Opportunities for old and new Australians to mesh are not as common as they should be. We should look no further than Mildura for an example of how things can be.
I think I have told you this before: the best ideas leave you a little ashamed when you hear about them, wondering why you hadn’t thought of them yourself. But it needs a lateral mind and a clear head to see what is right in front of you, and courage, decency and often community to act on it afterwards. Which is exactly what happened in Mildura some time ago. Then a few things came together, as they sometimes do. There were African farmers looking for a farm. Australian community members with vacant land who didn’t mind donating some. Volunteers, like the local food movement Sunraysia Local Food Future and Food Next Door, willing to sit down and talk, and two ambitious academics with heart, who brought all of them together. It led to the Sunraysia Burundian Garden, the quintessential example of a win-win proposition.
In 2016 the first crop of maize came off the land, proudly shared between its Burundian growers and their Australian hosts. Instead of feeling rootless and depressed, the men and women who had worked the land knew they had achieved something important. The local people were happy too; they had seen their soil and water used by people who knew what they were doing, even if some didn’t speak a lot of English yet. Connections were made, and now the second crop has been sown, to be harvested in February. After Mildura, Nowra will be next. And who knows what will follow after that?
Mildura has always been the refuge of newcomers to Australia. After WWII it was Italians, Croatians, Greeks, Cypriots and Macedonians who made the trek to the Victorian city. Most of them were farmers. They bought land and introduced their adopted country to the best grapes, citrus, asparagus and almonds it had ever tasted. Later, they were accompanied by growers from Vietnam, the Pacific Islands and Afghanistan. And in the last ten years or so it was Africans who came, from Burundi in particular. All of these people had fled war-torn countries, sharing stories of violence and loss. But more than that, they were itching to make something of themselves, show Australia that they were not victims but survivors – they wanted to belong, grow roots and settle.
The one-acre Burundian garden was its pilot project and it was a great success. There is two-way learning going on, the foundation of any true multicultural society.
Joel Sindayigaya (57) is one of those people. When the war broke out in his native Burundi he was 41, a husband, father of six, and the proud owner of 22 acres of maize, bananas, beans, pineapples and rice. He and his wife worked the land for food, but also because that is what they were: farmers – people who live with the soil, and the rain, and the community who helped them grow their crop. It was, to use that horrible word, their identity. Then they had to flee to stay alive, and they did. But even in the refugee camp in Tanzania, Joel kept growing things. On a much smaller scale, but still, growing. So that is what he planned to do when the UNHCR told him his family was about to be sent to Australia. It was 2004 and he landed in Sydney, a big city that made him feel out of place, and out of sorts. He didn’t speak the language, there was nothing to do and no land to put any seed in. He started wandering, finally settling in Mildura, where the pace was slower and the values closer to his own. He and his wife picked fruit and grew some food in their backyard, but his yearning was for something bigger. He was a farmer without a farm.
Joel started learning English at TAFE and became a leader of his community. Then he met Natascha Klocker and Olivia Dun, human geographers from the University of Wollongong and the University of Melbourne. They were doing research into what they called the “migration of horticultural knowledge”. Soon they realised that there were missed opportunities here. On the one hand, there were people like Joel, who had agricultural skills that were not being used. They were sitting at home, growing depressed, unfit and isolated. Across town, there were farmers who had vacant land after the federal government had paid them to walk away from using it during the millennium droughts. After extensive conversations with all stakeholders and volunteers, it was decided to launch the project called Food Next Door. It brings together farmers with not only land, but also with people willing and able to donate tools, compost, worm castings, equipment, machinery, money and time. The one-acre Burundian garden was its pilot project and, with some bureaucratic and other teething problems, it was a great success. Now, after a year, 17 people work there, men and women, with women taking the lead. They feel connected, with each other and the wider Mildura community. They’ve got a chance to eat food from home again and show the Australians its joys too. In short, there is two-way learning going on, the foundation of any true multicultural society.
People like Joel had managed to add to their community and become respected. John felt at home, for the first time, and wondered what he could add. Now he studies social work at the Mildura campus of La Trobe. He wants to help the Burundians gain a visible place in Mildura, based on what they can do instead of what they can’t.
It has also saved people like John Niyera (29). He fled Burundi with his sister when he was very young, leaving his parents and other siblings behind. The two children were in a Tanzanian refugee camp for eight years until they were sent to Australia. They landed in Wollongong, where John went to school and dreamt of becoming a lawyer. After all his family had gone through, he wanted to become the “game changer”, the person to make it all right again. But Australia turned out to be a bigger challenge than he had bargained for. There were language problems, but most of all he couldn’t find the right way to connect with others. In the refugee camp he had never felt like a refugee, but here he did. The biggest issue was that tone…like he was a small child, a victim, somebody to feel sorry for. It made him angry, and because there was nothing he could do about it, that anger grew. He started to drink and stress out, and finally he dropped out of university. He moved to Newcastle, closer to members of his community, and that helped, for a while. He married, had twins, tried to fit in. But he felt more and more isolated. He was a man, but everybody treated him like a baby. He was cooed at, not taken seriously.
Mildura changed all that. He came here looking for a bit of peace and some breathing space for himself and his family. What he saw was an eye-opener. People like Joel had managed to find a way to belong, to add to their community and become respected. John felt at home, for the first time, and wondered what he could add. Now he studies social work at the Mildura campus of La Trobe University. It is the job his mother did back home. He wants to use his life experience to give back – devise a way to do counselling for his own community, who will never be helped by sitting in a room talking to a stranger. He is also curious about white Australia. He wonders: if people knew about the hardships refugees have experienced, would they be more satisfied with their own lives? But more than anything else he wants to be a bridge, a uniting force. He wants to help the Burundians gain a visible place in Mildura, based on what they can do instead of what they can’t. The pride of that first crop went a long way towards that goal.
There is, as John says and Joel acknowledges, “no emptiness anymore”. Now they know why they are here. There is a reason, a purpose. They have found their feet.