New idea. Up under

A match made in heaven, a ray  of light in disheartening times. A tiny rural town on the border of New South Wales and Queensland, inhabited by mostly grey-haired white people whose children have gone to the city, has taken in three African refugee families, with 16 children among them.

So far, judging from a recent ABC programme, it looks good. So good that the news about Mingoola has spread, and there are now more than 205 African refugee families on a waiting list for other similar towns. In fact, it brought tears to my eyes, the matching of need between this dying community of kindly Aussie old-timers and the newcomers for whom the peace and quiet and seasonal farm work was such a blessing. Such a surprising juxtaposition, so much welcome from the locals who renovated homes for the traumatised newcomers, even asking them if they’d like verandahs and other small modifications. The little school has been re-opened and the place hums with purpose.

Refugees in Mingoola

Local woman Julia Harpham, whose idea it was, said: “You don’t like to see a community die. And there’s not much joy in a place with no children.” When Harpham and the local progress association three years ago started thinking laterally about the town’s migrant past, refugee associations told them the bush wouldn’t work for people who needed city services and support. Then they were hooked up with Sydney refugee advocate Emmanuel Musoni, who works with refugees displaced from Rwanda and neighbouring countries, mostly with rural backgrounds but resettled in cities where employment prospects were few, the environment was intimidating and many became depressed and isolated.

“If you ask them, ‘What was your dream when you applied to come to Australia?’ they say, ‘We hoped we were going to be put in the countryside, to connect with agricultural life and have a garden’.”

Jack Russell terriers Ted and Patch have been at the centre of a humiliating storm for owner Steve Herbert, Minister of Corrections for the state of Victoria, who used his taxpayer-funded chauffeur-driven car several times to ferry the dogs 120km between his Melbourne home and his country house. The minister has been made to apologise for “not meeting community expectations.”

The holiday home is in Trentham, a historical town located on the Great Dividing Range, described by Tourism Victoria as “punching well above its weight in the eating and drinking stakes”. The leader of the Australian Sex party, Fiona Patten, said Herbert should pay back any funds used in these “dodgy doggy misadventures” but should not be fired because “this government doesn’t have the depth in its ranks… to replace an experienced minister like Mr Herbert – talent is a bit thin on the ground right now.”

Meanwhile, West Australian Greens senator Scott Ludlum is being hailed for revealing that he suffers from depression and is taking a leave of absence to deal with it. Labour leader Mark McGowan said it was “brave”, and it has generated many column inches devoted to men, vulnerability and mental health. In Australia, it is estimated that one in six people suffers from depression and one in four deals with anxiety. About 20% of politicians are believed to be on anti-depressants, plagued by marriage breakdown, alcoholism and isolation.

And another kind of hero: NSW has chosen as Australian of the Year Deng Adut, once a child soldier in Sudan, snatched from his mother at six, and who underwent unspeakable cruelties. A refugee to Australia, As a teenager Adut taught himself to read and write when he got here in 1998. Today, a lawyer and community leader helping refugees in western Sydney, and a role model for many, when delivering the keynote address on Australia Day, he had this to say on racism: “I’ve spent so much time fighting war, why should I fight the rubbish that comes out of people’s mouths that has no meaning to me? I don’t want to be involved with another conflict. My conflict is over.”

In a biting column in the New York Times, Sydneysider Lisa Pryor bemoans the preciousness of her “perfect little inner-city neighbourhood”, once home to working class people; now a place where a restaurant serves produce from farmers known to the chef, “local and authentic”, just the same as likely to be found in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or Shoreditch in London. [Or Cape Town? – Ed.] “Those urban villages, once diverse melting pots, became shiny, wealthy and inward-looking… I don’t want to live in the kind of city where we endeavour to know our grains and our meat, but not our fellow-citizens. Culture is more than expensive and refined tastes in wine and food.”

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