Stories from Shepparton

ABC Radio National

The city of Shepparton and its Goulburn Valley region in Victoria have a rich history of immigration. The Shepparton experience of diversity and social harmony was the basis for a unique Conference in 2007 organised by Latrobe University, the region's Ethnic Council and the Shepparton Interfaith Network. Encounter reports on the stories that emerged from this Conference.

The following transcript was broadcast by ABC Radio National on its Encounter Program on 3 February 2008. This transcript has been supplied on this website with permission from the ABC.

The city of Shepparton and its Goulburn Valley region in Victoria have a rich history of immigration. The Shepparton experience of diversity and social harmony was the basis for a unique Conference in 2007 organised by Latrobe University, the region's Ethnic Council and the Shepparton Interfaith Network. Encounter reports on the stories that emerged from this Conference.

Sounds of Shepparton

Margaret Coffey: I'm standing in a suburban street in the Victorian regional city of Shepparton - it's just beyond the centre, and the sounds of the town are already giving way to the sounds of the countryside.

On the corner there is a small brick building a little different from the houses lining the sides of the street..... It's one of Shepparton's three mosques.

Hello, this is Encounter on ABC Radio National. I'm Margaret Coffey and we're about to spend time in a part of regional Australia where the appearances - all flat, sunburnt, conventional rural town - belie the truly complicated surprising reality.

It's mid morning on a week day, the door's opened but the mosque is deserted ... an elderly woman, in head to toe black, is coming down the road towards me...

Woman's voice: Albanian Language

Margaret Coffey: I recognise Albanian .. ..... but neither of us can make sense of what the other is saying ......something about her family perhaps.

Shepparton has a rich history of immigration, more diverse than any other comparable municipality in rural and regional Australia, and this mosque points to one early twentieth century chapter - it's the oldest of Shepparton's three.

There's at least one reason Shepparton goes on attracting people - Rob Bryant.

Rob Bryant: Rural Australians for Refugees - and I live in Shepparton.

Yes there is and it is irrigation.

Margaret Coffey: Rob Bryant explains.

Rob Bryant: There is a harsh reality that demand is a precursor to supply and when water was provided to make this a fertile farmland and an intense agricultural area there was a demand for people to come and provide labour, investment and migrants have been coming to this area for 80 to 100 years. So the irrigation was started in the early 1900s and there is a revamp planned by the State Government at them moment which is excellent for the community.


Riddy Ahmet: My name is Riddy Ahmet and I'm from the Albanian community. Our parents came from Albania - but I was born here in Australia.

Eljam Bardi: My name, Eljam Bardi, Imam of Albanian Islamic Society, for 25 years, after I finished degree from Al Azhar University and come straight away to Shepparton.

Really I find Shepparton is like my country.

Eljam Bardi: Albanian history is come from 1924 - the mosque in Shepparton is the oldest one in Victoria.

Riddy Ahmet: That's right, Shepparton was the first purpose built mosque.

And it is probably one of the very earliest in Australia too, although there have been some previous like the Afghan one in Broken Hill.......

Margaret Coffey: The Albanian story is now one of the older stories of settlement in Shepparton .......there are many newer stories to tell. New and old - they were the stuff of a unique conference in Shepparton, put on by a combination of local organisations - Latrobe University Shepparton Campus, the city's Ethnic Council, and the Shepparton Interfaith Network. They wanted to proffer their city's model of cultural diversity and social harmony - and to give Shepparton's people a chance to tell the stories. That's what gave the Conference its special character - each day began with the stories.

Maria Presti: My name is Maria Presti. I came in 1960 here in Australia and I was married by proxy because my Daddy didn't let me to go like a girlfriend - my fiancee was here. So he would like me to get married before I came here. He wasn't very happy to let me come here.

Years later when my daughter started at university and my husband took her to Melbourne, when I came home from work, and she wasn't there, oh I felt this disconsolation myself and then I understand what my Daddy means, what it was this sadness, this really empty in his heart maybe. Years later I did understand that.

