Phillip Kyaw is known as the friendly face behind the counter at Mingalar Asian Grocery, but before he opened up his shop in Wagga he lived a life of poverty, hardship, and a determined struggle for survival.
Born in Burma (now called Myanmar) during a time of persecution and political upheaval, Mr Kyaw's family had their livelihoods destroyed when the military regime took over the country.
The economy fell into ruins and Mr Kyaw's family found it impossible to find work to survive, and so they joined the swathes of refugees who fled to Thailand in search of a job.
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In Thailand, Mr Kyaw worked as a child labourer from the age of 13, mixing cement, laying bricks, and doing backbreaking work in order to help his family survive.
Whenever he wasn't toiling on construction sites he was teaching himself how to speak and read in Thai and Burmese, since his family could never afford to send him to school.
He remained motivated by a glimmer of hope that his family would one day be granted refugee status, and that wish was granted in 1997 when the United Nations approved their application to come to Australia.
"I was happy. My whole family was happy because I heard life was much better there, you can easily get a job, you can go to school, you can have a good life," Mr Kyaw said.
He came to Sydney, where he spent his days working various jobs and his nights with his nose buried in English textbooks to improve his language skills.
He also spent many hours working to improve his stutter, a speech impediment he had battled with since he was a young child growing up in Thailand.
He lived this way for several years until one day a niece found a job in Wagga, and after driving her down he liked the place so much that he decided to settle permanently.
For the first five years he worked at the Teys meat factory before he opened Mingalar in 2012, which was the only Asian grocer in town at the time.
It has since become somewhat of a cultural hub in Wagga not just for Asians, but for immigrants from all over the world.
Mr Kyaw said he considers himself a bit of an intermediary, and that he sees it as his mission to bring people together into the Wagga community and make them feel more at home.
Mr Kyaw helps various people around the community, and he always has some words of wisdom for people who come to his shop in need of life advice.
"When you're doing business in any community you need to be part of it. You can't just come into the community and only have interest in your own benefit and not care what's going on around you," Mr Kyaw said.
"In the future I'm planning to strive more, try to improve, try to expand. I want to create jobs here as well. I think that kind of thing I can give back to my community and I can support some charity that might need it."
Today he happily lives in Wagga with his wife Tilar Chua, two step-children, and one child. His mother and her brother moved to Wagga from Sydney one year ago.
His friend Lat Aung, who is also from Burma, said Mr Kyaw's success story was a source of inspiration for other refugees who were born into unfortunate circumstances.
"Phil's a good person who's really working hard, and that's why he has his own business. Everyone who works hard can get something out of life, that's what I believe. He's proof of that," Mr Aung said.
"Burmese people work hard. We have a lot of persecution in Burma and there's no opportunity to work, so once we get the chance we don't say no, because we want to work. That's the heart of Burmese people."
Mr Aung and Mr Kyaw work together to organise pro-democracy rallies around Wagga, where they protest the military junta terrorising their countrymen.
Mr Kyaw's shop is plastered with posters in support of Aung Sung Suki, and he is currently raising money for protestors on the ground, many of whom have been cut off from their source of livelihood.
Nabiha Koriaty, who runs a Lebanese restaurant in the alleyway next to his shop, said Mr Kyaw had a burning passion to help refugees, persecuted minorities, and other people in need.
"He's a nice person. He likes doing good things. Sometimes strangers come in, they don't know where to go. He helps them," Mrs Koriaty said.
"It's not about money. You know what? Love of money is worse than corona. It kills more people than corona, and there's no vaccine for it."
Ms Koriaty and her friends hold birthday parties for Mr Kyaw in the restaurant, saying it was their way of being a surrogate family to him.
Another one of his regular customers is Wagga Multicultural Council's Belinda Crain, who visits the shop with members of the multicultural community.
She said Mr Kyaw always went the extra mile to fulfill his customers' requests, going to great lengths to track down exotic foods from their childhoods in order to ease their home sickness.
Ms Crain also works alongside Mr Kyaw to organiser pro-democracy rallies in Wagga in a bid to get more Australians to support their Burmese neighbours.
Ms Crain said she admires his strong social conscience and his strong drive to advocate for minorities, both abroad and in Australia.
"He's a nice bloke, he's very active and motivated, he's got a social conscious, and he's very helpful," she said. "He's a valued member within the community."
Looking back on his 12 years running the shop, Mr Kyaw said it had been a steep learning curve, but one that has taught him many valuable experiences.
During his time behind the counter he has been able to meet people from all around the world and has heard many fascinating stories.
Mr Kyaw said he was glad to have the opportunity to meet so many people, having come a long way from the shy, stuttering boy he was in his youth.
"You've got to love what you do first so you don't get bored and you don't give up or stop. I enjoy doing this business because it gives me opportunity to learn, learn what products are, what part of the world they come from, what kind of food different people like," Mr Kyaw said.
"I like to meet people. If I have a shop there will be customers coming in and talking to me, so it's easier for me to talk to them. I love what I do."
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