A radical grassroots resettlement plan has transformed an ageing rural community, bringing together two groups with very different problems. In the tiny township of Mingoola, on the border of New South Wales and Queensland, local woman Julia Harpham was grappling with a common problem in rural communities.
The population was in decline, enrolments at the local primary school were down and farmers could not find labourers to help with manual work. Her town was dying before her eyes.
“Many of us have children who work in the city and aren’t going to come back to the farm because things have been so tough on the land,” Ms Harpham said. “You don’t like to see a community die. And there’s not much joy in a place with no children.”
Three years ago the local progress association decided to take a leaf from the region’s migrant past and looked for refugees willing to move to the area.
But when they began contacting refugee agencies they were told there would not be adequate support for refugees in the bush. “Every time I contacted any kind of refugee service they all said, ‘oh, no, these people need to stay in the city,'”At the end of last year matters became more urgent, with the announcement Mingoola Primary School would close if there were no enrolments in the new year.
Refugees yearn for space
Meanwhile in Sydney, refugee advocate Emmanuel Musoni was grappling with problems in his community from central Africa. They had been displaced from Rwanda and neighbouring countries during years of bitter civil war.
The majority had rural backgrounds before having to flee their homes for refugee camps.
“If you ask them, ‘What was your dream when you applied to come to Australia and boarded the plane,’ they say, ‘We hoped we were going to be put in the countryside, to connect ourselves with agricultural life and have a garden’,” Mr Musoni said.
Instead they were resettled in cities where employment prospects were few, the environment was intimidating and many became depressed and isolated.
Moving to Mingoola
Mr Musoni led a small delegation from his community to Mingoola early this year to meet locals and see whether resettlement was viable.
On his return he put out a call for families willing to make the move; within a week he had a waiting list of 50.
He chose two families from Wollongong with 16 children between them. Six of the children were of primary school age, which would allow Mingoola Primary School to remain open.
Meanwhile, the community began renovating several abandoned houses in the area to accommodate the families, who moved to Mingoola in April.
Among the families who have settled there has been a great sense of gratitude.
“The people of Mingoola are good people, friendly people, lovely people,” refugee Jonathon Kanani said. “I don’t know how to say about the things that they do for us; I can’t describe that.”
Ms Harpham said she was being realistic about the situation. “We know that nothing is ever perfect,” she said. “But I’ve been stunned by the generosity of our community. Our priority is, are they happy? Because they weren’t happy in the city.”
For those involved in this social experiment, the hope is that its success can be replicated elsewhere to help other struggling rural communities. Mr Musoni now has 205 families on his database wanting to move out of the cities and politicians have been watching the Mingoola project with interest.
“I’ve had no hesitation in telling the Mingoola story, trying to encourage other people to look at the same program,” Mr George said.
Mr Musoni said the support so far had been encouraging.
“Julia and her community have shown it’s possible that regional communities can be welcoming to people from Africa,” he said. “They have broken the ice that was existing for us to get into the regional areas. So we feel so thankful to their efforts and their help.”