“I really loved seeing the country we came through on the bus”, a young mother told one of the organisers as we walked over to the picnic.
She had arrived in Castlemaine with a group of people who are seeking asylum in Australia, having fled war, persecution and oppression in their home countries.
The picnic was held in the Castlemaine Botanical Gardens on Saturday 18 March and funded by a council community grant. It was the third Community Picnic Welcoming Refugees to take place in the beautifully maintained gardens.
The Harcourt Uniting Church coordinated the event with members of Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR) and Chewton Country’s Women Association (CWA)
In keeping with the sense of welcome, Jaara elder Uncle Rick Nelson reminded us that traditionally visitors would wait to be invited to come onto Country. He conducted a tanderrum ceremony to welcome us, inviting people to scoop up smoke to cleanse themselves, including the soles of their feet. It was a heartwarming start to our time together.
We were honoured that Uncle Rick and Uncle Glenn Braybrook made time in their busy Castlemaine State Festival schedule to attend the picnic. Uncle Glenn commented “it was great to see the Muslim women and the Sudanese couple go through the smoke”.
Darren Fuzzard, CEO of Mount Alexander Shire, welcomed the guests. The Shire is a Refugee Welcome Zone, along with 150 other Shire councils.
Representing Loddon Campaspe Multicultural Services, Linto Thomas spoke of his work with refugees and people seeking asylum who live in the Castlemaine area and around Bendigo.
Music was a great feature this year. Two local singer-songwriters performed for us and some of our young visitors also took the mic.
We were enraptured by the soulful voice of Kavisha Mazzella, herself a daughter of refugees, as she sang beautiful old songs and several she wrote herself. We were delighted by Rohan Souter’s witty songs, and his entertaining patter.
Two more highlights were the petting zoo and the tug-of-peace, which ended in an honourable one-all draw.
Farm animals from Animals2U were a great hit with the city children, who don’t often have the opportunity to sit quietly with a rabbit, guinea pig or a cat on their lap. There were chickens, geese, goats and a llama too, but no pigs or dogs out of respect for our Muslim friends.
The children found plenty else to occupy themselves, using equipment borrowed from the toy library or making up their own activities. They enjoyed twisting balloons and chasing bubbles.
Businesses in the region generously contributed prizes for a raffle, and the children somewhat solemnly drew out the winning tickets. The proceeds will fund the work of RAR supporting people who need asylum here and in Melbourne.
For lunch there was a wonderful array of food shared by the picnickers, donated by local folk and businesses or prepared by generous cooks from the church and CWA.
We were blessed with near-perfect weather and shade for when the afternoon heated up. An enjoyable and memorable time was had by all.
As she left, the young woman commented “I loved every moment. I want my husband to bring us to the country again soon. The children have had a really happy time.”
When she and her family do come, we will be there to greet them and show them more of our remarkable town and its vibrant community.
Harcourt Uniting Church elder