A $67.1 million boost to the economy over 10 years is one of several economic and social benefits Bendigo has enjoyed as the result of the resettlement of Karen refugees in the area, a new report says.
The report from settlement agency AMES Australia and Deloitte Access Economics reveals the settlement of Karen people created an extra 177 full-time equivalent jobs from 2007 to 2016 – a 0.3 per cent increase in people employed in Bendigo - and, with the city’s Karen population being young, the labour force would continue to grow.
In 2016 alone, $11.7 million of Bendigo’s gross regional product was attributable to the Karen community.
The report’s findings have thrilled Nay Chee Aung, a Karen man who moved to Bendigo in 2011.
“I’m just really excited and happy to see how much the Karen community has contributed,” he said.
The single largest employer of Karen people is Hazeldenes, where 14.7 per cent of the workforce was Karen in early 2018.
The number of major industries in which Karen residents work has expanded from three to eight.
Interviews with employers show they value their Karen employees for their strong work ethics and commitment to the area.
“The Karen are valued workers because they commit to staying in Bendigo and with the employer,” the report said about manufacturer Keech Australia.
“This is in part because whole families are living in Bendigo - not only the workers - and this combination of employment and family in the one place means the Karen feel settled and are likely to stay.”
There have also been flow-on effects on employment for other businesses and organisations that provide goods and services to Karen people.
For example, the report says, demand from this part of the community has seen the employment of multicultural aides in schools and Bendigo Community Health Services.
But the resettlement of Karen people in Bendigo has had more than economic benefits.
They have increased cultural diversity in Bendigo, a municipality that was, in 2011, the least culturally diverse local government area of its size.
In the 10 years to 2016, the proportion of residents born in another country rose from 4 per cent to 7 per cent, and the report attributes the Karen community as a major contributing factor.
“Having different people in the community makes people a little more tolerant. It stops people being xenophobic,” a Bendigo Community Health Services worker said in the report.
“If you know some people from other cultures, if you have contact with them, you know there is nothing to be frightened of.”
This increase in cultural diversity has brought an increase in religious diversity, with the Karen people growing the population of Buddhists in Bendigo in particular.
The Baptist Church in Junortoun also has services in the Karen language to accommodate some of its newer parishioners.
The Karen community in Bendigo has grown from seven in 2007 to about 1000 people today, the result of several factors that have made the area an attractive place to settle.
Suitable employment is necessary for successful resettlement, the report says, noting that major employer Hazeldenes has support systems in place for non English-speaking workers.
Accommodation has also been vital, but so too has leadership.
The report says in Bendigo, people of standing and influence in the community advocate for and support new settlers, while employers vouch for them when they search for work.
There are also leaders within the Karen community who provide support and act as role models.
The report shows there are also supportive school programs for young Karen people and options to transition from school to work, including apprenticeships and traineeships.
Services have also been responsive to the needs of the Karen community, the report says, and regional areas like Bendigo have some natural advantages over cities, such as cheaper housing and quieter living.
Sei Sei Mu Thein has seen Bendigo become a more inviting place for Karen people over the past 10 years.
She arrived in 2008, alone, as a 20-year-old who spoke not a word of English – the 17th Karen refugee to move to the city.
Back then, she said, there was not even an Asian supermarket, but now there were four stores.
Sei Sei Mu Thein said there were more services available, more volunteers helping, and employers were increasingly willing to employ Karen people.
But the greatest thing she had found was that there were people in the wider community trying to understand the Karen community.
“To help someone, you need to understand them,” Sei Sei Mu Thein said.
Today, she works as a Karen community officer for the City of Greater Bendigo, is an interpreter, and serves as president of the Karen Organisation of Bendigo.
Nay Chee Aung came to Bendigo seven years ago, but spent several years before that living in Sydney and Melbourne.
Bendigo – and the services available – have been easier to navigate than the capital cities, he said.
Nay Chee Aung now works as a case worker for Bendigo Community Health Services, a job that came about because he saw there was a gap in interpreting services available for Karen people when he first arrived, so he started volunteering his time.
Bendigo’s Karen residents worked hard and had many volunteers, he said, giving back to the community.
Now Nay Chee Aung hopes to see more people from a Karen background enter a wider range of professions and explore other pathways.
Bendigo’s Karen residents were “not going anywhere”, he said.
“This is our home… this is our permanent home, this is our country,” Nay Chee Aung said.