Sitting at his desk in a Shepparton office, Thon’s calm demeanor gives no hint of the turbulence he experienced in his earlier life.
In 1985, at the age of 11, he was forced to leave his homeland in South Sudan following the outbreak of a civil war between the central government and rebel forces. He joined a 27,000-strong group of boys on a long foot journey to Ethiopia, facing hunger, exhaustion and the emotional turmoil of losing family members to militia violence.
“When we reached Ethiopia, we were only 12,000,” he tells New Matilda.
“[We] were quite young. A lot of people were taken by animals, a lot…just fell asleep and were left there in the forest.”
The region’s rivers and plains are home to various threatening beasts, including crocodiles and lions.
The group, who have become colloquially known as the Lost Boys of Sudan, were to be recruited into the rebels’ army when they came of age. Some were eventually conscripted and many still reside in refugee camps in neighbouring countries.
Thon remained in refugee camps in Ethiopia and Kenya for roughly 20 years, before receiving sponsorship to migrate to Australia in 2005. Initially arriving in Melbourne, he knew early on that he would need to find a more comfortable place to establish himself.
“Melbourne was a bit busy for somebody like me, growing up in a small village and refugee camp. It was a bit of a culture shock,” he says.
In search of a quieter lifestyle, Thon moved to Tatura in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley, before eventually relocating to Shepparton.
“I was looking for a small town,” he says, with a sense of purpose.
“When the town grows, you grow with the town.”
The Sudanese community in Shepparton now comprises 130 families and approximately 1000 people. At the time Thon arrived, however, there were very few Africans looking to settle in the Goulburn Valley.
“It was a bit challenging at the beginning, because it was just me and my wife,” he recalls.
“[But] after six months I realised ‘I’m not lonely, I’m here to do something with myself’.”
Having trained and practiced as a nurse for eight years in Kenya, Thon set about having his skills recognised in Australia. He eventually found work in the medical field but his first job came as an interpreter for the emerging Congolese population in the area.
In contrast with the various other ethnic groups who came to Shepparton through secondary migration, refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were directly settled in Shepparton through the federal government’s Regional Humanitarian Settlement Pilot. The program, which ran in 2005-6, involved an initial group of 10 Congolese families, who were actively supported in their settlement needs by local organisations and community groups.
For Thon, the initiative opened up an opportunity to provide translating services for the new residents.
“The [Congolese] community started to grow at the same time I came in,” he says.
“It encouraged a lot of organisations to work with me, so that I could help them with settling” into a new place.
Adam Kitungano was one of the first DRC refugees to arrive in Shepparton.
Having fled internal violence in 1996, he spent nine years in a Tanzanian refugee camp before being granted a passage to Australia with his wife and children.
Sitting on a bench in the Shepparton city centre, he speaks glowingly of the support he received upon entering the town.
“When we first came … people were aware that something was happening,” he tells New Matilda.
“We had people bringing us food and clothes, people used to come to our house and take our kids to the swimming pool. The community was very, very welcoming, and I think that’s why I’m still here.”
Trained as a teacher, it was difficult to find work in the region, even after he had a solid command of English and completed further study to have his skills recognised in Australia.
Kitungano initially found work as a cleaner at Notre Dame College, a Catholic School in Shepparton. He became an integration aide at the school in 2007, where he assisted Congolese students and parents with day-to-day tasks. Now, he is employed full-time as a science teacher.
Kitungano says some other Congolese and Sudanese migrants have struggled to establish themselves in the region.
“There are many people around here looking for jobs, but they can’t get work,” he says. “Even…in the farms, abattoirs, there’s not much.”
A 2007 government report (pdf) on the Shepparton Regional Humanitarian Settlement Pilot states that the “high availability of unskilled work” in the agriculture and food processing industries was a major factor in the decision to send Congolese arrivals to the region.
Since then, however, the Heinz tomato-processing factory in Girgarre closed its doors, and SPC Ardmona has downsized its workforce and significantly reduced its fruit intake from local growers.
In a 2009 paper (pdf) on capacity building for African migrants in the Goulburn Valley, a sample of African-Australians identified employment as their number one settlement priority. This includes not only the availability of work, but also the desire to find a job matching one’s skill set and the adequacy of support services.
