'Nation's friendliest town' split over Sudanese refugee families

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 January, 2007, 12:00am

Racial harmony in Australia is under the spotlight in the country music capital

'Why do they pick on us?' asks Henry Tombek, a wounded look on his face. 'I can only think that it's because we're black.'

Mr Tombek is one of 25 Sudanese refugees who have settled in Tamworth, a country town set amid the parched brown hills of northern New South Wales in Australia. Renowned as the host of the nation's top country music festival, the town was recently voted one of the nation's friendliest.

But Tamworth has offered a chilly welcome to the Sudanese, who arrived about a year ago in search of work. A proposal to accept another five families as part of a pilot resettlement scheme was rejected by the council last month by a majority of 6-3.

Mayor James Treloar said locals were concerned the Africans might carry diseases, that the men would sexually harass white women, and that they would commit crime.

The three councillors who voted for the refugees will seek to have the decision overturned tomorrow at a council meeting.

Councillor Warren Woodley has lobbied his colleagues hard and says one more may be prepared to come over to their side, leaving the mayor in the uncomfortable position of wielding the deciding vote.

The controversy, which has attracted accusations of racism, could spread to other towns as Australia increases the number of Africans it accepts under its humanitarian resettlement scheme.

Since the end of the second world war, more than 675,000 refugees have settled in Australia, but few of them had black faces. That has changed in recent years. In 2000, Australia accepted 1,700 Africans under its humanitarian programme. Last year, the figure leapt to 7,100. Of those, the largest number came from Sudan, with others from Burundi, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

The numbers may be small but even a few black faces stand out in a conservative town like Tamworth, which is 600km north of Sydney.

Australia's answer to Nashville, the town's annual country music festival, which starts on Friday, attracts 50,000 visitors and 600 musicians. The tourist information centre is built in the shape of a guitar, and its museum documents the life and times of country singers such as Smoky Dawson, Slim Dusty and Tex Morton, 'The Yodelling Boundary Rider'.

In a packed local pub, a singer in cowboy boots belts out a ballad with the refrain: 'So don't change Australia, Australia is what we are, from the kangaroo to the platypus, and the pink-crested galah.'

A store on the main street sells saddles, whips and line-dancing boots, while a 'Guns 'n' Ammo' shop offers the latest rifles.

'I'm aghast to think that after 35 years of establishing Tamworth's reputation as the country music capital of Australia, it has been tarnished by a few off-the-cuff remarks,' said Max Ellis, 70, the founder of the country music museum. 'It's a distortion of what we are really like. Country music is about friendship and welcoming people.'

The Sudanese say some locals are friendly, but they have also faced racism and hostility.

Mr Tombek, 23, spent years as a refugee in Egypt before being accepted by Australia in 2004. Like many of the young Sudanese men, he works in the local abattoir doing a job locals don't want.

'People say we are causing trouble here, but how can we cause trouble when we just go from home to work and back again?' said Mr Tombek, who wants to train as an engineer and move to Sydney.

He no longer ventures into Tamworth's centre after being punched in the face during a night out on the town in what he says was an unprovoked attack.

A few streets away, on the veranda of a modest weatherboard bungalow, Diktor Malok, 26, recounts dodging government troops when he walked hundreds of kilometres from Sudan to Uganda, where he spent four years in a refugee camp.

'We feel very upset and disappointed. People say we're lawbreakers and that we're taking their jobs, which is totally wrong.'

While councillors and church groups are lobbying on behalf of the Sudanese, many locals remain implacably opposed to their presence.

'They're noisy, they chase sheilas [women] around the streets, and they play loud music. I detest them,' said a man who lives up the street from some of the Sudanese.

The Reverend Ken Fenton, from South Tamworth Anglican Church, helped organise a 1,500 signature petition in favour of accepting the new batch of refugees.

'You do have your classic rednecks here,' he admitted. 'But I think there are a lot of people in the middle who are just not sure. Logically, it's ridiculous - we're only talking about five families, after all.'