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Young refugee’s passion to help his homeland

21 March 20170 comments

Somali-born refugee Omar Elmi has dreams that belie his tender years.

The 17-year-old is studying horticulture and is the first Somali-born trainee taken on by Parks Victoria.

As part of his Year 12 course at The Grange College in Hoppers Crossing, he is spending one day a week at Werribee Park, in Melbourne’s west, where he works alongside park rangers learning how to grow things.

He is driven by passion to help farmers and ordinary families in his homeland who face starvation because of a ‘once in a fifty-year’ drought.

“I want to learn about agriculture and about techniques that can be used in Somalia and other parts of Africa that are having drought,” Omar said this week.

“I want to go back there one day and use what I have learned to help people,” he said.

His 12-month traineeship will see Omar help in the construction of a community garden in the grounds of Werribee Park Mansion by members of the local Somali refugee community.

“It’s important to be linked to your own culture because that’s your life because, if you lose from part of your life, that’s not good for you,” Omar said.

“I’m hoping to pick up skills from the day-to-day running of gardens, to working with communities in the park and also environmentally based land management,” he said.

The new community garden will grow ocra, gourds, sorghum and stone fruit.

“These are all things people grew back home in Somalia. I remember eating them when I was a kid,” Omar said.

The gardens at Werribee are already home to groups of local refugees who have been volunteering since 2011 under the ‘Working Beyond the Boundaries’ program – a partnership between Parks Victoria and migrant and refugee settlement agency AMES Australia.

They have become a source of hope and integration for the region’s migrant and refugee communities.

For many of them, simply having a garden to tend offers a social outlet, networking opportunity as well as cultural and social connections.

Werribee Park Head ranger James Brincat says that Omar is emblematic of the success of the program.

“Since we launched it in 2011, we’ve seen so many positive outcomes, particularly for the often isolated migrant women,” James said.

“Many of the women have commented that they haven’t touched soil for so long it invigorates them – it brings their soul back.

“Most of what we see happening is about relaxation, bringing laughter and a feeling of satisfaction.

“It really is affecting their health in a good way. Most of the produce is distributed among less fortunate members of the community and the responses we’ve seen form communities is really good.

“Some groups haven’t seen their traditional food for a long, long time and being able to grow the vegetables and the fruits that they ate as kids reminds them of good times, when food was available and when there was no war,” James said.

For Omar, with Somalia now on the verge of desperate famine, he sees his future beyond the fields of Werribee.

The United Nations reported last month that more than 58,000 children in drought-hit parts of the country will starve to death if they do not receive urgent support.

The situation in the country, where dry conditions are exacerbated by an exceptionally strong El Nino weather pattern, is “alarming and could get worse”, the UN said.

It said that an estimated 4.7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and some 950,000 people “struggle every day to meet their food needs”.

“The level of malnutrition, especially among children, is of serious concern, with nearly 305,000 children under the age of five years acutely malnourished,” a UN official told media.

“We estimate that 58,300 children face death if they are not treated,” he said.

The warnings, based on the latest data collected by the UN, come four years after intense drought and war sparked a famine killing more than 250,000 people.

Northern Somali areas, including self-declared independent Somaliland along the Gulf of Aden and semi-autonomous Puntland, are especially hard-hit.

“We are deeply concerned … with severe drought conditions intensifying in Puntland and Somaliland, many more people risk relapsing into crisis,” the UN said, calling for $US885m in aid.

The warning comes as neighbouring Ethiopia also struggles to combat its worst drought for 30 years.

At least 10.2 million people need food aid in Ethiopia, a figure the UN has warned could double within months, leaving a fifth of the population to go hungry.

Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist