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.
“It’s been deeply rewarding for us, they’re amazing, they really are. We’ve learned from them as they have from us and we continue to learn,” Jenny Grosvenor said.
They helped Darar find work as a meat-packer at the local supermarket, an early morning job that allows her to be home in time for her three children to return from school. Shouma got a gas station job after appearing in the town’s newspaper.
Employment is a major challenge for the town’s growing refugee population, along with housing and access to the intensive language and other skills training many dream of to get ahead.
Adjusting culturally to a new life can also be testing for those raised in the Sudanese tradition, where offspring remain in the family home until they are married, community elder Abdul Jabbard Hessein said.
“Here it is different, after 16, they will depend on themselves and go out. It is not good for us,” Hessein said.
It has been a culture shock for Orange too — frictions between the Sudanese and local Aboriginal communities have flared from time to time, and there was a degree of suspicion initially from some townsfolk.
“That changed overnight because of their warmth,” Jenny Grosvenor said.
Rural Australia has not always responded warmly to Sudanese refugees — the nation’s country music capital, Tamworth, famously rejected a request to resettle five families back in 2006 for fears it would spark a race riot, saying the refugees living there had no respect for Australian laws and customs.
The town eventually reversed its decision, but not before a series of ugly public meetings that revealed deep prejudices and divisions.
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