Bold rural experiment gives hope to dying towns

Australian Story

By Greg Hassall

Updated

November 07, 2016 07:53:57

Video: The social experiment to repopulate Mingoola has been labelled a win-win scenario

(ABC News)
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And there’s not much joy in a place with no children.”
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Mingoola, with a population of about 150, straddles the border of Queensland and New South Wales. (ABC News: Kristine Taylor)
State member for Lismore Thomas George said both communities were behind the project.”What I have observed every time I speak to Emmanuel is the respect that he has for Julia and vice versa.”You’ve got a good team and a great community behind them, and that has enabled this program to be a success — both communities have accepted each other with open arms.”For some locals, however, the speed of change has been unnerving and there are concerns about the capacity of the area to take so many new arrivals.”This isn’t a prosperous area,” Mingoola Progress Association chairman Bob South said.”All our kids have had to go away and work; they haven’t found work here.”And I think the biggest fear we had was we would be introducing the [African] people into a poverty trap.”It isn’t racism to actually be concerned for the welfare of these people.”We don’t want to bring people into a lower standard than we would accept for ourselves.”Ms Harpham acknowledged there had to be a limit to the community’s generosity.”I keep saying, ‘please stop telling people about Mingoola,'” she said.”The brutal truth is we have four houses and we couldn’t sustain more than four families anyway in our small community — it’s just not really possible.”

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Mingoola farmers say the new residents bring a permanent seasonal workforce to help pick crops. 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. (ABC News: Kristine Taylor)
Since then a third family has come to the area from Adelaide, bringing the number of new arrivals to 29.Local farmers have been employing the adults to do ongoing seasonal farming work that was previously done by backpackers, an increasingly unreliable source of labour.Isaac Icimpaye and his wife, Renata Ntihabose, were among the first to move and they have been very happy with their new home.”What I like about Mingoola is that my children will grow with the same culture as we used to have back home,” Mr Icimpaye said.”In the city I used to just sit doing nothing but in Mingoola I grow vegetable and beans.”‘Poverty trap’ concerns

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Julia Harpham says Mingoola only has enough homes for one more refugee family, despite a waiting list of more than 100. 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. Photo:
Emmanuel Musoni with a few of the newest children of Mingoola. (ABC News)
Refugees yearn for spaceMeanwhile in Sydney, refugee advocate Emmanuel Musoni was grappling with problems in his community from central Africa. (ABC News: Kristine Taylor)
Generous community welcomes newest residentsAmong 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 told Australian Story.”But I’ve been stunned by the generosity of our community. So we feel so thankful to their efforts and their help.” External Link:

The Mingoola experiment shortform
Moving to MingoolaMr 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. Key points:Three African refugee families have moved to rural border communityNew residents have brought regular seasonal workforce for Mingoola farmersMore than 205 African refugee families on waiting list
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. Because they weren’t happy in the city.”

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Jonathon Kanani, his wife Fainess Kabura, Isaac Icimpaye and his wife Renata Ntihabose were the first two African refugee families to move to Mingoola. Photo:
The arrival of six primary school-aged children allowed Mingoola’s school to reopen. 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. 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,'” Ms Harpham told Australian Story.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.”It was just like the death knell of our community,” Ms Harpham said. A radical grassroots resettlement plan has transformed an ageing rural community, bringing together two groups with very different problems. Our priority is, are they happy? Video: Mingoola locals say a lack of regular work and an ageing population meant the community was facing a bleak future. (ABC News: Kristine Taylor)
Rural towns look to Mingoola modelFor 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. (ABC News: Kristine Taylor)
A meeting of mindsMr Musoni made this point at a meeting last year with senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, then assistant minister for multicultural affairs — a meeting that made a lasting impression on one of the senator’s advisers, Isobel Brown.”I’m a migrant myself,” British-born Ms Brown said.”A good settlement journey is your future and a key part of the settlement journey is being secure and safe, gaining employment and getting on with life.”If we’re going to bring people to Australia, we deserve to give them a future.”Around this time Ms Harpham had contacted local federal member Barnaby Joyce about her desire to settle refugees in the area.Mr Joyce’s office knew of Ms Brown’s interest in resettlement and asked her if she could help the residents of Mingoola.Ms Brown put Mr Musoni and Ms Harpham in contact late last year and from there things moved quickly.