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Citizenship ceremony plants new roots for a refugee community

15 October 20140 comments

On Citizenship Day this year 35 people became Australian citizens in a low key but emotion-charged ceremony in the Memorial Community Centre at Nhill, in western Victoria.

Thirty-three of the 35 were Karen refugees from Burma and the event was the denouement of an astonishing story that started in the cramped and oppressive refugee camps on the Thai border and has led to the sweeping, flat paddocks of the Wimmera.

The Karen were effectively brought to Nhill by John Millington OAM, who in 2009 was General Manager of poultry producer Luv-a-Duck.

With a lack of local labour to facilitate the company’s expansion, Mr Millington turned to settlement agency AMES to see whether there were any refugees willing to relocate to Nhill to take up available jobs.

After arranging for a group of Karen to visit the Luv-a-Duck plant and Nhill, four workers were hired. Now there are around 180 living in Nhill with more than 60 employed at Luv-a-Duck.

The resettlement program is fast emerging as a model not only for refugee settlement but also for the revival of struggling rural towns.

While providing a safe place to live and jobs for them, the Karen people’s presence in Nhill is delivering much needed growth for the region and helping to stabilise infrastructure, businesses and services that benefit the whole community.

The growing Karen population, their direct contribution to the workforce, the local economy and the cultural landscape is widely accepted by the community as an asset for Nhill and the surrounding Hindmarsh Shire.

Mr Millington said it was rewarding and inspirational to be able to see some of the community become Australian citizens.

“Now, the Karen, to a person, have given us those three qualities we admire in Australia in spades: honesty, loyalty, enthusiasm,” he said.

“For me learning about the Karen was a light bulb moment. I thought I must find out more about these people. I googled them and put together their story. They are a people who have been systematically persecuted and attacked by the Burmese government and driven out of their traditional lands.

“The Karen needed some help and given their nature and the terrible experiences they had endured, I thought they might be a good fit for the community at Nhill,” Mr Millington said.

He said Nhill’s experience of the Karen could be replicated elsewhere.

“Long-term, rural communities need stability; they need people who want to come to our communities and, more importantly, want to stay here and that’s certainly been the case with the Karen,” Mr Millington said.

One of the first Karen brought to settle in Nhill was Kaw Doh.

He lived in a refugee camp on the Thai-Burma border for seven years and came to Australia as a refugee seven years ago. He and several other Karen moved from their community in Werribee to take up work in Nhill.

“I found it very different at first, I lived in a big house with ten to twenty people,” Kaw Doh said.

“But, looking back it was a good experience, coming to live here (in Nhill).

“I miss my home. I miss the jungle and the rivers. But life here is good, I like living in Nhill and it’s a good place for my family,” said Kaw Doh, who works on duck farms in the area.

Hindmarsh Mayor Rob Gersch says that diversity was something to be celebrated and the Karen have brought diversity to Nhill and given the community a broader view of the world.

“Having lived in Nhill all my life, I have been fortunate to witness the joy the Karen community has brought to Nhill,” Cr Gersch said.

“By sharing their stories and celebration during the Karen New Year, we have gained insight into the Karen traditions and customs.

“Witnessing the simple pleasure our Karen residents take in living in safety, working, attending school and raising children puts a lot of things into perspective, as many survived brutal persecution in Burma and harsh conditions in refugee camps on the Thai border.

“The Karen community has made a tremendous contribution to Nhill’s economy, taking steps toward arresting our declining population, allowing key businesses to expand and stimulating the local property market.

“We should consider ourselves lucky to have such a kind, caring and generous group of refugees call Hindmarsh home,” Cr Gersch said.

Last month’s citizenship ceremony also saw Hindmarsh Shire Council launch its Karen Community Plan.

Hindmarsh Chief Executive Officer Tony Doyle said the plan laid a practical pathway forward to provide support from basic settlement services to more strategic actions that will ensure Nhill’s Karen people are supported as they integrate into the wider community.

“The plan will also guide the Council over the coming years as it provides assistance to Karen migrants settling into our community,” Mr Doyle said.

“The social impact the Karen have made has been extraordinary but to see the way the community has embraced and opened their hearts and minds, has broadened everyone’s thinking. We are all enriched because of the exposure to another culture and it has made Nhill a better place to live,” he said.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Senior Journalist