The Australian community that became 'champions' of regional refugee resettlement

More than 300 refugees from Iraq and Syria are living in Armidale, NSW. Source: Settlement Services International

A new report has shown how Armidale in NSW could provide a roadmap of how to successfully resettle refugees in Australia.

The regional NSW city of Armidale may not seem like the obvious location to find a Yazidi pop-up restaurant.

But earlier this year, a group of Yazidi refugees were offered the chance to showcase their traditional cuisine in Armidale's Cafe Patisserie.

Locals queued up to try biryanis, stuffed vine leaves, naan breads and curries.

The pop-up was held earlier this year.
The pop-up was held earlier this year.
Settlement Services International

"Food is important to us and we wanted to share our culture and to let people try something new," Yazidi woman Zuhour Khudhier recalled in a new report by NGO Settlement Services International (SSI) entitled 'All in for Armidale'

Cafe owners Nathan Walker and Enora Chanteperdrix, who let the refugees use their venue, praised the event.

"This was our way of welcoming the newest group into town. I was born in Armidale, and I think it's great," Mr Walker said in the report, released last week. 

The pop-up restaurant is just one reason Armidale, a city of around 25,000 people, is being held up as a "highly successful" model of regional refugee resettlement.

From 2018, the city began to welcome more than 300 Yazidi refugees from Iraq and Syria who were fleeing persecution.

The Yazidis are an ethno-religious group who have traditionally lived in areas of northern Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. In 2014, IS began a systemic series of attacks on the group, slaughtering thousands and forcing many women into sexual slavery.

A new analysis from SSI and the University of New England showed that a "whole-of-community approach" to resettlement - focusing on the needs of both the refugees and host city - has resulted in an "extremely positive" reception since.

In addition to the pop-up restaurant, other initiatives that were spearheaded by SSI included arts and sports programs with the new arrivals and residents, along with fostering volunteering among locals.

Dr Susan Watt of the School of Psychology at the University of New England started to monitor Armidale community attitudes shortly after the first refugees arrived in early 2018. Her work involved random telephone surveys of residents.

The initial survey showed an overall positivity rating of 68/100 among residents.

By the time of the most recent survey this February, the positivity rating had risen to 73/100.

Attitudes towards refugees became more positive and level of concern dropped.
Attitudes towards refugees became more positive and level of concern dropped.
Settlement Services International

The level of concern about the impact of refugees coming to Armidale had also dropped.

"The community monitoring program suggests very positive responses from the Armidale community to the refugee resettlement program," Dr Watt said in the report.

Some members of the community have become "champions" of refugee resettlement.
Settlement Services International

But not all locals were convinced. 

"This is tempered by a minority of people who feel negatively about the program, but this number has decreased during the first 12 months of settlement," Dr Watt said.

The "whole-of-community" initiatives were also credited with leading to "an extraordinarily high retention rate" of new arrivals.

Local Simon Scott has been teaching photography to Yazidi student Salwan Qasm Muhi.
Local Simon Scott has been teaching photography to Yazidi student Salwan Qasm Muhi.
Settlement Services International

SSI CEO Violet Roumeliotis said the benefits were clear for both the city of Armidale and the refugees.

"Welcoming newcomers to regional sites can stimulate local regional economies, boost workforces and offset population decline," she said in a statement.

"For the newcomers, a regional environment can offer a warmer, less confronting settlement experience than that available in cities."

The report said "this approach could be instrumental in the success of regional settlement strategies across Australia, if duplicated in other areas".

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