Sonali Jayasaundra: Sonali Jayasaundra and I came from Sri Lanka, - on the 27th of January 2005, directly to Shepparton. I only waited one and a half days actually in Melbourne. And then the next day I came with my four suitcases, and four of us, I have two children and my husband. Then two days after that he started work and my children started school. Because you get only thirty kilos, so actually it is back in Sri Lanka that you make the decision what are you bringing or not. So I just brought only a few photographs you know ...just... I think it was insufficient because I could not tell people who I was by that.

I wanted to explain that I had a life because sometimes people think that you know you don't have anything back home and you come here. I just wanted to show them that there are a lot of problems in Sri Lanka - the bombs are going off but still people do live. If I had photographs to show those they could have connected more.


Margaret Coffey: Sonali Jayasaundra, and before her Maria Presti, both speakers at a recent Cultural Diversity and Social Harmony Conference in Shepparton.

Peter Jeffrey: I guess there has been strong leadership in this area, as has come out in some of the sessions, the civic leadership. Our council is keen to foster the richness of cultural diversity here and at the same time social harmony and I think we have been very blessed.

Margaret Coffey: Harmony is one of those words you'll hear quite a bit in this program. Leadership is another. There's a sense emerging from the Conference that there is something in the Shepparton experience to tell about, but also something to guard and foster. And together with civic leaders, people from religious communities discern distinctive opportunities and responsibilities to shape what happens ....

Peter Jeffrey: With new settlers coming, and recently of course in this area it is those who have come on the humanitarian settlement program, refugees, they come with very different past experiences, often traumatic experiences. And that requires in our community leaders who are formed for an understanding of the backgrounds of people. We need to know the story of these people, listen to the narratives, and that is going to enrich our own literature of course about this. But I think it is a bigger problem: in our education system we need to be training students, our senior students to reflect on the polis, the society, to see what are the factors that are going to really promote the common good, and developing a sense of not just self-responsibility but responsibility to be promoting a common good.

Margaret Coffey: That's local priest Monsignor Peter Jeffrey

Music /

Thon Thon: My name is Thon - Thon ... I was born in Sudan, in southern Sudan.

Margaret Coffey: Listen to the narrative of a very recent journey to Shepparton.

Thon Thon: The war is start in Sudan a long time ago and it has never reached to our village. In 1987 that is where it come to our village. In that year I was eleven years old. So we went and left the cow in the forest and run back to the village - I found nobody at home. So I ran in the bush and we met with a group of the armed, which are fighting against the government. They took us to a small place just like a desert and it is in the forest. They keep us inside there - they say OK, nobody going back to the village because if you go to the village you will not find your father or your mother. You will just only find the bodies, down.

Then they say we are going to Ethiopia. They are moving across the desert, there is a long desert between Ethiopia and Sudan. I thought maybe Ethiopia is only two hours to reach and it has taken me three months when I was eleven years. The only good thing they advised us, they say, it is you yourself who have your own responsibility, carry your own water. If you want to die because of hunger, it is up to you. Try to get the leaf of that tree and eat until we reach where we are. We lost a lot of people in that journey, the majority have been eaten by animal in the bush, some are just get thirsty because of no water, and they died in the bush.

Margaret Coffey: On ABC Radio National's Encounter .. a focus on a regional Australian town's long history of immigration.

Denis Muto: Shepparton is the food bowl of Australia. It's a great city. It has welcomed all migrants from way back in the forties and the migrant labour has built this town to what it is. It is a progressive town, as you can see the buildings, the infra structure, everything that happens here is fantastic. It gives everybody work. Just a great town to be in, there's nothing that you need that is not within Shepparton's grasp.

Margaret Coffey: A voice from the Italian immigrant experience.

Denis Muto: My name is Denis Muto and I was speaking as a member and as a past president of the Italian Catholic Federation.

We plan and prepare and run the feast of St Anthony which is an Italian Saint and it is celebrated every year at the parish of St Mel's and we have a great festival - we have a procession, every year around mid June.

