The story reminds us that at times when problems seem so big, so insoluble, individual action can help at least some.
Mingoola lies 57 km (35.4 miles) west from Tenterfield along the Bruxner Highway very near the Queensland border. This is farming country, pretty country, some of Northern New England's best.
The Glenlyon Dam with its water sports and a tourist park lies 16km from Mingoola across the Queensland border. The Sundown National Park with spectacular sharp ridges and steep-sided gorges is 12km from Mingoola. Here the Severn River and its tributaries, woodland birds and the remains of pastoral and mining heritage can be discovered via maintained walking tracks or challenging remote walks.
Despite these attractions, Mingoola had a problem. The community was dying.
CHRISTINE DENIS, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: Mingoola for lots of years has been an ageing community so we’ve got lots of older people but we don’t have many younger people and the community is poorer without them.Population loss in New England's rural communities has been a problem for many years. In Mingoola's case, the problem was compounded by the closure of the tobacco growing industry that had stretched from Ashford to the border. You can still see signs of the industry today in the drying sheds, painted letter boxes and (I think that it still survives) a bocce court next to the Mingoola Hall.
JULIA HARPHAM, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: Maybe it's a bit of a sense of history, you don't wish to see a community die. And there’s a lot of rural communities dying. And the life of any community is largely tied to children. There’s not much joy in a place with no children
CHRISTINE DENIS, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: Lots of migrants came for seasonal work. Some of them found it very difficult to fit in. And some of the locals found it very difficult to understand why these people had come. But eventually .... an harmonious community came out of it. Everybody seemed to be prospering well. But the industry died.Tobacco brought many Italians as workers and sharefarmers. Their children attended the Mingoola School. There were some integration problems, but things worked out. With the ending of the tobacco industry, many left although some like the Zappa family stayed, acquiring land and moving into new industries such as wine. As people left, it became harder and harder to maintain community activities, to find the seasonal labour for the farms.
BOB SOUTH, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: Fifty years ago there was a dance in the hall here once a month and there was one in a wool shed up the road once a month, you know, there was a great social life. That social life has changed.Three years ago, the Mingoola Progress Association decided to try to turn things around. Drawing from the region's immigration past, they decided to look for refugees willing to move to the area.
JULIA HARPHAM, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: The Mingoola community felt very strongly that we'd welcomed people before, historically. And most people were really happy at the idea of welcoming people again.They struck brick walls.
JULIA HARPHAM, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: Then we started thinking we might be able to find some refugees who'd be happy to come and live in the valley. But every time I contacted any kind of refugee service they all said, oh no, you know, these people need to stay in the city.This business of need for adequate support services for refugees has become a major difficulty that actively impedes families moving to country areas . The need to provide adequate (ie modern) housing and support services can actually place refugees in situations where they have good housing and support services but are isolated from the surrounding community without access to work. This can be an especial problem for those from farming communities without experience of urban living.
CHRISTINE DENIS, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: They need lots of counselling, lots of language support, they needed more than we had. So we had to find families that had been in Australia for long enough to be feeling OK about perhaps moving
At the end of 2015, the Mingoola position went critical. The small local school had gone into recess and would close permanently if the minimum number of students could not be found by April 2016.
THOMAS GEORGE, LOCAL MP: The community was shattered because that’s the hub of Mingoola, the hall and their school. It really affected Julia but she wasn’t taking it lying down and she was going to lead the community in trying to have that school re-opened. I thought, ‘Well, good on you Julia’, but I didn’t know how she was going to do it.
"If you ask them, 'What was your dream when you applied to come to Australia and boarded the plane,' they say, 'We hoped we were going to be put in the countryside, to connect ourselves with agricultural life and have a garden'," Mr Musoni said.
Instead they were resettled in cities where employment prospects were few, the environment was intimidating and many became depressed and isolated.In 2014, Musoni and his colleagues had a discussion with Minister Concetta Fravanti-Wells, then assistant minister for multicultural affairs, about improvement of settlement services for their communities. People wanted to move to regional cities and towns because their background was mostly in agriculture and farming. The group was asked if their people "could actually live and work on farm by doing farming jobs and the answer was yes." They were asked to prepare a policy paper which they submitted in 2015.
There matters rested for the moment. However, one of Minister Concetta Fravanti-Wells' advisers, Isobel Brown, was struck by the conversation. When Julia Harpham contacted the office of Member for New England Barnaby Joyce, they knew of Isobel Brown's interest in resettlement and asked her if she could help the residents of Mingoola. Isobel then put Julia in contact with Emmanuel Musoni.
Meanwhile, time was of the essence if the school was to be saved. Agreement was reached between Mr Musoni and the Mingoola Progress Association on a timetable for settling three families by the end of April 2016. There were some reservations.
CHRISTINE DENIS, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: Around the district there were lots of small cottages that hadn’t been lived in for a long time and were crying out for somebody to do something to them.
JULIA HARPHAM, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: We went to look at the houses and I was totally embarrassed because the houses were in great need of repainting. There was quite a lot of work that needed to be done in the kitchens. But, they were totally unfazed by that.
