Research into migrant experiences is relevant to all in COVID-19 isolation

There’s still plenty of the journalist left in Shane Worrell – now a sociology tutor and researcher at the Bendigo Campus.

When we asked him about his PhD on transnational communication, submitted earlier this year, he says, “I have something of a hook.” Okay, we’re listening…

“My thesis is about intimacy of video calling when face-to-face interaction is not possible for humanitarian migrants. I’m now noticing many people are experiencing this in a new way with the social distancing requirements.”

Shane’s research has led him to coin the phrase “digital brokering”, which is something we’re all now doing, as our social, learning and working lives are forced online.

But imagine being a refugee needing to maintain emotional, social and cultural connections to family dispersed around the world. That’s been the challenge of Bendigo’s growing Karen community; a persecuted minority from the Thai/Burma border welcomed into this Central Victorian city.

“My research focused on how Karen in Bendigo keep in touch with family around the world,” Shane says. “A main finding was that younger people, especially women aged 19-23, play a crucial role in their parents learning how to navigate smartphones, video calling and social media.

“In the same way that younger migrants often help their parents learn the dominant language, these children were teaching their parents to engage in meaningful communication with family in other countries. I compared this to language brokering, calling it digital brokering.”

Shane interviewed more than 30 Karen people who had family members in places such as Thailand, Burma and the US. “Those using video calls were finding it was helping them feel like they were ‘there’ with their relatives,” he says. “Seeing someone’s face made it easier for the conversation to flow; it might not have been as forced as it was on the telephone.

“There was also something about seeing someone’s surrounds that was reassuring and important; it was part of knowing about ‘their world’. When you think about it, if someone you know moves to another country, they become transnational, but really, you also become transnational. ‘Their world’ is important to you, because knowledge of it helps you understand who they are and perhaps, also how they are.”

Volunteering highlights human rights abuses

Shane first got to know Karen people in Bendigo ten years ago, when he volunteered as an English tutor. “Through this, I learned more about Karen culture and history,” he says. “I also got something of a glimpse into the everyday lives of people settling in Australia after years in a refugee camp.”

At the time, Shane was working as a journalist at the Bendigo Advertiser, before moving to Cambodia to follow his passion for exposing human rights abuses.

“Many of the stories I wrote in Cambodia centred on forced land evictions – poor people forced off their land by the government, usually violently and without adequate compensation.

“My experiences there made me think a lot about displacement and forced migration. The experiences of Karen in Bendigo and evictees in Cambodia are very different, but ultimately, their stories are about being forced out of your home.”

Shane’s work in Cambodia won him a Human Rights Press Award in 2015. As well as land evictions he also covered the dire working conditions in garment factories and high-profile trials of activists.

“Like in the case of this research, many of those stories involved young women taking on huge responsibilities – working in stifling conditions, protesting against the government, even going to prison – to help their families have a better life,” he says.

During Shane’s time in Phnom Penh, smartphones and apps were transforming how he communicated with family and friends back home. “When I came back to Australia, I began thinking about how these two areas of study might be combined – migration and transnational communication. Eventually, that led me back to the Karen community and to this research.”

Shane could never have imagined the wider significance his four-year research project has now taken on as people around the world use technology to communicate while they isolate.

“For people who have never experienced forced separation from people or significant restriction of movement, this is a challenging time. Video calling is helping people keep in touch, not to mention work from home.

“From my own casual observations of this so far, some people are already viewing the video call and the type of interaction it can offer in a much different way – suddenly as something essential, simply because they are not able to visit the person they are speaking to.

“It won’t come as a surprise to too many people, I’m sure, that video calling offers a much different experience to a voice call. Being able to see someone – their face, their house, even what personal items they have sitting near them – makes for a richer interaction.”

Shane has been a casual tutor at the Bendigo Campus since 2016, but his association with the university began much earlier.

He studied a Bachelor of Arts at La Trobe in Bendigo after high school, then a Graduate Diploma of Education and worked as a school teacher for a short time. Shane then returned to La Trobe, in Bundoora, to study a Graduate Diploma of Journalism.

His work has been published in The Economist, the Nikkei Asian Review, The Diplomat, The Edge Review (Malaysia), the Bendigo Advertiser and elsewhere. In Cambodia he was Managing Editor of the Phnom Penh Post.

He says there are aspects of journalism that continue to serve him well as an academic. “The two interact in terms of skills: researching, writing and storytelling,” he says, adding compared to a news article however, a thesis is more than a marathon.

“I’m happy – and very grateful – to be able to make a small contribution to wider knowledge of the experiences of Karen people who live in Bendigo.”

Photo: Shane with a colleague outside Cambodia’s Royal Palace in 2012. Buddhist monks were gathered during a mourning period for King Father Norodom Sihanouk.

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