Gigi and Daniel Mapatano, African refugees now settled in Lismore, pictured at last November’s Music Festival in Mullumbimby.
Gigi and Daniel Mapatano, African refugees now settled in Lismore, pictured at last November’s Music Festival in Mullumbimby.

Refugees to find new homes

The call came through to the Mullumbimby branch of Sanctuary Northern Rivers just before Christmas Day – two small Congolese families had been identified as suitable to initiate the settlement program in Mullumbimby, and would probably be arriving in March or April.

It was the culmination of several months of meetings and preparation, initiated by a group of parishioners from the Uniting Church in Mullumbimby who had responded to an invitation from Sanctuary Northern Rivers in Lismore looking to expand beyond Lismore.

“We thought that was something the churches should be involved in,” said group member John Morris, “because that’s what the gospels are really about, and it was something we saw as possible in Mullumbimby with its rich mix of people, where there is tolerance and acceptance.

“I’ve done a fair bit of talking about it since, and haven’t met anyone who has said, no, we don’t want them.”

Sanctuary Northern Rivers is a non-denominational community-based charity set up in Lismore to bring people to the Northern Rivers area from countries torn apart by war such as the Sudan, Congo, Somalia, Sierra Leone and Burma – people who have official refugee status from the UN.

They are usually people who have been living in refugee camps, mostly in appalling conditions, and often for a very long time, and even though they have been granted official refugee status, they need help to get to another country because they are not in a category given any assistance to resettle.

And this is where Sanctuary steps in, with its neat solution of a revolving fund – they pay the airfares of the refugee families, and in time the families repay the debt so that others in turn can be helped.

The news of the arrival of two families from the Congo has caused a flurry of activity for the 15 or so members of Mullumbimby Sanctuary, for settling the new arrivals will involve far more than just funding airfares.

There is the need to secure accommodation and employment for the families, as well as organise bank accounts and access to Centrelink, medical facilities, English classes and possibly trauma counselling.

A team of volunteers will be organised to spend time with the families, helping them to settle in to an environment that will be culturally strange and different in almost every way.

John Morris is confident that the majority of people in Mullumbimby will welcome the refugee families with open arms.

“Once their story has been told,” he said, “it would be a very hard-hearted person who would say they didn’t care.

“The way the community responded to the bushfires and the tsunami shows that we do care.”

Offers of help and support have already begun to flow in – the local Lions Club has been quick to declare itself right behind the group, and someone out of the blue approached John with on offer of employment just the other day.

The Mullumbimby Music Festival last November was of great assistance when Sanctuary Northern Rivers had a stall outside the Civic Centre.

“We raised about $800 through raffle tickets and donations,” said Sanctuary member Tressa Kennedy, “and this will pay a portion of the airfares.

“We also went on to some of the stages to talk about what we are doing, so the word is out there.”

Anyone who would like to help with accommodation or employment or offer help in any other way can ring Gil Lomath on 66846328.

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