In the country town of Ballan, an hour north-west of Melbourne, residents are hard at work to improve life for refugees.
Ballan has a Refugees Reality Group, made up of 10 locals who work with community councils to build relationships between residents and refugees who’ve settled in the town.
To mark World Refugee Day this year, they held an event at Ballan Community Town Centre. More than 60 people came along to hear people tell personal experiences of international humanitarian crises and war.
This included Paul Dau, who fled Sudan as a child.
As he started to speak, people put down their lemon slices and bowls of minestrone soup. Sounds of plates clattering in the kitchen were forgotten as Paul told his story with soft conviction.
“I come from South Sudan, the youngest nation on earth,” he said. “In 1987, I joined an exodus of 28,000 boys and girls, known as the Lost Boys of Sudan.”
Paul said he survived the civil war that ultimately led to South Sudan’s independence by staying close to armed soldiers – a move that meant walking some 15,000 kilometres in bare feet while trying to avoid wild animals, hunters, pests and disease along the way.
Eventually, he arrived at the Benegal refugee camp in western Ethiopia, where deaths from disease and starvation were commonplace.
Paul was able to claim asylum in Australia, where the warm welcome he received in 2003 from Toorak Uniting Church in Melbourne prompted him to investigate and ultimately convert to the church later the same year.
He’s now a practicing priest working in Footscray, and is married with six children.
Speaking after the event, Paul told Hatch his story is less about recounting horrific details of war, and more about resilience. And he says encountering horrifying situations in life is an experience anyone can encounter.
“You can be subjected to all sorts of things in life, even if you are born in a peaceful country like Australia,” he said.
“You need to see human beings as they are.”
Kate Hay is a charity worker whose daughter has worked on humanitarian projects in Greece and Turkey, where many refugees have sought to claim asylum from war-torn countries like Syria. Tens of thousands arrive in boats organised by human smugglers, landing on islands like Lesbos off the Turkish coast.
“They were traumatised. Many of them had lost loved ones along the way,” Ms Hay said, recounting what her daughter had witnessed.
Ms Hay said many new arrivals on Lesbos want to go to the island’s capital, Mytiline, so they can register for asylum and then travel legally on to major centres like Athens.
“Many decided to walk 70 kilometres through winding countryside to get registered,” she said, adding: “It was illegal for anyone to help arriving refugees with transportation so they had to walk.”
Lamourette Folly, who is a fellow student here at Macleay College, spoke to Ballan residents about growing up in the Kpomasse refugee camp in Benin before she came to Australia aged 11. She described having had to become the family breadwinner when her mother was unable to feed the family as a subsistence farmer.
Attendees get up for a dance at the end of the event
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Cellist Miranda Brockman is a core member of Refugees Reality, and says the support of ‘associate members’ is critical to the success of events like these.
“We do have consistent roles like treasurer and secretary, but these are not elected. Most of our members are associates through friends and family,” she told Hatch.
Another core member, Alfonzo De La Cruz, who teaches at a local primary school, says the group hopes eventually to sponsor refugee families to come and live in Ballan.
Story and images by Ashley Flockhart and Lamourette Folly. Video report by Lamourette Folly.