A COMPELLING story by the Wimmera’s Margaret Millington – who grew up in Beechworth – and husband John about work with refugees that transformed a small country town was told to a Beechworth Rural Australians for Refugees’ forum in a packed Rotary Hall in Queen Victoria Park on November 30.
With collaboration, help and support through an open-minded community, the Millingtons told how the community of Nhill worked to resettle about 200 Karen refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar (formally known as Burma) from 2009.
Ms Millington said that her husband was general manager of a successful poultry processing company known as Luv-A-Duck when he became aware of a resettlement program placing the Karen in 31 countries, including Australia.
She said the expanding company had a limited local workforce and perceived an opportunity in the resettlement scheme.
But first the pair co-opted the support of others and consulted all sections of the Nhill community.
“It was important to have everyone with us and go on this journey,” Ms Millington said.
The prospect garnered overwhelming community interest and the couple helped to drive the Karen resettlement, starting with jobs for five at Luv-A-Duck and accommodation arranged for them by generous townsfolk.
More than 50 Karen refugees are now employed at Luv-A-Duck in diverse jobs, with another 15 businesses employing 30.
Others have gained confidence to start their own businesses.
“Their work ethic, loyalty and enthusiasm make them valuable employees,” Ms Millington said.
Eighteen families had also since bought their own homes and one elderly Nhill resident gifted her house for use as a Karen community centre when she moved to a retirement home.
Ms Millington said the Karen were actively involved in the community in such pursuits as sport and volunteering, and many had learned many new life skills through their employment and community support, including the town’s neighbourhood centre.
She said the Karen now made up 10 per cent of the town’s population and wanted to assimilate and give back to the community.
Ms Millington said 60 of them had become Australian citizens since 2012.
The couple’s and the community’s initiative had generated benefits valued by Deloitte at almost $42 million and the creation of 80 jobs for the local economy – contributing to the town’s infrastructure and social development.
“There has been success in so many ways for local businesses that have a reliable workforce and the Karen have a place to call home,” Ms Millington said.
“Life is so short – if only we could only all accept each for who we are, appreciate what we have, then maybe there would be peace and harmony in our world, and maybe there will then be no such thing as a refugee.”
Indigo mayor Jenny O’Connor, who welcomed the Millingtons to the talk, said the shire had become a designated safe haven for refugees in 2015.
“Rural communities do care about refugees and our dedicated community has strongly voiced its support for refugees where they are welcome and can be safe,” she said.
Beechworth RAR convenor Jamie Kronborg said Nhill and the Karen had demonstrated what could be achieved when a community “walked towards possibility and was open to an idea”.
He said some discussion was taking place in the North East and Indigo to explore what could be offered by local communities.
Ms Millington was a student at Beechworth’s St Joseph’s Primary School when a young girl.
This post is part of the thread: Border refugees and asylum seekers – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.