Just like home, but a little different
12 December 2019 at 8:41 am
Populations are dwindling across rural Australia and many towns are struggling to survive. But a program connecting refugees with work and a place to call home is out to change this.
As Ali Hussein speaks from the district hospital in the rural NSW town of Leeton, his wife, Ayesha, is resting in her hospital bed with their new son, born just hours before the phone call.
It’s the couple’s second child, but it’s their first to be born in Australia.
It marks the start of a new beginning – a new addition to the family but also the start of their new life as a part of the small community they now call home.
It’s been five months since Ali, Ayesha, and their two-year-old daughter, Durree, first arrived in the small town of Leeton. Forced to flee Pakistan, Ayesha and Durree made their way to Australia. After spending years apart they were able to successfully sponsor Ali earlier this year, and he joined them in Sydney.
An electrician by trade, Ali struggled to find work or have his trade qualifications recognised. The cost and pace of living in a large city also proved to be a challenge, and incredibly isolating.
“I moved to Western Australia with my wife, but I couldn’t find a job. I already had a friend in Leeton, and he called me up telling me about Regional Opportunities Australia,” Ali explains.
Regional Opportunities Australia (ROA) is a charity trying to solve two problems. Finding jobs for new migrants, and boosting the dwindling populations in rural towns across Australia.
Mahir Momand, ROA CEO, tells Pro Bono News that 80 per cent of new migrants settle in Australia’s big cities because they believe that’s where the opportunities are – for jobs, and a way into a familiar community.
“They think there are employment opportunities in those areas, and they think that there are existing communities of people who are similar to them,” Momand says.
“But if you look at the number of people who have come from migrant and refugee backgrounds and are living in cities… the unemployment rate is four times bigger than the national average.”
Declining and ageing populations in regional and rural towns, Momand explains, means regional Australia is the perfect place for newly-arrived migrants in search of work.
“We wanted to connect the skills of migrants and refugees who are unemployed and underemployed living in cities, with the job opportunities available in regional Australia,” he says.
“On the other side of that, we have people from regional communities asking us to bring in a family with school-aged children because the local primary school is about to shut down because its numbers are so low.”
The organisation is currently working with local councils in the NSW towns of Leeton, Griffith and Temora to settle their 170 clients that want to find jobs and live in regional areas.
These towns also have established migrant communities with similar backgrounds to ROA’s client base, and have a set of programs in place to ensure that new residents are made to feel welcome and supported.
So far, 10 families have been successfully settled in towns across NSW.
In Ali’s case, ROA helped him update his resume, coached him on job interview skills, obtained him his working rights and provided cultural training to help him and his family settle into Leeton.
With all of this behind him, Ali was able to secure a permanent job as a factory worker with meat wholesaler, JBS Australia.
The size and close-knit nature of regional communities also makes it easier for families such as the Husseins to feel part of a community in a way they might not in a massive city.
Working closely with local community services and community organisations, Momand says it’s important ROA are there to support families and individuals in more ways than just finding a job.
“Part of what we do is connect families and individuals to local community services, local community organisations and local community mentors,” he says.
Community mentors, Momand explains, can be anyone from the town librarian, to the general store owner.
“It’s not just about finding our clients a job. You’re only at work for eight hours of the day, and for all the other hours of the day, people are living in the community,” he says.
“It’s very important that outside the job, the people we work with also have mentors to work with them to help them integrate into the community.”
In late November, the federal government launched a new regional visa program in a bid to encourage newly-arrived migrants to move and stay in regional communities.
If migrants commit to living in regional Australia for at least three years, it opens the door to permanent residency. Citizenship is generally available to migrants after four years on a permanent visa.
The new laws will also give regional visa holders the same access that permanent visa holders have to welfare and government services.
But Professor Raymer, a researcher at the Australian National University, told the ABC that the chances of migrants staying in a regional or remote area have proved to be very low.
“Most migrants will leave [a region] within a five-year period – over half, if not 70 per cent – and if they’re going to stay in Australia they’re going to go to one of the big cities, probably Sydney or Melbourne,” he said.
Momand says the continual community support for newly-arrived migrants that community organisations such as ROA offer is part of ensuring the transition is a success.
“We will be monitoring their progress at regular intervals – one year, three years and five years – and working alongside their employers, host community and local support services to educate ourselves on what is required for long-term success,” he says.
Something that helped Ali and Ayesha adjust to life in Leeton was that the landscape wasn’t dissimilar from their home town in Pakistan.
“In Pakistan my family have farms with lambs and sheep on them, and then I came here [Leeton] and I saw the same kinds of farms, with oranges and grapes, and sheep,” Ali says.
“Seeing that made me very happy, because it’s just like home… but a little different.”
After work, Ali likes to play cricket with friends he has made since moving to Leeton, and visits friends on weekends.
While his kids are a few years off going to school, he believes a town such as Leeton is the perfect place to raise them.
“I think the Australian community is so advanced… In this town there is a hospital, shopping malls, boulevard… everything is here.”
For Ali, Ayesha, their young daughter and newborn son however, they are not planning to leave Leeton any time soon.
“In the future, I want to buy my own grape farm,” Ali says.
“I always say to my friends who live in Perth and Sydney that there is a lot of work here, you will feel good… better than you would if you are living in a city area.”