This story is part of a series of ‘good news’ stories written by journalism students from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS).
“The tomatoes are looking great today!” says Eh Moo with a warm smile.
Born in Myanmar’s Karenni state, the 31-year-old is one of several refugees who now call an 11-acre urban farm and op-shop in Warrawong, Wollongong, their place of work.
“Working at Green Connect has saved me from drowning,” he says.
Green Connect is a social enterprise that employs 111 refugees and young people both full and part-time.
Green Connect’s urban farm grows a range of produce, including fruit and vegetables and sells honey, eggs, and free-range meat. The enterprise also provides zero-waste services at events, as well as commercial and private gardening and landscaping.
Growing up, Eh Moo and his family were forced to move constantly. After they were displaced, he spent most of his childhood in a refugee camp on the Thailand-Myanmar border before moving to Australia in 2007.
“Without this farm, I would be very stressed and isolated, and I would be poor and bored,” he says.
Eh Moo, working on the farm Credit: Supplied/Green Connect
“Even during the [COVID-19] lockdown, I got to come to the open space and meet with my co-workers.”
The organisation was founded in 2011 and its hybrid employment model trains and supports refugees and local people aged 15 to 24 to hold down jobs that both help the environment and community while providing them with a fair wage.
Without this farm, I would be very stressed and isolated, and I would be poor and bored.Eh Moo
Harley, 23, has worked in gardening and landscaping for Green Connect since the lockdown.
“I have met a lot of former refugees and it’s cool to get experience with people from different backgrounds,” he says.
“I had never heard stories like the ones that come out of the [Karenni people]. What they have been through is pretty tough. We’ve grown up with food in our mouths and they’ve grown up with war and planes overhead.”
“I’ve learnt tools from them ... I was even learning some Karenni [language] today!”
Harley, working on the farm. Credit: Supplied/Green Connect
Sharing is caring
Green Connect’s manager Kylie Flament says the enterprise’s mission was threatened by last year’s pandemic measures. With Wollongong in lockdown, the op-shop was forced to close its doors and the organisation’s waste management services at events had to be put on hold.
“We shifted to providing care packages out of our op-shop, and also vegetable boxes comprised of fresh produce from our farm,” she says.
The care packages contained clothes, blankets and toys and were designed for those in need. Over the course of the lockdown, 3,000 of them were ordered by the local community.
“People could buy their own boxes … But for the most part, it was a pure donation of $40.”
With the help of the Red Cross and the Wollongong Homeless Hub, the boxes were delivered to those who needed support and “the stories that were coming through were just utterly heartbreaking,” Ms Flament says.
Su Meh, a farm worker, packing vegetables into boxes on the Green Connect urban farm in Warrawong Credit: Supplied/Green Connect
“In Wollongong, it came down to two groups; those that had always been in need … who were suddenly in dire need, and then there was a group, including small business owners, that had never had to ask for help before.”
As well as keeping him afloat financially, working at the farm during the pandemic also supported Eh Moo in other ways, as colleagues helped each other counter misinformation about COVID-19.
“In the Karenni culture, most of the older people have always lived in a war-torn area,” he says.
“They have never been to school. Their main priority was to stay alive … Most Karenni cannot read or write in their own language, let alone in English. They relied on word-of-mouth to find out information about COVID-19.”
Eh Moo lives in a multigenerational home with both his parents and children, all of whom relied on him for information about the virus and the lockdown restrictions.
More needs to be done to ensure everyone in Australia has access to reliable information in emergencies, he says.
But he’s grateful for all the opportunities he’s had on the farm.
“[I have learnt] about how important organic farming is to look after the environment and take care of the soil.”
“[But] the main thing I have learnt is self-confidence ... and to be proud of what you do.”
A vegetable box containing fresh produce from the farm. Credit: Supplied/Green Connect
Harley too, says he feels fortunate to be working, and felt assured knowing the care packages were helping those who needed it.
“I’ve had a lot of mates that were doing it tough through the lockdown. I’ll come out of my time at Green Connect a much better person – and I have a full-time job!”
Hugh McClure is a postgraduate journalism student who writes about politics, international relations and the Pacific.
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