Not too long ago, after the Welcome Petition team had contacted the local councils and communities to tell them about the walk, we received an email and a call from Carol Crowe and Mary Bourke in Euroa. They were very excited about the petition coming through their town and had put together some great ideas.
Carol told me that she and Mary had recently convened a public meeting in Euroa with over 40 attendees from the area.
“We put out the welcome mat for asylum seekers and refugees in our area and began to explore ways we could offer support.” Carol said.
Straight away she offered hospitality and assistance. Carol also suggested that they hold an afternoon tea in the community hall so that I could meet the town, tell my story and listen to theirs.
Peita Collard, The Welcome Petition’s Project Manager and I were practically jumping up and down with this news, as it was just what the project is all about, exchanging stories of welcome!
Well, the excitement didn’t stop there and Euroa was quickly becoming the model for the rest of the towns along the way. Peita was taking calls from other communities who wanted to organise something and found herself saying: “Well, you could do it like Euroa…” when those towns asked for suggestions.
Then it was Saturday. I was to arrive into Euroa that night, after 26kms of road with no shade. Despite this, I was practically skipping because I was so excited to reach the town that was so very welcoming. I set off from Locksley in the morning and while I was walking I received a call from Peita, who had driven up to Euroa because she also wanted to meet these lovely people and hear their stories. Carol and her fellow advocates had set up a table outside the local supermarket to spread the word and collect signatures for the petition.
This was a huge success as they managed to collect over 260 signatures!
Left: Accepting the pages of signatures from Carol, we were very excited! Right: Arriving in Euroa to find Peita waiting to give me a hug.
Peita called me so that I could listen to the determined voices of Bernadine Kelly and Jenna Carole while I was walking. You can see the two of them singing below, attracting the crowd. I was on the other end of the phone with tears in my eyes!
The meeting on Sunday was a huge success, as you can see in the Euroa Gazette below! Almost 50 people turned up, including my sister. She has been such an inspiration to me and I was so happy she could come.
There were many stories of how local people were doing their bit to welcome new arrivals into the community. This first story comes from Des, who is part of RAR (Rural Action for Refugees) in Benalla.
“In the summer of 2015, bushfires went through farming land between Broken Creek area between Benalla and Shepparton. A fencing team of volunteers from the Uniting Church in Benalla assisted farmers build new fences to keep their livestock in.
Afghani asylum seekers and refugees came out from Shepparton and volunteered to build fences alongside the regular team. They were excellent workers and picked up skills quickly. It was a win/win for everybody, particularly for the farmers who were able to recover from the bushfires more quickly.”
Tessa from Primary Care Connect spoke of the realities asylum seekers are facing everyday. Some could've come to this meeting but they are in fear that they could get into trouble and have their visas taken away. She said it's also hard to ask people to come when they feel so separated from the community.
Another person in the room also commented on the relationships that formed from the fencing event, between the two different groups of people. Barriers were broken down as they worked together and both groups found they had lots in common!
There were more stories and they were amazing, stories of bikes being donated to families who are not allowed to work. A bike can really help people feel less isolated. Together we discussed how we felt so frustrated because there’s only so much we can do to make these families feel welcome. When they can’t work and contribute to the community, it must be hard for them to meet people and feel part of that community. Fixing the fences was a great opportunity for the Afghanis and local farmers alike. It feels so wonderful when you smile at someone and receive a smile back. We need more opportunities for this to happen!
Just when I thought my heart couldn’t be more full after hearing all these stories, and there’s more than I can mention in a blog post (I think I need to write a novel), our meeting took on a turn towards action!
Shirley, a bundle of positive energy speaks: “If we’re going to do it like Euroa, what do we do?”
This prompted a whirlwind of ideas. I was almost bawling by this stage, as were others. We were all overwhelmed by the enthusiastic attitudes and overall good will that filled the room. We agreed that there were different areas that needed attention.
One is to find more ways to make asylum seekers and refugees feel welcome and part of the community. Another area is letting the government know that people in Euroa want to help and don’t want to people to be stuck in limbo and locked away. The last area is about education. There is still fear among many citizens and most of this fear comes from lack of understanding. We all brainstormed ideas of how to get the real facts out to people and reintroduce them to these new comers. Who are people just like us.
Thanks to everyone in Euroa for making me feel welcome. I was incredibly humbled and inspired by the nous of the community. Thank you also for the survival vest, which was full of handy treasures: Hydrolyte sachets, lollies, a booklet about the birds of Euroa (which I’ve used!), many more things.
There were also matches and candles so that I could light them for the refugees.
Right: Suzie presents the survival vest! Suzie also had a story to tell, but I think that's another blog post!