Julia: We’re thinking if we put a verandah on, on the side as well. But as you can see.
Emmanuel: How about an outside kitchen?
Julia: Yeah, well they really wanted an outside kitchen.
Emmanuel: That’s an African thing, yeah.
Julia: They love the outside kitchenOn jobs:
BOB SOUTH, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: Philip and Julia went ahead and pushed this quite quickly and, you know, they’re compassionate people going at it from the heart. But a lot of people in the area were concerned about the lack of employment. I think the biggest fear we had was we would be introducing the people into a poverty trap. I know one of my neighbours has said that bringing these people in has the potential, if it falls apart, to set neighbour against neighbour and have people who’ve been friends for years opposed to each other and we don’t want that to happen.On not going back:
THOMAS GEORGE, LOCAL MP: I was brought up in a household that didn’t speak English. I did say, look, coming from the migrant background that I’d come from, I wanna raise a few realities to you. First of all, if you don’t like it here you just can’t walk down the road and catch a bus and get away from here. You know, you’re in a remote area. They said ‘We are African. We know.’A call was put out seeking families who might be willing to make the move; while the community began renovating the vacant cottages. Within a week, there were 50 families on the waiting list.
JULIA HARPHAM, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: I don’t think we ever really in our wildest dreams expected these people would really want to come so much and want to come so quickly, to get out of the city. Emmanuel came back with the first two families who put their names down. They arrived the day before Anzac Day. One family was staying with us because their house wasn’t ready. I did note that there were a lot of children in these families. I thought well there’s a good thing.
JULIA HARPHAM, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: Renata and Isaac had nine kids. Fainess and Jonathan have seven.
PHILIP HARPHAM, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: I think that a lot of these people had a very difficult past, because of the trauma they’ve seen. So we don’t ask them. We just don’t ask.
ISAAC ICIMPAYE: My name is Isaac, I come from Burundi.
ISAAC ICIMPAYE (SUBTITLED): My dad and my mum passed away and my brother passed away when I was already in the refugee camp. They killed him and threw him in the forest.
RENATA NTIHABOSE (SUBTITLED): Yes, that’s what happened to me too. I lost my two brothers. Yes, they got killed.
FAINESS KABURA: When they come to kill people we just hide there. If you’re hiding together with your family they can kill all the family. I was with my brother. When we are hearing people scream something. And my mother died. So yeah.
JONATHAN KANANI: Yeah, freedom. Yeah. And the peace. That’s why I think I’m excited to come and live here, yeah.Three families have now settled at Mingoola. They have found seasonal work in woolsheds and picking pumpkins previously done by backpackers.
PAUL MAGNER, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: We’d been using backpackers but in the last few months, we’ve been employing the couple of African refugee families with picking pumpkins and a little bit of time in the wool shed work. They’re doing a good job
THOMAS GEORGE, LOCAL MP: So there may not be long-term full-time employment, however there’s long-term seasonal employment.
PHILIP HARHAM, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: And these people do enjoy working. And they're very keen to see their children succeed.
NADINE SHEMA, COMMUNITY ADVOCATE: For the families who have moved having a garden helped them to heal from their depression and all the trauma that they had. It was like, going back to their roots, I think.
EMMANUEL MUSONI, COMMUNITY ADVOCATE: Renata said that it had been more than 16 years since she had a garden.
JULIA HARPHAM, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: Renata and Fainess have probably hoed up more than a hectare, maybe two. You know, like, it's just incredible how much garden they've managed to produce in three months.And the school has reopened, now featuring its new pupils.
Things are never perfect. Mingoola can take just four families and there are now 150 Great Lakes families on the waitlist. Mingoola has worked because there was a local need and local commitment.
CHRISTINE DENIS, MINGOOLA RESIDENT: We were feeling a bit of pressure, a bit of responsibility that if these people were going to make their lives up here we had to make the whole project work.Like their predecessors, most of the new children at Mingoola School will need to leave for further study and work. But they will do so knowing that they are part of a community in a new country. That's no small thing.
This photo is Mingoola Hall on election day in the 1920s. Now from the Mingoola Community Facebook Page:
Vote at Mingoola on Election Day!! We have the Polling Booth back but will lose it again if it's not supported......A little later:
74 people voted at Mingoola - good work guys!!And so the work goes on!
In addition to the links given above, majour sources are:
- Great Lakes Agency for peace and Development website
- 2 March 2016, ABC Newcastle, Congolese refugee calls for overhaul of re-settlement services in Australia
- 7 November 2016, Greg Hassall, ABC News, African refugees reinvigorating rural Mingoola in social experiment to boost ageing community
- 7 November 2016, Australian Story website.You will find the transcript of the program here.
- Donna Ward, Tenterfield Star, 10 November 2016, Australian Story episode on Mingoola refugees strikes a chord
- For those interested in the Italian background, the Heritage Futures Research Centre at the University of New England has a significant resource section on the Italian influence.
This is another YouTube video connected with this story
And a third
And yet another. I like this one because it shows the broader community.