INNER CITY SYDNEY WOMEN’S TRANSITIONAL AND POST-RELEASE SERVICE
Leah was born in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime. Her parents were placed into forced labour camps and often feared for their lives. After Leah was born they sought asylum and spent 10 months in a refugee camp in Thailand before settling in Australia in south-west Sydney. Leah describes her childhood as emotionless, with no celebrations. Emphasis was placed on education from an early age and play was deemed unnecessary.
Throughout her childhood, Leah felt no meaningful connection with her mother. She doesn’t recall ever being told she was loved or having any sense of care expressed through physical contact. Instead, love was expressed through providing for the family. Leah saw stark contrasts between her family life and others, and yearned for what they had. She came to the conclusion that her parents did not love her.
Leah was not allowed to speak English at home and was told she was Chinese and Australian. She was confused by this and struggled to form a sense of identity. She was made to attend Chinese school each Saturday and was not allowed to have contact with friends outside of school hours, which led to increasing social isolation.
As the eldest girl in her family, Leah felt immense pressure to succeed academically and was told ‘your life is over if you don’t go to university’. Her mother chose all of her high-school subjects, leaving Leah unable to pursue any of her own interests.
This time saw the emergence of a heroin epidemic in the area in which she lived, and Leah’s school friends began regularly smoking the drug. Leah became intrigued and began experimenting with heroin at age 15. She recalls it only taking three to four days for her to become dependent and she used regularly for three months. Craving attention from her parents, Leah continued to act up in order to get a reaction. Her parents sent her back to Cambodia to cease her drug use and she lived there for six months. While there, she was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a number of men over a period of days.
Finding it difficult to cope with flashbacks when she returned to Sydney, Leah began using heroin again to numb her pain. She tried to engage with a sexual-assault counselling service, but her readiness to engage was questioned and she didn’t return. She began using heroin intravenously, which quickly lead to her contracting Hepatitis C.
Between the ages of 16 and 18, Leah began selling drugs in order to support her addiction. She was remanded into custody at age 18 for selling heroin and a series of custodial sentences followed, ranging from three to six months for similar drug-related offences. It was during one of these sentences that Leah was targeted by other inmates. She never reported the incident due to fear of reprisals.
On release, Leah lived with her parents and was soon employed, doing fieldwork and recruiting people with lived experience of intravenous drug use to take part in various research programs for a major university. Employment provided Leah with a sense of normalcy for nearly two years until an attempt to assist her sister in attaining drugs saw her sentenced again.
During her last period of incarceration, Leah experienced what she describes as a spiritual experience and consciousness change that allowed her to view situations differently. Meditation assisted Leah in reducing negative self-talk and she now feels a greater sense of calm. “Before I didn’t know who I was and now I do,” she says. “We identify ourselves with our profession, money and social status, but without those in prison I had to look deeper.” She credits meditation for increasing her concentration levels, focus, assertiveness, confidence and self-esteem. Feeling positive, she was referred to CRC’s Women’s Transition Program and began working with CRC three months prior to release.
With CRC’s help, Leah was offered supported housing before being provided with long-term accommodation through Housing NSW. Leah credits CRC for the ongoing support, motivation and positive reinforcement she has received. “I’d tried many times before to stop using drugs. It’s so important to have a service like CRC to motivate and remind you and assist you in taking the necessary steps to achieve that goal. I would never have been able to accomplish what I have without having my own place.”
Soon after her release, Leah fell pregnant and gave birth to a baby girl. Her daughter is now two and a half years old, and Leah says motherhood has changed her life dramatically. “I felt unwanted and unloved all my life and I don’t want my daughter to experience that,” she says. “It’s made me find the motivation to work harder than I ever have before”.
Leah is excited about the future, which she hopes involves further education and employment, in order to better provide for her daughter in the future. “I want to use my experience to help people,” she says. “I would like to give other women hope, because when you’re in it there’s no way out. To think where I am now, sometimes I have to pinch myself.”