Religion played a very important part in my life and the quality of the religious leaders is something that is very, very important.

Basically what I wanted to say was I grew up here but everything was Italian, and I still live in two cultures. All my life I have been between two cultures. As you age you don't worry about that any more and you take the best of each culture.

Margaret Coffey: Down the road from the Albanian mosque the SPC fruit cannery sprawls either side of an intersection. A son of the mosque community was once chair of the SPC Board. Each new wave of migration strikes the orchards and the canneries of Shepparton.

Rob Bryant: It is a pretty good community because it is a melting pot. It is very multicultural.

Margaret Coffey: Rob Bryant reckons there are two sides to the Shepparton experience.

Rob Bryant: If you were to get every person in Shepparton to vote there would be a decided vote against migration. I would assume; that is my opinion. But not to the point where people are going out in the streets to say no to immigration and once people in Shepparton meet refugees they embrace them because we want to help - all people at their core want to support other people. So once the stinginess has gone and abundance kicks in, the Shepparton people are like anyone else - they see the right side of it.

Leadership is extremely important and while you know personally I have no religious connection or faith - I was born a Catholic but that is not my religion as such, I am a spiritual person, I believe in a greater being. However, having said that, because religion organises so many people, the leaders of each religion have got together profoundly and changed a lot of opinions.

Margaret Coffey: In fact, the Conference itself had its genesis in the interfaith community.

Frank Purcell: My name is Frank Purcell..

Margaret Coffey: ..and he's involved in the Shepparton Inter-Faith Network.

Frank Purcell: I have been saying to the inter-faith group that we need to find a focus for our joint action, that it's OK to come together in times of crisis to offer prayer, but by picking up on key social issues in the town, especially those that effect migrants, that we could involve all the Churches and mosques - well we don't have a synagogue here but we do have a Sikh temple - in working together to attack injustices and shortcomings in our relationships between one another and the community. I proposed that we invite Latrobe University to co-host a conference on Cultural Diversity and Social Harmony, the Goulburn Valley experience, Latrobe jumped at it......

Margaret Coffey: And so did the Ethnic Council.

Sue Casey, from the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture, is a regular visitor to Shepparton: she talked at the Conference about all the elements that go into making resettlement work in a regional centre.

Sue Casey: Well I certainly talked about leadership and I think leadership in this context has two faces. And one is leadership from let's call it the host community so that local government, leaders in health come together in things like settlement planning committees and other working groups to achieve sustainable change in the town, to provide a welcoming environment, to assist people with work, employment, all the usual things that go into making a good life. But at the same time it is also important that new arrivals are supported in their own leadership capacity. They are people of great resilience, they've come from often dreadful hardship and awful experiences but at the same time they are often people who have had leadership positions, be it in a refugee camp, in their country of origin and need support to resume those leadership positions as they settle.

Margaret Coffey: When you talk about leadership amongst service providers, it sounds very bureaucratic and institutional, but I wonder whether it resolves down to individuals, to personalities, and their key importance?

Sue Casey: Look it does, and I think in looking across the various regional towns where new arrivals are settling, it is someone that's a true leader; it's people who have got spirit and have got a vision about how things can be. It's building on the capacity of the town that is already there, it is not about it's all new and it's all different, but it is sometimes about challenging ourselves and thinking about slightly different ways of doing things. And again - I think I made that point quite a few times during my talk - is that issue of supporting people to be leaders themselves too.

Margaret Coffey: Sue Casey


Thon Thon: We reached to Ethiopia in a refugee camp. We start a new life. Then the war started in Ethiopia again. So, the UN say yes there is a problem coming in - we will take only the staff by planes and you people, we try to protect and it is very hard to do any protection any more, Can you try you leaders of the community and see where you can direct these people? Then they say OK, the only country which have no war is only Kenya. They took us again, with Red Cross - Red Cross is there, never give up, and everything you want to eat you carry by your own. It took us four months again, up to Kenya. We reached to Kenya, to the border of Kenya and the government sent helicopter, the Sudanese government, bombing us on the border 'til we reached in. We were only surviving on maize. If you boil it with water it take some days without getting rotten or anything[s].

