At 5am, as Gei Lin Thang Kinta wipes down the counter in the silent Bright Brewery, it can seem a long way to Mindat, a small village in Myanmar’s Chin state, where grew up.
He’s working seven days a week, building a rapidly expanding cleaning and gardening business in the evergreen holiday town of Bright, but for every countertop wiped and garden mowed, a major swathe of revenue flows away from Gei Lin, to his impoverished home town.
The town has now joined Gei Lin’s fundraising efforts, with more than $20,000 so far donated to build a school room and water pipeline to help the 2000-3000 people who now live near his former home town.
“It has been great to see how generous the businesses and people of Bright have been to support people in Mindat,” Gei Lin said.
“I’m invited every month or so to visit local groups and tell my story – as well as provide updates, so we can show where the money is going.
“Clients such as Bright Brewery have been really supportive, as well as people across town.
“People in Mindat used to have to walk 10 kilometres or more every day to get water and even then the water quality was not good, but with the money we have raised, we have been able to build a 7 kilometre water pipeline, really improving lives in the village.
“We can show where the money goes because people from Bright have come over to Mindat to help build it. I would love Mindat and Bright to be sister towns one day.”
Bright became an overnight city in the 1860s when miners swept into the Ovens Valley, pillaging the local waterways in the scramble for gold, but a century and a half later, Gei Lin is an exemplar of a new breed of pioneer sweeping into rural Victoria.
Arriving in Bright in 2010 with no money and a $500 car, the Myanmar refugee found none of his own countrymen, but instead a new home community.
Andy Sparkes, a Porepunkah local who had visited Gei Lin in a Malaysian hospital years earlier, loaned his ageing mower and whipper snipper to Gei Lin – who promptly visited older people across town to help them with their gardens for free, in between his new cleaning jobs.
The locals insisted Gei Lin start to accept payment and after Andy helped navigate a bureaucratic labyrinth to establish the new business, Gei Lin’s gardening and cleaning service was established.
Eight years on, the $500 car has long since died and Gei Lin has two vehicles, a broad range of equipment and clients across town.
Working hard is never a problem for Gei Lin. He escaped a vicious civil war in his late teens by fleeing Myanmar, walking without food or water for three days before finding refuge in the Malaysian jungle.
The infectious grin on Gei Lin Thang Kinta’s face disappears momentarily when he tries to recall how long it took to recover the use of his legs after almost dying of starvation in the Malaysian jungle.
“About three years,” he said.
“We had been hiding in the forest for four months after fleeing Burma, but we almost starved to death, trying to avoid being captured by the Malaysian authorities.
“In Malaysia, I went to jail with many others. There was no food unless you could pay for it and we had no money.
“When the UNHCR visited they said I had to go to hospital, as I had lost the use of my legs. They said in another few days I would have died.”
Gei Lin was reunited with his wife and child when he was accepted into Australia as a refugee in 2008 and in 2010, moved out of Melbourne to Bright, where he has found a new home.
“After I have been through quite a lot, I just want to be useful. I don’t want a lot of money for myself. I want to use this opportunity to help more people,” Gei Lin said.
“I love Bright, it really feels like my home now. People raise their hands to wave when I go down the street and they want to stop to talk but I am usually in such a hurry going to the next job I just have to wave.”
With a small school room in place, water piped in, and a plan to provide work for local young people growing crops around Mindat, Gei Lin’s next goal is to raise $90,000 to build a new school that could serve the local area, as well as living quarters so that more Australians can visit and volunteer if they wish.
Bright businesses and community members have already rallied to start supporting the cause, building a stronger future in another beautiful rural community half a world away.
“We have just had our fifth child and I said to my wife, because she doesn’t see me so much, she deserves a holiday, should we go away?
“She said no, she didn’t want to go away, because every day feels like a holiday to her. I will keep trying to help people in Mindat, but we will always have our home here.”
For more information about the Mindat Project visit www.facebook.com/mindatproject
Donations to the project can be made to the Bright Branch of Bendigo Bank
Account Number: 163 680 267