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Successful Mingoola refugee settlement program on hold as African families move away

Cecilia Connell, Matt Bedford and Rick Hind, Monday August 12, 2019 - 08:32 EST
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Mingoola Public School is in "recess" since refugee families had to leave the town. - ABC

It was hailed as a success for invigorating a dying country town, struggling to cope with its ageing population.

But three years after , the tiny town in Northern New South Wales has lost all of its newest members.

A raft of medical conditions forced each of the refugee families to move away from the rural village, closer to specialist medical services, leaving the mutually beneficial settlement program on hold.

Mingoola resident Julia Harpham, a driving force behind the grassroots program, said the circumstances were unfortunate but unavoidable, and the families would be sorely missed.

"They have been part of our community and really supported it and we've loved the fun times we've had with them," she said.

"We're only sorry that their health took them away."

When the ABC's Australian Story visited in 2016, Mingoola residents had renovated disused farmhouses to accommodate their new neighbours.

The refugees, from the east African nation of Burundi, were growing their own crops, providing a sense of home and a chance to return to an agricultural life.

The influx of refugee children saved the Mingoola Public School, which had been at risk of closure.

Closure a familiar prospect for country school

Eleven students were enrolled late last year, but since the refugee families relocated, none remain. As a result, the school has entered an extended recess period.

Matt Hobbs from the Department of Education said, while the principal had been redeployed, the site would be maintained in hope it would one day reopen.

"At this stage, we are commencing community consultation around what might happen with the school in future, looking at obviously providing a quality education for children at Mingoola," he said.

"When a school is placed into recess, that means it can go back into operation very quickly if new enrolments arrive in the area or if for some reason, other students come back to the area."

Ezekia Nitanga, who moved to Mingoola in 2016, said the school "tethered the community together" but the main reason he and his family had to leave were the lack of medical services.

"Both Mum and Dad got sick and being in a small community the services were not really adequate," he said.

"And it's a long trek [to services] if you are not well."

However Mr Nitanga said if his parents become well again and there is some drought relief, the family would love to move back to Mingoola.

"Because they are from farming communities they really enjoyed it. They fit in perfectly. For them it was basically like going back home to Burundi or Tanzania," he said.

According to refugee advocate Emmanuel Musoni, that's a hope shared not only by Mingoola residents, but also by the departed families.

"They like the place but for different reasons, they had to leave," he said.

"There's a family in Brisbane that even still comes to visit quite often; two families still have some crop on the ground.

"They still talk to [the locals] and those connections are going to be far and more reaching.

'We can't guarantee household water'

Mr Musoni said while the refugees were forced to move away for medical reasons, the drought had compounded the situation after farm work dried up.

"They were living there, they were having a job on the farm but also they have been ploughing the land, growing their own cropping which was doing very well until the drought came," he said.

"When the drought came in, it cut down on their production which, in the end, some of them had to leave.

"They're very keen to move [back] when the drought gets completed or finished.

"Some of them still have roots there — they're just waiting for the drought to end and then they can start on again."

But without the promise of rain, the community could not in good faith advocate for people to move to the region, Julia Harpham said.

"We can't really encourage anyone to come to our area because we can't even guarantee household water, let alone jobs or anything else," she said.

"We know for a fact that there are families who'd love to be here but, in conscience, you just can't encourage people to come.

"It's not that the dream is over and it's not that we can't continue that dream.

"When it becomes a little more cloudy and [rain] actually falls out of the sky and we feel secure in our water infrastructure, is the point when we can invite more families to come and live with us."


© ABC 2019

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