We came up to Kenya in 1992 and we stay in 1992 in refugee camp which is Kakuma Refugee camp. We set up that camp, I get training in as a nurse. I worked with them up to 2005 when I coming to Australia. It become a centre for all refugees in Africa. It was around 60,000 refugees in it - with only one hospital. It have around five clinics around it. If there is any disease come out within that camp, everybody have to get it. It is also desert - it can even stay more than two years without rain. Water, we get water with short supply with a tap - start at seven o'clock in the morning and end at 8 o'clock, for your drink, for your shower, for cooking. That is how we survived.

Margaret Coffey: Thon's story continues ..this is Encounter on ABC Radio National - in this program stories of Cultural Diversity and Social Harmony in Shepparton, at the heart of the Goulburn Valley in Victoria. Another way is to say they are stories of intimacy and openness and generous exchange.

Margaret Coffey: Here's a voice well-known in Shepparton.

Joan McCrae: I'm Joan McCrae

Margaret Coffey: Joan McCrae was once principal of a local high school.

Joan McCrae: ...and I'm an interfaith member on the planning committee for this conference. I've been involved in interfaith in Shepparton since we really started it.

Margaret Coffey: Tell me a little about the session that you presented here today.

Joan McCrae: I was focusing on migrant voices. We had three professional men: a refugee from the Congo who has been here 13 months with his family and then two scientists who have been here ten years and eighteen years. They came from India and Sri Lanka, so there were three quite different voices.

Margaret Coffey:Your Congolese refugee in fact you've got to know quite well, haven't you?

Joan McCrae: Yes - on the eleventh day they were in Australia, they came with another family to our church because they have a Methodist background in the Congo, and Uzembe and Janette and their family have not missed in that 13 and a half months. They have become a tremendously lively and vital part of our congregation. We've had to change too to help them with the readings in English so now we have a session before church where they read through these, they hear the Scripture readings in Swahili or French or both and they read through these in English. And all of these Congolese have now read in Church as one of our rostered readers, in English.

Margaret Coffey: So it has been a real two way street hasn't it?

Joan McCrae: Well part of my joy has been that because my particular family, Uzembe's family, lived much further from the centre of the town than any of the other families and I was really cross about that - and no provisions being made for them shopping - so I started arranging a roster of people to take them to Church and also took them to shopping once a fortnight because we buy a 25 kg bag of semolina and you can't carry that on a bike and we buy a 10 kg bag of rice and we buy various other things. So every fortnight I have an absolute ball in the supermarket as we explore different items and we are the centre of some attention of course and it is absolutely amazing fun.

Margaret Coffey: In general how important has been the inter-faith nexus, the religious nexus in Shepparton in brokering this new experience for Shepparton?

Joan McCrae: Oh well we've had Muslims here for 75 years - so there has been a strong Muslim presence. It is about 10 per cent of the population now, here all of this time - and our original inter church work with them was for prayers, combined prayers for special occasions particularly the Kosovo problems, then of course September 11 ......

Margaret Coffey: The fact of Muslim presence for such a long time is part of the story - but events have played their part in drawing people into a deeper conversation, and into diffusing leadership throughout the community.

Eljan Bardi: People meeting each other - they have Italians, Macedonians, Vietnamese, from all countries but they unite and they do very sincere gathering all time discussing. Important thing what I say is 1999, when happened the Kosovars....

Peter Jeffrey: ..... the Tsunami Disaster and earlier events, we needed as a community in this area to recognise that we were commonly trying to respond appropriately. And then this led on to a lot of opportunities for fostering dialogue, that we have to appreciate all the commonality but also the differences if we are able to live harmoniously.

