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Refugees resettled into Queensland’s country towns are finding new life and steady employment

Syrian refugee couple

From Aleppo to Toowoomba: Maher and Nesrin Khoury.

TOOWOOMBA is welcoming the stranger – offering a helping hand and a new life to hundreds of Syrians fleeing the war with Islamic State.

Three months ago, Nesrin Khoury arrived with her husband Maher from war-torn Aleppo.

As two of the 125 new Syrian arrivals, their story about fitting in to life in Toowoomba gained a national profile when it was recently featured on Channel Nine’s A Current Affair.

Soon after arriving, Nesrin who holds an economics degree landed an administrative job with CatholicCare (formerly Centacare Toowoomba).

After living in daily turmoil and without necessities like running water, the couple now lives in a clean and modest two-bedroom unit.

Toowoomba, along with Brisbane, Logan and Gold Coast, is set to take in hundreds more refugees as part of Australia’s commitment to resettle more than 12,000 people displaced from the crises in Syria and Iraq.

The Garden City agreed to be part of a national effort to be “refugee-welcome” in 2013, and since then has tried hard to help new arrivals settle.

“We are an education capital here. We have a university, we have a TAFE. There are job opportunities like you wouldn’t believe in Toowoomba,” Toowoomba mayor Paul Antonio said.

CatholicCare is one of the agencies which assist refugees and migrants become self-reliant and to participate in community activities.

Often the first support needed is English lessons, learning computer skills and a knowledge of the job market.

Aleppo danger

Danger zone: The damaged buildings of Aleppo, Syria. Three months ago, Nesrin Khoury arrived with her husband Maher from the war-torn city. Photo: CNS

“They are very proactive. They want to be part of the community,” CatholicCare’s settlement co-ordinator Hannah Belesky told A Current Affair.

“They are very grateful for this new opportunity and they are really motivated to make a contribution.”

Ms Belesky oversees new arrivals like Nesrin.

“To come to a whole new culture and then to settle in so quickly – it’s been wonderful,” she said.

For some of Queensland’s smaller towns showing compassion to the stranger goes hand in hand with the local community’s battle to survive.

The Regional Australia Institute recently released a report identifying 100 small rural areas across the country that attracted large numbers of migrants. One of those was the central Queensland town of Biloela, which struggles to fill positions at the local meatworks.

About seven years ago, a team of locals from the churches, council, school, local health sector and the PCYC formed a reference group to examine the feasibility and acceptance of introducing refugees into the local community.

The result was the settlement of a group of 24 Burmese adults and 15 children, who had lived in refugee camps in India and Malaysia, for as long as nine years.

The group arrived in 2011 as part of a federally funded one-year pilot program that targetted regional areas with high employment.

While that program has not continued, the families settled in Biloela encouraged their friends to settle there, and eventually more than 100 people of different nationalities, including Afghan, Ethiopian and Sri Lankan people came to Biloela to work.

“The project was successful in giving ownership of the project to the Biloela community and … creating acceptance of migrants from diverse cultural backgrounds,” Ataus Samad, the regional development co-ordinator with Access, the agency tasked with settlement, said.

“They were welcomed into the community. And they’re very industrious – most refugees are.

“We’re keen to become a sustainable town – bringing in people is a real boost for our town, for the economy and for the housing situation.”

The Federal Government hopes country cities and towns could ease the burden on cities like Melbourne and Sydney, where newly arrived refugee families face out-of-reach house prices.

In Sydney the median house price has touched $1.1 million.

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