TEN years ago, the uncomfortable glare of national disapproval was on Tamworth.
A plan for the region to offer the humanitarian resettlement of up to five families - refugees from the war, hunger and persecution of their home countries - had been rejected almost 4-1 in a residents’ survey and voted down 6-3 by the council.
In the nation’s newspapers and broadcast media, those councillors and residents – and, by extension, all of Tamworth – were being called racist, ignorant, fearful, scaremongering and misinformed. ‘No’-voting councillors, defending what they claimed was the right decision for their community, inevitably only dug themselves deeper into the pit of criticism. As a Leader letter-writer put it then, Tamworth did “indeed look ugly”.
But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The pendulum had swung so far away from welcoming others in need that some community leaders believe that’s precisely what was required, unfortunately, to create a big swing the other way.
After 2006, groups and individuals already involved in helping immigrants and refugees became more vocal, began to organise and formalise – to provide support for those already here and to make sure there could be no more excuses to turn away others.
By the close of this week, in 2016, there will have been two significant examples of how far the region has come in its ability - and, more poignantly - its willingness to welcome and help refugees and immigrants of all kinds and from all over.
This week, Tamworth Regional Council was asked to vote on another government request to formally accept and assist refugees.
Under the Safe Haven Enterprise Visa scheme, people the federal government deems to be genuine refugees, and who meet health, security, character and identity requirements, are issued five-year visas. They must live in regional NSW and work or study for the majority of that time.
Mayor Col Murray said the the area’s growth meant “we are now well-equipped to welcome refugees to the city”.
“Services such as education, training, employment and counselling are now readily available not just for Safe Haven visa holders but for any new Australian looking to resettle in our region.”
Multicultural Tamworth vice-president Brian Lincoln said Tamworth had come a long way since 2006’s “pretty poor decision”.
“[At the time] I was pleased to see a bit of a groundswell of people saying, ‘Hey, maybe the decision should have been made the other way’. It made people think about the decision and think about the issue - it was in all our faces and in the media.”
Mr Lincoln said the decision this week was “a notable change in the official position from the local council” that reflected what
he was seeing in the community.
“Eddie [Whitham, Multicultural Tamworth’s president] and I get calls every day from people who want to help in some capacity,” he said.
“There are a lot of individuals and a lot of groups doing things unofficially.”
FIESTA LA PEEL
Today Fiesta La Peel will take over Tamworth’s CBD. Organisers say almost 25 different nationalities will be represented, people proudly sharing food, art, craft, culture, language, music, dance and dress.
Mr Whitham, one of the many organisers, said that was just a small part of the cultural diversity in the council region.
“I one day sat down to write down how many nationalities we have here, and I came up to 62 nationalities,” Mr Whitham said.
“These are local people, who have come here to live and contribute.”
The countries to be celebrated at Fiesta La Peel will include Australia, Africa, UK, India, Fiji, Lebanon, Thailand, France, Italy, Sweden, Norway, Philippines, Madagascar, Hungary, Kenya, Nepal, South Korea, Botswana, Indonesia, Laos and Bangladesh.
It’s the third annual Fiesta, and the event has established itself decisively, attracting thousands of people keen to meet and celebrate with the many different people who live in the area.
IN YOUR NEIGHBOURHOOD
Behind every generous cultural offering at the Fiesta, there will be a person with a unique reason for coming to Tamworth.
You might meet a Tamil who fled persecution in Sri Lanka. An Englishman who fell in love with an Aussie girl and followed her here. Someone who won’t even tell you their whole story because they know it will be too much for you to hear – or for them to relive.
One thing Mr Lincoln is sure of: there is more heart and help than ever out there for new arrivals.
“Last year, a lady from Ethiopia arrived in town - no job, nowhere to stay, and she had $1 on her. Within a couple of days, we organised somewhere to stay, got food supplies from Vinnies, and within three weeks she had a roof over her head and a job.”
Charlie He, Nicole Li and son James He, 8, came to Australia simply because they were “tired of big city life” in Beijing, China - immigrants on skilled visas and without the loaded “refugee” label.
Local support networks quickly drafted them into taking part in Fiesta La Peel. Mr He said it was a sign they’d made a great choice.
“We had no friends or relatives here, so everything was totally new… It was very exciting seeing all kinds of different food from different countries, and all the people. For us, because we’d never seen such a multicultural festival before, it was very impacting for us.”
Mr He said he was “very happy and lucky to make the decision to Tamworth”.