Hero Aussie Gran who saved her NSW town
Julia’s resettlement plan has given the tiny town of Mingoola a new lease of life
Julia Harpham’s heart has been in the small town of Mingoola her entire life. So when the rural community on the New South Wales-queensland border started turning into a ghost town before her very eyes, the gran of seven didn’t hesitate to take action. “The population was declining, the school was going to close because we had no students left
and our farmers couldn’t find any labourers to work for them,” the 67-year-old tells Woman’s Day.
“Our community was in real trouble and we had to do some serious navel-gazing to figure out how we would save it.”
Along with her husband Phillip and some like-minded townsfolk, Julia came up with an innovative plan to find refugees who were willing to move from cities to the close-knit community.
After years of research and dead ends, her scheme finally came together in late 2015 when she met Sydney-based refugee advocate Emmanuel Musoni, who was struggling with a host of problems in his own community.
A MEETING OF DREAMS
Many refugees came from rural backgrounds in Africa and felt depressed and isolated in the major cities – especially as they’d hoped to be placed in the countryside to continue their agricultural way of life. “We were so sure there were subsistence farmers somewhere in the world who weren’t happy in the city,” Julia explains. “It was so hard to find them, but once we made contact we discovered there were 250 families who were happy to leave cities in NSW for the country immediately.”
Within weeks, two families with 16 children between them were chosen to spearhead Julia’s experiment. The local community embraced the initiative and came together to help renovate several abandoned farmhouses to accommodate the new locals and provide space for them to farm.
“I knew there were a few people who had reservations, who were worried orried about change, but there’s no sign of that now,” says Julia, who was named 2017 NSW Regional Woman of the Year.
“Everyone was so excited by it. When the ladies went into town it was like a royal procession! I was so surprised by the incredible support from the surrounding towns, too,” Julia says.
“People were offering to donate furniture, clothing and anything else that might be needed, as well as opening up their houses. It was extraordinary.”
Julia’s 10,000-acre grazing cattle property soon became a hive of activity, with the new townsfolk working on her vegie plot while the children rode ponies and bikes, and played Monopoly.
It’s the existence the refugee families had been dreaming about since they’d escaped from war-torn Africa.
Julia, who is known as “bibi” – respected older woman – by her new friends, friends says a father of one family said to her, “I have a new family, I have a new country. This is my place.”
“I was just so happy he was happy. They’ve all experienced terrible turmoil and they’re survivors. This landscape is like the one they had to leave behind, so they feel at peace and nothing will threaten them,” says Julia.
“When the parents bring their little ones over, it makes our home fun and lively. I really love them and seeing them thrive.”
Now, just over two years on, having shared family birthdays and everything in between, the 20 new residents have well and truly made Mingoola their home.
“It gets to a point where you don’t notice where people are from,” says Julia. “I’ve not only seen a remarkable change in the physical and mental health of our new residents, but also in the health of our whole community.”
Meanwhile, Mingoola Public School is also thriving again, with 11 students enrolled, eight of whom are African.
“Reopening the school was fantastic,” Julia smiles. “Without any children, it seemed the community was empty at its core. They’re all doing well and four are now at university.”
Not surprisingly, news of Mingoola’s inspiring rebirth has spread, and towns in Western Australia and Victoria are now working on similar projects.
“Places where everyone interacts and newcomers are embraced by the communities they live in is the only way forward for a harmonious and prosperous nation,” Julia adds passionately.
‘Without any children… the community was empty at its core’
Julia was named 2017 NSW Regional Woman of the Year for her efforts.
The initiative has allowed African families to continue their agricultural way of life. The arrival of primaryaged children allowed the town’s local school to reopen.