Margaret Coffey: With immigration from Islamic cultures other than Albanian, the Muslim community has become more complex, perhaps a touch less harmonious -

Eljan Bardi: We have also in Shepparton some extremism and fanatics or so called. They say, oh this woman not have the hijab, she is a kaffir - that means a denier of religion. It is not like that you know. We have some problems also, some women they come from the culture and they say men not allowed to give lectures to the women. This is not in Islam. But you cannot not stop that. Every culture they some fanatics.

Margaret Coffey: Imam Eljan Bardi

Riddy Ahmet: In Australia we have a cross culture - all races and religions - and we have become not tolerant because when you ....the word tolerant assumes superiority so I don't use the word tolerant ....but understanding. My favourite communication is to talking to people who differ from me in belief. I find that fascinating and I like to reach people who are different from me. It's easy to talk to someone who believes in exactly what I believe in, because it become boring.

Margaret Coffey: You must be doing a lot of talking within the Islamic community in Shepparton then?

Riddy Ahmet: I was president of the Islamic Community in Shepparton for a number of years, I can't remember, I had two terms at it, possibly about twelve years and then I was in the community for about 19 years, so I did my fair bit of my, I suppose, yeh, reaching out. But we have to. We have got to build bridges of understanding with people who are different from us. And it is so important you know. I find that important for the health of a community to understand others because if you don't then you are in your little nutshell and you don't know what is going on out there you know.

Margaret Coffey: Riddy Ahmet.


Thon Thon: There is one of my friends who we were working together in the pharmacy in Kenya, in the refugee camp. He came to Australia first. Then when he come he say Thon, with this life we share here I will not forget of you. If I go and get the chance of sponsoring you I will sponsor you. After one year he send me the form. My friend is called Angelo Fanterre, he is living now in Sunshine. say I will take you to my house and will you stay in my house until we pay back the money which we loan - he loan money from someone. I stay in his house with him and pay the money back. And there in Melbourne it was a bit confused for me because it is a big city and I was born in a small village, the rest of my life in refugee camp. I was a bit unhappy. There is another lady called Elizabeth, she was born here in Shep and she is now working in Melbourne; she used to come and see me and she say OK if you are not happy here I will take you around. We came around here in Shep and I told her I like this place, if there is a way you can connect me with these people or there is a way this community can accept me, because in Africa if people do not accept you, you cannot go to their community. So I was preparing that maybe somebody would say no we don't want him.

In my background we are farmers. My father is a farmer, my father is a cattle keeper. So when I came here, a long way from Nagambie up to down here, I found a lot of farm, a lot of cow, and I say yes, this is how I am going to make my life because it is near to ours, where I was, what I was doing, first, before I come to Australia.

Sound of school playground

Margaret Coffey: Here in the playground Shepparton's diversity is on display. Shepparton's schools are inevitably schools of harmony, and their principals were well represented at the recent Conference. Julie Cobbledick spoke about hers, St Brendan's Primary School.

Julie Cobbledick: Sometimes you feel some resentment as though some people are getting this and others aren't and why do we have to do that. I guess you know I see the roles of anyone in leadership within the community within Shepparton - it is just so important that we model all the time what is right and what is proper and that is really hard work. There's some wonderful people in the Shepparton community who, volunteers or community organisations, who have been so supportive to the families that have come in greatest need. I think if people see people doing things and outreaching then other people think well I can do that to and jump on board.

Margaret Coffey: Rashidi is at the school on a work placement.

Rashidi Sumali: Yes, I am working with Congolese students, yes I am helping them because some of them come here with no English background and I am helping them to translate some lessons because I was teaching in my country and it is my career to do this job. Yes.

Margaret Coffey: We're on our way to a Prep room, where Rashidi has a new student.

Julie Cobbledick: We have our first little boy Burundi start last week who is...his family are pygmy from Africa. So that has created some challenges because he doesn't speak any English and he is non English speaking. We've also a little boy who just started a couple of weeks ago from Sri Lanka who is becoming fairly familiar with the English language in this room - so it is a busy little room with lots of children from different cultural backgrounds which I think you will enjoy.

