Love Thy New Neighbour
By GJ Maher
We thought farmers were struggling until we met Mustafa and his wife and the other refugees who arrived in our town. Life on an Aussie farm during a prolonged drought was unbearable. With the children no longer at home, we were on our own. Not enough food for the animals, internal parasites, flystrike, lice, footrot, a continual decline in the marketplace of wool and lamb prices to the point where nobody talks of Australia being able to ‘ride on the sheep’s back’ anymore. For us, and many others, life was one gigantic headache. Families all over the country were being torn apart.
At night when my hubby George got up to have a wee, I’d wake and be worried that he might not return from the bathroom, might wander off in the middle of the night like his best mate did, and take his life. When he climbed back into bed, I’d snuggle up closer than normal. I didn’t want to lose him.
Then an innovative approach by our government to the handling of refugees brought us all together, the hundred or so who still made up our town and district. Like many towns, we weren’t too keen at first on this new direction, but we welcomed all one hundred of them, yeah the same population as our town, put ’em up in the pub that’d been closed for five years.
Dozens of families took a couple or a family and that was it. The idea was for the refugees to do a year’s work in a rural community assisting farmers, and then after doing their time so to speak, could integrate into mainstream Australia. It worked a dream, perhaps the best approach Australia could possibly have chosen. Our tiny town with less than a hundred people was really struggling before they came.
City folk think that their suburbs are on the decline when shops continually close and businesses shut up shop. Here, not only was half the main street no longer trading, passers-by were no longer stopping. The take-aways were derelict, timber facades broken, weeds growing through cracks in footpaths. I’m sure the few tourists who came thought it best to keep driving.
Then our newcomers arrived. There’d been such a general lack of empathy for these unfortunate folk, who through no fault of their own had to flee their homeland, sometimes enduring months or even years of absolute hardship. It had been five years since Mustafa and his wife Yasmin left Afghanistan due to the war. We learned that billions of dollars had been injected by the west but the situation was still deteriorating. After the fall of the Taliban government in 2002, things looked better for a while. People were planning to further their education but peace was not a reality. Education and prosperity were an elusive dream.
In 2010, the year Mustafa and Yasmin began their journey to freedom, more people than ever fled the country. Some went to Pakistan, others to England. More than half the one hundred who came to our town were Afghanis, as well as Iranians, Syrians and Sri Lankans. It was a real mix, like a rainbow of colour dropped on our township.
I find it hard to explain how dramatically our lives have changed in the past six months. Our town has been transformed. Every building has had a coat of paint. Both take-aways are now open and trading in the most wonderful foods imaginable. Soccer has had a revival, with weird team names like Brave Reds and The Mamnoons. The Town Hall which for decades had been used only once a year for the annual dance, is now almost never closed. It houses a monthly indoor market where we all get together. Old folk, the young, the newcomers and even people from the outer districts come to sell all sorts of items, things they make, food they cook, local produce. Every Friday night the hall is used to show some of the most unusual and interesting films ever made. On Wednesday afternoons a communal meal is served and each ethnic group takes it in turns to cook. It’s astonishing what gets produced in the simplest of country kitchens. On Saturdays the place comes alive with vibrant music.
We’re all learning so much, we from them and them from us. It’s getting to the point though that it won’t be them and us for much longer. What we have here is real integration. Dozens of them have become farm-hands and things are really looking up. They learn so fast. They become so involved. I reckon that at the end of the year a lot of them will stay on. It’s absolutely superb what’s happened here and there’s just so much love and appreciation. Congratulations to whoever had this wonderful idea.