For 12 years the St Vincent de Paul Society NSW has successfully managed two humanitarian programs in the Riverina. Sadly, we were not awarded the new contract commencing at the end of the year. Deirdre Moulden has managed the program for the last 10 years and witnessed many achievements in that time, some of which she shares in this article.
In the early days, the Riverina welcomed many families from African nations. Many of these people are still in Wagga Wagga and have been to university, have obtained meaningful work and have purchased homes. We remain great friends with them all.
Then we saw the Burmese arriving—in one year 43 Burmese babies were born here. The Burmese are funny, loving people and are so grateful for everything.
In October 2008 we welcomed the Bhutanese refugees with open arms and loving hearts to Albury- Wodonga. The Bhutanese are very motivated people and so polite. One young Bhutanese man was Dux of his Albury school a year after he arrived.
This year Teju Chouhan was appointed Wodonga Citizen of the Year. This young man had represented the Australian Bhutanese community in Geneva to celebrate the settlement globally of 100,000 Bhutanese refugees in 2015.
In 2013–14 Griffith and Leeton had a large influx of people seeking asylum, mainly men from Afghanistan. It was very sad to see how devastated they were, being on their own without their families. Most of them managed to obtain work, which was a great reflection on the community and was extremely positive for the men.
Albury-Wodonga has been a designated ‘women at risk’ area for five years. Female volunteers received special training prior to the arrival of a group of women from the Democratic Republic of Congo, so they would be prepared for the trauma these women had suffered. Today these women are well settled.
In October 2013 Afghan families started to arrive in Wagga. The challenge in supporting these families was enormous as they did not speak any English. The volunteers once again thought outside the square and somehow managed to offer beautiful love and a generous spirit to these families. The families were fascinated by Australians and how casual we are—the Afghan women in particular really enjoyed the company of Australian women and have maintained special friendships. Now several of those women, as well as some of the Afghani youngsters, are driving. Never in their wildest dreams did these women imagine themselves behind the wheel of a car.
We still see many members of each refugee group in our region today. Many have gone on to find meaningful work, buy homes, obtain university degrees and become part of our local community.
Five Afghanis now volunteer with the Humanitarian Program. Their assistance has been invaluable and it is wonderful working in an interfaith environment where values are shared. They are so kind, generous and engaging, and have great senses of humour. They tell us how much they love volunteering and learning from the other volunteers.
When the Syrian crisis broke out we agreed to take in some Yazidi people, a minority group from Northern Iraq who had suffered mass genocide and witnessed shocking atrocities. It was a hectic time as we welcomed 280 Yazidi people in nine months in 2016–17. Once again the refugees did not speak English, but we got smarter and used translator apps as well as the Commonwealth Government’s Translating and Interpreting Service.
The task of getting enough volunteers to support these very vulnerable people was massive. The Yazidi people have been an absolute joy—they are funny, hospitable and love learning. Many of the men were drivers in Iraq and they soon got their Australian driver’s licences and bought cheap cars so they could get work.
Our volunteers have been outstanding. They have put in many hours planning for arrivals, considering what their needs might be and turning houses into homes for the arriving families.
I loved watching them at the airport as they waited excitedly to meet their new family. They warmly welcomed the arriving strangers, who must have been thinking ‘Who are these kind people with big smiles on their faces?’
I know if St Vincent de Paul were alive today he would be so proud of our volunteers who, for the last 12 years, have loved the poorest of the poor and welcomed strangers with open hearts, open minds and generous spirits.
While they have been a gift to our new arrivals, our volunteers have also experienced great joy and have developed deep friendships.
And our partnership with Humanitarian Settlement Service staff at Multicultural Council of Wagga Wagga has been outstanding. We have all become better people for working with these wonderful and resilient souls.
We have had much to celebrate over the years as we’ve watched our families gain confidence. We see this when they perform at multicultural events and Refugee Week and bring their home-cooked food to various festivals.
It is with much sadness that the program is coming to an end. Not many people get to do the work we have done and it has been our privilege to help some of the most vulnerable people in the world under the banner of St Vincent de Paul Society NSW.
As we reflect on what has been achieved and the lifelong friendships we have created with staff, volunteers and families, we feel a deep sense of being so very blessed to have had an opportunity to give, receive and be loved.
The Riverina Humanitarian Program and the Riverina community have given the gift of hope, love, peace and safety to 484 families and 1,697 individuals since 2005. May they live their dreams and become outstanding Australian citizens.
Deirdre Moulden managed the St Vincent de Paul Society NSW’s two humanitarian programs in the Riverina for the last 10 years.