Margaret Coffey: ....busy with the dramas of children's lives.

Julie Cobbledick: Frank how is your baby, is she home, Mum's home?

Margaret Coffey: The little boy from Burundi is at the beginning of a long haul, familiar to so many Australians.

Sound Boy reading

Margaret Coffey: Julie Cobbledick grounds her school's response to the needs of Shepparton's changing population in a religious impulse.

Julie Cobbledick: I don't know that we will ever get there, it's something we will have to always work on. Certainly at our school board level and our school plan for the next three years, the underpinning theme is about inclusiveness and the Scripture piece, go out into the roads and lanes and urge people to come in so that my house may be full, from Luke's Gospel, is certainly the focus that we have got for the next three years - not to make our school bigger and have more people in it, but to make sure that the people who are here are welcomed, feel that they can contribute. So we certainly have got plans to make sure that the leadership of our school, the parent leadership of our school, reflects the changing face of our school. That's where I would like to see ourselves - if we are going to be judged on anything, it would be on how inclusive are we, to the extent that we are totally respectful of people's different cultural backgrounds and their different religious backgrounds.

Margaret Coffey: How easy is that for a school with a distinctive religious identity and purpose? It's a complicated question for a school like St Brendan's ... a concentrated version of questions about identity asked elsewhere in Shepparton.

Julie Cobbledick: I think we have got a lot of work to do in that area, we really have. We've recently been successful in a school chaplaincy grant. A big part of that person's role is to research different religious backgrounds so that we are more informed from the different cultures and then to be able look at that within our own Catholic Christian context and to make some comparisons, not judgements, but so that we can be just more knowledgeable I guess and therefore knowledge brings respect. Everyday the children all participate in religious education lessons with their classroom teachers and we would hope it is more than a lesson, that it permeates into their playground and into the way they are with each other. With some of the culturally diverse backgrounds and with some of the diverse religious backgrounds, some of that just comes up in conversation through their religious education lessons when they might be talking about well that is the way we do this in our religion. But I still feel we have a long way to go in having more knowledge about the different religious backgrounds in our school and integrating that into our Catholic context.

Margaret Coffey: In the playground Akash has something to say.

Akash: My religion always has to have Singh in the middle, always no matter what, it has to, because like my religion is Singh.

Margaret Coffey: You're Sikh?

Akash: Yeh.

Margaret Coffey: And as to the other children in the playground he understands this...<.p>

Akash: They come from different countries, different religion, people have different accents some time. There's heaps of religions and each religion has its own culture and each religion has different populations at places. Like Caitlin, she comes from New Zealand. Like she goes to a Church. We don't. We go to a place like you know the Golden Temple? Like that. You know the one they are building here at Shep. Stuff like that.

Julie Cobbledick: I think our younger generation will lead Shepparton I hope years to come but of course that is still way down the track but there are some great foundations with all the children I would think in all the schools in Shepparton in that area.

Margaret Coffey: On the way to the early morning reading class Immaculate is greeting children and parents.

Immaculate Bihamba: My name is Immaculate Bihamba . I am teacher's aide at St Brendan's Primary School. Yeh I like working here because all the children likes me. Everybody love me and is why I am pleased to work here... even the Australian one love me so much and I am happy about that.

Sound of pupils' reading

Margaret Coffey: St Brendan's kicks into gear early. Every morning new arrival children particularly those whose parents don't speak English come for half an hour's reading before school.

Sound of pupils' reading

Margaret Coffey: Parents sit out in the yard, or stand around watching.

Benni Joseph: We came in Australia one year ago. My eldest daughter is studying here since February 2007; she is in the third standard. We are trying to settle in Australia . The culture is entirely different from our country. The first thing was the language and the difference in the culture, yes.

Sound of pupils' reading

Margaret Coffey: A place like Shepparton - a country like Australia - a school like St Brendan's - is a place that can overwhelm with stories. This is one story from the early morning reading class.

