Byron Shire mayor Simon Richardson signed a Refugee Welcome Zone declaration during yesterday’s council meeting
The signing took place in front of a group of former refugees and their supporters, who welcomed the ‘commitment in spirit’ while acknowledging more needed to be done to help settle refugees in the shire.
The commitment is to ‘welcoming refugees into our community, upholding the Human Rights of refugees, demonstrating compassion for refugees and enhancing cultural and religious diversity in our community.’
The declaration was the brainchild of ALP councillor Paul Spooner.
Cr Richardson said, ‘It’s really exciting, as mayor of this shire, that we can stand with refugee advocates and refugees to encourage Australia to improve the way we welcome refugees, the way we celebrate refugees and the way we commit ourselves to be part of the global community.’
‘As someone who’s just been overseas at the UN, speaking to people from Ethiopia and some of the African nations in particular, it was very humbling to sit amongst 200 national representatives to get a real true sense – that we often forget – in the bubble of Byron and the bubble of Australia that we are all in this together across the planet,’ Cr Richardson said.
North Coast Settlement Service outreach support worker Leandro Mendes said, ‘This region is a very welcoming area. We have quite a number of families who have been settled in Lismore and still more coming. And it’s great to see what they add to the community.
‘More often than not, when you hear the term refugee, people imagine war and fear of persecution. And there’s truth to it, however my experience in working with people from refugee backgrounds, a word that comes to mind is resilience. It’s incredible the amount of resilience and the amount of courage that they bring with them when they come to this community,’ he said.
‘Often they we have people adding and contributing to our community in exceptional ways,’ he added.
‘When we look at the Refugee Welcome Zone declaration, it talks about the commitment “in spirit”. What I would like to see is us as a community, and as a council at a political level, welcoming families to this region. It’s not a simple thing however it’s doable with some political input and I think the community are very strongly behind us.
‘I believe we could support people coming to this region and settling here, maybe not in huge numbers but a number of families that could call Byron Shire home,’ Mr Mendes said.
Michael Douglas, president of Sanctuary Northern Rivers Inc, said, ‘We’ve had about 12 years of settling refugees into this area and I must say what a beautiful journey it’s been,’ he said.
‘It’s interesting, to witness the discussion on parking fees, which I’ve just done, how some things divide us. But there are many things which actually draw us together. I think all of us are driven b y compassion. And this is an issue which we can come together on.’
‘If we declare ourselves a Refugee Welcome Zone there comes with that a certain amount of responsibility. If we are to welcome refugees into this community there are issues of housing, issues of employment – and I think we need to find a way through that. But as a community and as a community [we need to] continue to advocate for a refugee policy which draws on the hearts of people.
‘It should be something which is uniting, not divisive. And to see how refugee policy has become part of the national political agenda I think is very regrettable,’ Mr Douglas said.
Sarah, a former refugee from Sierra Leone, told the chamber, ‘I came here in 2008. I’ve spent seven years here – and it’s such a blessing. We were helped by the community; we had all the support that we needed to settle well. The organisations and people – even individual families in Lismore – welcomed us.
‘So if the policies are favourable for people to be able to come here, to this vast land, there is the support of very good people to help, not to talk of the richness we’ve brought here. When I arrived I was just so grateful to be in this heaven on earth that I call Australia.
‘When I went back to Sierra Leone last year with a “flotilla” of books for schoolchildren, I was there for about six weeks and I knew I was ready to come back home. Australia is my home.
‘So when refugees are settled here, it has a ripple effect: we not only benefit ourselves and our families, we are kind enough to help people back home, especially those who cannot come here.
‘So thank you for creating this Refugee Welcome and I hope more of this will come,’ Sarah said.