For Dr Apollo Nsubuga-Kyobe, one of the authors of the paper, employment prospects will be one of the key factors in determining whether Congolese migrants will remain in Shepparton. While he views the government pilot as a success, he identifies a number of issues with the viability of settling migrants in the region.
“It’s one of those places that has a well diversified economy,” he says, “but when it comes to skilled work [opportunities are]very, very limited.”
Nsubuga-Kyobe is well acquainted with issues of migration in the Goulburn Valley. Having spent 10 years as a lecturer at La Trobe University’s Shepparton campus, he has written extensively about the resettlement needs and experiences of sub-Saharan Africans, and has helped to establish a number of organisations that deal with diverse settlement issues.
In his view, regional resettlement programs must be balanced with an assessment of whether a particular location has both the social supports and institutions to foster sustained, inclusive growth. While Shepparton has broadly welcomed ethnically diverse migrants, he questions the willingness of people – particularly the Congolese arrivals – to remain in the town given the limited work and study options.
“Those who grew up [in Shepparton], the young ones, they’re migrating to Melbourne,” he says. “There’s no benefit [in staying].”
Nsubuga-Kyobe says that the region needs to move away from offering merely seasonal or transitional work for migrants, and build on the expertise of people in the community.
It is a view shared by Greater Shepparton mayor Jenny Houlihan.
“Some people have come to Australia and been disappointed that they’ve been qualified in something that they’ve not been able to find work in…and it’s disappointing that as a community we cannot use all those skills,” she tells New Matilda.
Houlihan says it is up to the government to invest in job creation and education so that people are not forced to move elsewhere for study and work.
“We need to be creating jobs here … we need to have that range of employment options.”
Despite complications with the targeted resettlement of migrants, there is every indication that Shepparton was a good option for the first government humanitarian settlement program.
From an initial intake of 10 Congolese families, the local Congolese population has grown to 23 families — approximately 160 people – many of whom migrated from major cities after hearing about the experience of those settled through the program.
Nsubuga-Kyobe identifies one main reason for this: “The Shepparton program was owned by the community.”
In 2007, a similar program to settle refugees from Togo was implemented in the regional Victorian town of Ballarat. While a government evaluation (pdf) of the program details a number of positive outcomes, a range of factors including a high rate of unemployment, the cold climate and the inadequacy of some support services are identified as problems confronting the new arrivals.
For Nsubuga-Kyobe, however, the reason for any failings in the initiative is simple.
“The Ballarat program was top-down, the government came with experience from Shepparton…and integration ultimately failed.”
In his view, it is the absence of a long history of ethnic diversity and migration in Ballarat which made it difficult to link new arrivals with an engaged community.
Thon is doing his bit to make it easier for migrants to feel at home in the region.
After working as an interpreter, he joined the Ethnic Council of Shepparton as a community development officer, where he helps recent arrivals from a range of ethnic backgrounds to settle into a new life.
“When someone comes here…I ask ‘what are you good at? What did you do back home?’” he says.
Thon tells a story of a man who was trained as a social worker, but initially settled for work in the farms.
“When he came he got lost, [and]didn't realise what he had [to offer]. So he threw it away to do milking.”
With assistance from local support agencies, the man now works at the Family Relationship Centre as a liaison officer for new arrivals.
Thon is adamant that Shepparton offers enough job opportunities for new arrivals, particularly those from sub-Saharan Africa. In his mind, the challenge lies in helping people to seek out those opportunities and present themselves as a strong candidate.
“A lot of people in Melbourne sit in Centrelink,” he says.
“They get lost in the city, because they don’t know where to go. But when they get out, they open their minds.”
In addition to his work assisting recent arrivals, Thon runs a grocery shop specialising in African and Asian foods. He says this provides a crucial resource for people who might feel isolated in their new environment.
“If someone comes and says ‘I can’t eat pizza’ for some reason, and they want to eat semolina, we have [it]there,” he says.
For Thon, this is not just a matter of providing familiar food, but helps in connecting members of the community.
“It is very important for people, especially the new arrivals,” he says.
Sitting at his desk surrounded by photographs and posters showcasing the town’s diversity, it is clear that Thon is not only content in the place he calls home, but is deeply committed to sharing it with others.
“I see myself staying in Shepparton for a long time,” he says.
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