Monga: My name is Monga. I am in Grade 5 and I am eleven years ago and I came to Australia in December 2005, the day after Christmas. Then my sister Nema she was missing and my uncle, so we was missing them.....

Julie Cobbledick: Look I was sitting here in my office one day with a new arrival dad from Africa and in his very broken English he told me his little girl was missing - his wife had been killed, he had five children here with him and he had a little girl that was still in Africa somewhere and could I help him. And that was the first time I had had a request of that nature ever and I didn't know what to do. But anyway with the help, a few phone calls, I found out about the Red Cross tracing department which I didn't know about, we sent forms off and it's a long story, but after about six or seven weeks we discovered that Nema was in Nairobi with her 19 year old uncle who had been looking after her for the previous five years. So, it was the most exciting day, right up there with my wedding, when I went around to tell Maulidi that we had found his girl and we made a phone call and he spoke to her. And Nema has a twin sister who is here so there is this twin thing happening which was beyond comprehension for me. They were eight when they started to communicate on the phone and they had been separated from the time they were two. And Fotina used to always talk about her sister that was missing but they didn't have the English for twin so we hadn't made the connection about the twin until at the time that she was found. And Fotina often talks about I always felt that Nema was alive but I just never thought that I would see her again.

Every Monday we would pray at Assembly and we would light a candle for Nema you know for when she would come to Australia and on Nema's first day we had Assembly and she lit her candle. The whole school community was just ...

So after lots of toing and froing we applied for her visa and it got close for her to come to Australia because he was so worried that something would happen to her. So my husband and I we went, to Nairobi, and we went totally unprepared, just thinking we would go and get this little girl and we will bring her back. But it turned out to be a life changing experience for us in so many ways and we met her uncle who had looked after her and had carried her through five countries, walking over four years.

Fortunately we were able to get his visa approved, and he is living here with the family now. So to see then her brothers and sisters here who had struggled so much during that first ten months in Australia, to see them immediately be different children and to be so happy and their learning to escalate in the weeks after Nema arrived home, it's just something beyond comprehension really. Extraordinary thing to be a part of!

Margaret Coffey: Behind the policy changes to family reunification, or to refugee intakes from one part of the world or another are stories like these. In Shepparton, even at this single school, it's not a one-off story either ...

Julie Cobbledick: Yeh, well Immaculate that you spoke to before, on the same day that Maulidi told me that his little girl was missing, she told me that she had a missing son. So it took a lot longer to find him and it took a lot longer for him to get here because he was in a refugee camp in Burundi and it is a tough spot to get to but he arrived last week and he was reunited with this eight brothers and sisters. He's fourteen. They hadn't seen him since he was eight. We have a couple of other families where we know where the children are and we have just pinned in visa approvals which is hard work but you just keep chipping away at it.

Margaret Coffey: Julie Cobbledick, principal of St Brendan's Primary School in Shepparton.

Monga: We do like singing and we do like dancing ... we sing and dance and welcoming other people from different countries. And we having our choir at home we sing about Jesus.

Margaret Coffey: So you give lots of things to the community?

Monga: Yes. Very important for us. I love singing.

Julie Cobbledick: Fotina this is Margaret.. This is Fotina, Monga's little sister's Nema.

Margaret Coffey: The family is getting together and there's to be an impromptu performance in the playground..

Julie Cobbledick: So Fotina and Nema are twins. They were separated for six years.

Sound of Singing

Margaret Coffey: This is a story of diversity and harmony and leadership in Shepparton, evoked at a Conference organised last year. In the end, for all the policy and strategy discussions, the stories took over. The stories are also stories about reciprocity - the kind of two way street that Shepparton has become.

