Every weekday Dah Htoo Ukay wakes up around 8am, after just three hours sleep.

She gets her four younger siblings ready for school, drops them off, then returns home for another few hours shut-eye before preparing dinner and heading off for another 12-hour shift at Tegel.

The 26-year-old is now the primary caregiver for her younger siblings, a housekeeper and the household's sole earner, following the death of her parents six months ago.

On July 16 last year, west Auckland couple Kay Dah Ukay and Mu Thu Pa died after being swept off the rocks while fishing at Muriwai.


Kay Dah, 48, was washed several hundred metres down the coast to Māori Bay. Mu Thu Pa, 50, grabbed a fishing rod and reached out to her husband, before she too was swept away into the raging sea.

Their three youngest children were with them at the time - 13-year-old Tha Dah Paw Ukay tried to reach a fishing rod out to Mu Thu Pa when she fell.

The nine children of the couple, who were former refugees from Burma, were left orphans.

Dah Htoo lives at the family home with her older sister and her four younger siblings.

She works a 12-hour shift in the Tegel factory, from 4pm to 4am during the week.

Since becoming the primary carer, her schedule is incredibly fragmented. She sleeps where she can, in between caring for her siblings and working - responsibilities she's still getting used to juggling.

Her older sister Cha Nu, 29, helps with the younger kids but has a learning disability and does not speak English - and therefore needs some help herself.

Her three eldest brothers live with their partners or wives around west Auckland.

The Ukay Family at Muriwai Beach to bless Kay Dah Ukay, 48, and his wife Mu Thu Pa in July. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The Ukay Family at Muriwai Beach to bless Kay Dah Ukay, 48, and his wife Mu Thu Pa in July. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Speaking to the Herald on Sunday, Dah Htoo described the change as "hard".

"I try to do the best I can do," she said.

Her youngest brother, Po The Dah, just turned 8.

"For his birthday I bought a cake - he likes Spiderman so when I bought the cake I asked the baker to put Spiderman on the top, and his name."

After cake and celebrations, the family went to their local wave pool, Dah Htoo said.

The celebrations were a welcome distraction for Po, who was at the beach with her parents when they were washed away.

He still sometimes cried at night, Dah Htoo said, woken up by dreams of his parents.

"He'll yell out for mum and dad, calling their names."

The day her parents died, Dah Htoo saw them briefly in the morning before they headed off fishing, and then called them when she woke up for work.

Her father's car was being repaired, so he had taken hers out to the beach. She needed it to get to work, so she began calling her father an hour or two before her 4pm shift.

Family of the drowning victims Kay Dah Ukay, 48, and his wife Mu Thu Pa, 50, gather at Muriwai beach. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Family of the drowning victims Kay Dah Ukay, 48, and his wife Mu Thu Pa, 50, gather at Muriwai beach. Photo / Brett Phibbs

He didn't pick up.

"I called many, many times … after a while I thought maybe they are not coming, maybe they're still fishing.

"So I walked - for 45 minutes," Dah said.

She hadn't been at work for long when the police turned up.

"I was in shock, and my hands were getting cold," she said. "And when I spoke to them and asked, 'Where are my parents?', they were already gone."

Moving forward, Dah Htoo's focus is keeping the family together.

Around $27,000 raised through a Givealittle page set up by the boss of her older brothers went towards funeral costs, a family lawyer and then into a fund for the dependant children.

Some money had also gone towards a headstone - which the siblings would unveil on the one-year anniversary of their parent's death.

Thankfully, the family had a handful of people providing support. They had a contact from within the local Burmese community group, and were also being supported by a woman from Dah Htoo's work.

The Umma Trust, a group that helped to provide for refugee families, was helping with food. A local JP and family friend was involved - going as far as to host several of Dah Htoo's siblings for Christmas.

Over the Christmas period Dah Htoo travelled back to Burma, to take part in a farewell ceremony for her parents.

For now there were school lunches to organise, but Dah Htoo had a very different future in mind - she hoped her fiance Aung Myint Tha would soon come over from Burma to join her.

They talked often over Facebook Messenger, and Dah Htoo had seen him most recently when she travelled to Myanmar for Christmas and New Year.

The pair had been together for about two years, since meeting in her parent's village, and the eventual plan was for Aung Myint Tha to move to New Zealand.

"But for now I have to look after my brothers, until they grow up, also my older sister," Dah Htoo said.