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Mildura – inland Australia’s multicultural marvel

5 June 20150 comments
Former Mayor of Mildura, Peter Byrne

Former Mayor of Mildura, Peter Byrne

As a former Mayor of Mildura and country lawyer of 50 years standing Peter Byrne has a wealth of stories in his repertoire and a rare talent for telling them.

One story he relishes relating to anyone who will listen underlines his passion for the remarkable transformation that has seen his town become the most culturally diverse regional city in Australia.

“We had a multicultural day down on the river last year,” Peter recalled.

“I gave a speech to the assembled masses there and I said ‘if you really want to make someone’s day, go up to a person who is a newcomer to Australia and say ‘hello’ and smile’,” he said.

“When I finished speaking I wandered around and I realised I wasn’t taking my own advice and was walking around looking rather glum.

“So, I went up to an African woman with three kids aged about ten, six and four; and introduced myself to her. We had a conversation with her daughter interpreting as she couldn’t speak much English.

“She thanked me for my kind words in the speech I had given and I asked her where she was from.

“Her daughter explained the question to the woman, and received her mother’s response.

“The little girl then turned to me and said in a broad Australian accent: “Mum says to tell you we are from South Mildura’,” Peter said.

“I had been working with refugees for some time but that’s when it really hit me that the woman and her family now considered Mildura their home; they had settled here and they felt they belonged here.

“I never found out where she was from in Africa but I didn’t need to. I felt what she said spoke volumes,” he said.

Peter is chairman of the Sunraysia Mallee Ethnic Communities’ Council (SMECC) and this week he and his staff literally and figuratively threw open the doors of their new facility with a colourful open day that included Greek, Congolese and Burundian dancers, as well as performers and food from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and the Solomon Islands.

SMECC Executive Officer Dean Wickham says the organisation moved to the new facility after outgrowing its old home.

“The site will provide more space for gatherings like Saturdays. We are excited about the new capacity the facility will give us,” Dean said.

With sixty-six different ethnic communities, Mildura has quietly become Australia’s most multicultural regional city.

Founded by American irrigators and populated by successive waves of Greeks, Italians, Turks and Croatians before and just after WWII, Mildura has always been a melting pot.

But more recently refugees from Africa, Afghanistan, Burma and the Middle East have made the sundrenched city on the Murray their home.

“If you want to be hard headed about the value of the settlement of new migrants and refugees here, you could say that it brought millions of extra dollars to the town’s economy,” Peter said.

“But I think that the real value is in the fact that it has made Mildura a more interesting place to live.

“I was born here in Mildura and when I was growing up the biggest divisions were religious – between Catholics and Protestants. Now, those divisions are all gone thank goodness,” he said.

Peter says the acceptance of diversity has become a key characteristic of the Mildura community.

“We’ve got people from 66 different countries living in Sunraysia now,” he said.

“We’re settling refugees every week or so, other people by way of internal migration are coming to join other community members here and slowly but surely we are becoming a real multicultural melting pot and the rival of much larger cosmopolitan cities.

“It’s palpably obvious to us at SMECC. Diversity has made for stronger community; it has made for a more caring community; and, it has made for a culturally richer community,” he said.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Senior Journalist