Bleh Htoo, Tazin Noo, Tee Sa Paw and Hser Mu La Paw, have an inspiring story to tell. The girls have endured more hardship than any of their opponents or team-mates could imagine.
And, through netball, they have found a passion.
Karen refugees come from camps on the border area between Burma and Thailand. They began settling in the Bendigo area, in north central Victoria, in 2007.
The girls arrived in 2009. They spoke little or no English, and had hardly been to school, let alone played netball or any other competitive sport.
But, far from their birthplace, in a regional city of just over 100,000, the girls have found a passion for netball – and netball has a passion for them.
According to Pam Ferrari, Northern Region Manager for Netball Victoria, the girls started at absolute grassroots, starting with the very basics of the game.
“We run a multicultural day – it’s for schools with children born in another country or parents who are from another country. We encourage the children to try netball and football.
“The Karen girls embraced netball straight away and went on to play in the local netball competition, Golden City.”
The girls had a tough start. They lost their first game by around 90 goals.
But, by the end of the next season, they had won their grade.
The girls continued playing through their primary school years and now play while they are studying at Bendigo’s Weerona College.
Shawn McCormick, Head of Sport at Weerona College, said the girls are fantastic ambassadors for their chosen sport.
“They are all passionate about netball.
“They also have a fantastic work ethic and diligence.
“Netball has been a major vehicle in helping them integrate into teams and competitions in netball and in broader society.”
One of the girls, Paw Eh Thout Kya, said netball helped her learn English.
“The first year was really hard for us because our English was really bad but netball helped us. We learnt how to speak English through the opposing players.”
Hser La Paw said the game also helped with her confidence.
“Netball is about working as a team, so that really developed my team work and leadership skills. I also learnt how to be confident and trust other people.”
The girls’ enthusiasm doesn’t end at participation – they also coach younger participants at a Come and Try program run by One Netball.
“One of the clinics we had them helping out with the younger ones and they were sensational,” Mr McCormick says.
“The passion and joy the girls have displayed when doing the programs has ensured the events are successful.”
Pam Ferrari said the girls were involved in the program from start to finish.
“The rapport these girls had with the kids was sensational. Their ability to communicate with the children was amazing. They were able to get the One Netball message of inclusiveness across to everyone.
“They had as much fun as the kids did.”
The girls’ dreams for the future are big but they say it will definitely include netball.
“If I have the option to play netball in the future, I would love to,” said Paw Eh Thout Kya.
The girls now play in a team called the Dreamstars.
Stars, they really are. The Karen girls of Bendigo have been as good for netball as netball has been good for them.