Developing small farms on unused land in urban areas could help alleviate chronic unemployment for refugees resettled in Australia.
O nly 31 per cent of humanitarian visa recipients have jobs after five years, but many have skills as subsistence farmers, which could turn unproductive land into market gardens.
At Mangerton in Wollongong, Karenni refugees are transforming a steep hillside next to the Saint Therese Primary School, into a traditional terraced garden. According to University of Wollongong geographer Ananth Gopal, community gardens could help refugees avoid the sort of isolation that comes with long-term unemployment.
“Growing food is a way out of the loneliness and isolation that besets loads of refugee communities, especially women feel that sense of isolation,” he said.
Mr Gopal is doing a doctoral thesis on the relationship between cultural diversity and agricultural diversity and believes small urban farms may be a creative solution to unemployment in refugee communities.
Growing food is a way out of the loneliness and isolation that besets loads of refugee communities, especially women.Ananth Gopal
“We’ve learned that, especially from communities with a refugee background, the level of resourcefulness and determination to grow food is off the charts. They’re committed to growing food,” he said.
“Growing food is part of their culture and they care about growing food that fits their cultural appetite, and also they really care about growing food that tastes good. And that tends to mean they’re amazing at growing organic food.”
Growing self-confidence and keeping culture alive
The Karenni community garden is being developed on less than half-a-hectare of land with poor soils, but its volunteers are rapidly transforming it into a traditional food garden.
Pya Ma, who grew up in a United Nations refugee camp on the border of Thailand and Myanmar, said the garden gave family members something productive to do.
“If they have nothing to do people feel helpless and worthless, so it’s a good thing to grow their own vegetables. They feel more confident. It brings their confidence back,” she said.
Mr Gopal said the benefits extended well beyond the farm with traditional foods offering a way of keeping cultural practices alive. “It’s not just about the food, it’s also about the ways in which they relate to each other, the ways in which people come together, share food, share knowledge,” he said.
“And they also pass on some of the wisdom from their ancestors to the new generation of Australians, their kids are Australian.”
Mr Gopal said refugee communities were an untapped resource that offered a fresh perspective to urban farming.
“We’ve got a lot of unused land in urban spaces right throughout Australia and it would be great if councils and settlement services could come together and say: ‘hey, these guys want to grow food, they’re good at it, let’s give them a shot’,” he said.
“These guys don’t muck around. They’re more than happy to grow food on some marginal spaces… and they’re showing us in Australia what can happen in terms of productivity and sustainability for food.”
A lot of refugees were subsistence farmers before coming to Australia and we wanted to give them the opportunity to share their knowledge and skills. We see it as a real exchange.Jess Moore
The Wollongong area is home to one of the largest Karenni communities in Australia with about 45 families settled since 2007. In an area with already high unemployment finding jobs has been challenging but the social enterprise Green Connect is helping.
General manager Jess Moore said the group employed more than 100 refugees and young people last year in a waste recovery business and growing food for trade on a five-hectare urban farm at Warrawong.
The group had transformed a site covered in lantana and prone to flooding but the biggest change was in the people it employed, she said.
“There’s so many barriers when a refugee first comes to Australia in terms of finding a job, so apart from the obvious, learning English, learning how to catch a train or drive a car, a lot of refugees have never had either a paid employment experience at all because they’ve always lived in a refugee camp, or they’ve never had a paid employment experience working in Australia.
“So we chose to work in industries where a lot of former refugees are really skilled, like chemical-free farming,” Ms Moore said. “A lot of refugees were subsistence farmers before coming to Australia and we wanted to give them the opportunity to share their knowledge and skills. We see it as a real exchange.
“Australians aren’t great at chemical-free farming generally. A lot of refugees are, and it’s a real opportunity while refugees are learning the language, learning about working in Australia. They’re also making an incredibly meaningful contribution in terms of sharing their skills.”
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