Hero Aussie Gran who saved her NSW town

Ju­lia’s re­set­tle­ment plan has given the tiny town of Min­goola a new lease of life

Woman’s Day (Australia) - - Contents -

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.”

COM­ING TO­GETHER

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.

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