Sometimes it can feel like all we hear is bad news, especially when it comes to stories of those fleeing war and persecution around the world. It is often heartbreaking and overwhelming; leaving many of us feeling powerless to help. So this week, Refugee Week, it has been particularly refreshing to see so many wonderful stories of generosity and hope come from communities on the Border.
In Refugee Week, we're inevitably inundated with the horrifying facts and figures: almost 70 million people around the world forced to flee their homes, and growing. 25 million refugees seeking safety and shelter, 52 per cent of them children. As the CEO of Save the Children Australia, I've seen firsthand some of the worst situations you could imagine and despaired at the future of the world.
But on the Border, communities have rightly been celebrated for the role they're playing in supporting refugees and rebuilding lives. Not surprisingly, while the debate about the global refugee crisis in Canberra has largely been toxic and seemingly unsolvable, people in regional areas are getting on with the job - helping refugees and reaping the benefits.
For World Refugee Day on Wednesday, Innocent Rutebeza told The Border Mail of the support he received from The Murray Valley Sanctuary Refugee Group and his plans to become a teacher in Wodonga. His story is not unique. Indeed, the Murray Valley Sanctuary Refugee Group has helped many refugees integrate into the region including Atosha Birongo. The Wodonga Secondary College student has been selected to represent Victoria on the Unicef Australia Young Ambassador Council. Her experience as a refugee has fuelled her desire to speak about child rights and advocate for young people.
There are many other refugees thriving in regional Australia, where their arrival has revitalised communities, kept schools open and shops in business. This was exactly the case in the tiny town of Mingoola, on the border of New South Wales and Queensland; the population was in decline, enrolments at the primary school were dwindling and local famers couldn’t find labourers. The community welcomed three families of refugees displaced by the civil war in Rwanda and neighbouring countries which saved the school from imminent closure. Just last month small business owners in Walla Walla put the call out: they are looking for refugees to move to town.
Here at Save the Children, we think Australians are overwhelmingly generous and community minded. We believe the current community sponsorship program could be improved and expanded.
The new approach, based on a model which already exists in Canada, involves individuals or groups pulling together the funds and resources needed to support a refugee family to settle in their own community. This would usually involve raising funds to cover flights, settlement expenses and accommodation. But more than just cash, it means emotional support for the refugee family, to show them how we live in Australia, and to help them find their feet.
Refugee families want some pretty basic things: a safe place to call home, a community around them, somewhere their kids can go to school and get a good job. For many refugees, they have found that in Australia through the generosity and community spirit of Australians in rural and regional towns.
So this refugee week, I am hoping Australia can learn a thing or two from people in Albury-Wodonga and regional towns all over the Border. Helping out refugees doesn’t have to be a hardship - it can be a rewarding experience for everyone involved which delivers great economic, social and cultural benefits to the community in the long term.
By Paul Ronalds, CEO Save the Children Australia
This opinion piece first appeared in The Border Mail