Sonali Jayasaundra: I used to go to the library. I used to not only go just to be in the library, but I used to go you know when they had writers who were launching their books. You know the library was part of everything for me. Because I was going there so often I one day asked the librarian you know after about six months I asked her do you have any job available for me. So then she said OK there is a job, it is only two hours and actually no Australian wants it, do you mind, if you want, you can have it and then after that they increased it to eight hours. And what I am supposed to do is to bring in new immigrants. So I know what it was for me. I bring in different groups and teach about the library and say you know come in and make them feel welcome. Normally we have tea and biscuits when groups come in. It's just that I want to connect them with the library and I am very keen that they learn English because- I feel English is a uniting language you know that can divisions are a little less. If you communicate then your barriers are less because then you can see the similarities, because I think without language you always see the differences.

Margaret Coffey: Sonali Jayasaundra, in Australia just three years. Maria Presti came in the sixties, as a young married woman.

Maria Presti: I born in Montalbano and I think Shepparton is my second town because I have been two parts of my life here, and one part in my town.

Margaret Coffey: Now she cares for the Italian women who welcomed her to Shepparton.

Maria Presti: So I know all of these ladies I got on a telelink. I know them from when I came here. They all elderly and in their eighties. They cannot go out, so they home always. I visit in their home, I visit in hostels and I visit them in nursing home as well. It is a joy to me to do something for them because they were familiar faces, when I come to the streets of the Shepparton and meet them, talk to them, because I haven't got any relations here they were part of my family I can say.

Margaret Coffey: So now through Vision Australia you connect with these elderly Italian ladies once a week via telelink?

Maria Presti: Yes, I read them a stories, in Italian, little stories, like children at school, And then you know, with the years, with the time, I read some Life of the Saints and things like that, we talk about Jesus, and you know all these things, religious things, and then they say, oh we can say the Rosary. Right, we'll say the Rosary! So this is a bond between us with the same religion and with the same ideas about God. So it is very good for me, and it is very good for them. Because maybe in your late years you think of going away from this world so you may found a good one there.

Margaret Coffey: Who is their favourite saint?

Maria Presti: Favourite saint - Mary, mother of God, because she is a mother; so he understand better than the others.


Thon Thon: Yes, I am now working. Really working, which is a full time job and I am also working at TAFE, as a community development in TAFE, and I am working also at Ethnic Council, the same, community development.

Margaret Coffey: Just two years later, and you are also helping so many fellow Sudanese?

Thon Thon: Yes. For the first time I came in I try to decide what people in the region did to me I have to apply to the other people too, because they help me to settle in. If somebody willing to come in, I also helping that person to settle in as I was helping by the other people. And that is what we are doing now. We are doing well.

Margaret Coffey: How many people have you helped so far?

Thon Thon: Yeh right now I have about 30 families who are coming up to me and I found the houses for them here in Shep. And also helping them to connect with Job Network, show them where to go, helping them. I am Christian background and people whom I have here, they are also Sudanese, some are from Darfur, some are from northern part and I am from south. We forget about the political background in Sudan and we come and unite ourselves here as a Sudanese, whether you are Muslim or you are Christian, you are all under the umbrella of Sudan, yeh.

I have two children. My son was born in Africa and I have my little daughter. My son normally go to St Brendan. He is now in Year one in St Brendan. We named my daughter Shalom; she was born here in Shep.

Yes actually I don't want to forget about that story because when you are in problem you learn so many things. So it is not easy to forget about it. It is good also to tell your children, share with the others, people to know. Yes.

Margaret Coffey: You've been listening to Encounter, Stories from Shepparton, on ABC Radio National.

The program draws on the recent conference on Cultural Diversity and Social harmony: The Goulburn Valley Experience, organised in Shepparton by the Latrobe University Shepparton Campus, the local Ethnic Council, and the Shepparton Interfaith Network. You can find a link to information about the Conference at There you will also find a transcript of the program .. and of course a podcast version. Technical production, Martin Lawrence. I'm Margaret Coffey.



Tr 9, "Sultanahmet" performed by Mara on the album "Don't Even Think"
Sandstock Music SSM 042CD

Used with permission, ABC Radio National.


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