Reaching out to new arrivals

Australia immigration

Reaching out to new arrivals

June 22, 2014 Swie Madden came to Australia as an international student in the 1970s. When she first arrived in Wagga Wagga in 1990, she knew of only two or three others who shared her Indonesian and Chinese heritage. Six years ago, Swie helped to set up the South East Asian Multicultural group, or SEAMS for short, to give a growing section of Wagga Wagga’s community a place to connect, share information and practice their English amongst friends.

She was motivated by her own experience of migrating to Australia and moving to a country town, which she found daunting and lonely at times. Today, she continues to organise a quarterly gathering in Wagga Wagga that brings migrants, refugees and locals together for a meal.

Food, language and connectivity

The SEAMS group started with a handful of friends in 2004 and now has more than 100 members. The group has also expanded beyond the South East Asian community with members from Africa, India and Austria, in addition to people from Indonesia, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, Burma and Vietnam.

Lizzi Rohdes has been helping to organise the informal gatherings since the group began.

“It’s helping the community,â€_x009d_ Lizzi says. “Some just migrate to Wagga and then they don’t know anybody. So we have this group and they come, they chat and they make friends. They always find somebody and then, apart from that, we come for the food!â€_x009d_

In lieu of a membership fee, attendees are encouraged to bring a plate of food to the events. At the last meeting in early June, trestle tables in the community hall where the event is held quickly filled up with home-cooked dishes like handmade dumplings, rice noodles and spicy beef rendang, with glutinous rice balls and colourful Malaysian jellies for on hand for dessert.

Aside from the food, the SEAMS group is also about providing a casual environment where newer arrivals can practice their conversational English with each other and Wagga Wagga locals who are also encouraged to come along on the night.

Over time, Swie has noticed a positive change within the group.

“The people who used to be quiet, they’re chatty and involved in conversation, especially those who were originally came here as refugees. They speak English well now and they’re happy to come.â€_x009d_

While the chance to sample food from around the world may be a strong drawcard for the event, it’s also an important place to share information about living in a new community. Conversation often turns to job opportunities and schools, along with where to find cheap clothing and Chinese vegetables.

Thinking back to her early years as an international student, Swie says she never thought she would organise anything, let alone an event for the 100-plus members of her multicultural group.

These days, she sees herself as someone who can give back to her community. With grown-up children and close to four decades of living in Australia, she has both the time and knowledge to help others who have just arrived.

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