A rural Australian gold mining and farming town famous as the birthplace of Waltzing Matilda poet Banjo Paterson seems an unlikely home for refugees fleeing decades of conflict in Sudan.
However, what started with a single pioneering family has become a thriving community of more than 300 people from the strife-torn north African nation who call pastoral Orange home.
“Maybe its best town in the world, especially the weather,” Sudanese refugee Fathi Shouma said in broken English. “It is like area where we come from in Sudan, it’s looking like same area and reminding me I’m living in the same area when I was born. Happy life is going on here.”
Shouma’s road to peace has been a long one — he and wife Neimat Darar spent three years in an Egyptian refugee camp after fleeing their native Nuba Mountains, in South Kordofan, amid raging civil war.
It was a time they would sooner forget; women were known to vanish and there were stories of refugees being killed for their organs, with overcrowding, heat and disease a fact of daily life.
“Egypt is very hard,” Darar, said sadly. “We can thank God because he take us from there and we come here safely.”
Proudly serving coffee in the kitchen of their modest brick home as the laughter of their children can be heard from the front lawn, Egypt seems a world away from suburban Orange, but an influx of Sudanese have made it a home away from home. At the time of the last census in 2006, about 24 percent of people in Australia on refugee visas at that time were from Sudan, making it the No. 1 country of birth for humanitarian migrants to Australia. Iraq was second, followed by Afghanistan.
It has been seven years since the first family — Osman Tag, his wife and seven children — left Sydney, where most of the refugees are initially settled, to find a new life in the 37,000-person town famed for its mines, agriculture, rugby team and icy winters.
Paterson, one of Australia’s most famous poets and author of the iconic national folk-song Waltzing Matilda, drew inspiration from the region’s rolling hills and rivers, and Tag was reminded of Sudan’s mountain country.
“I was born in a small village, small town is better to get good friend,” Tag said.
Though they are less than 1 percent of the town’s general population, the Sudanese account for about 11 percent of Orange’s multicultural community, which city spokeswoman Anni Gallagher described as a “significant” number.
Two-thirds of them are children and the move to rural Australia has been a sometimes challenging experience for them.
Local cultural programs include horse-riding and learning to swim in the bright blue waters of the local swimming pool — rites of passage for the town’s children, but very foreign experiences for the young refugees.
“We had kids who are usually quite cocky, and they were quite frightened of the water, couldn’t get their feet off the ground,” program supervisor Karen Boyde said.
For the parents, too, it can be overwhelming to navigate the bureaucracy of schools, job-seeking and tenancy with little or no English and very often no reading skills due to the oral nature of South Sudanese languages.
Local retirees Sam and Jenny Grosvenor were assigned to help Fathi and Neimat with simple tasks — filling out forms and reading the newspaper — but their relationship has blossomed over the years into a firm friendship.