By ERWIN CHLANDA
It’s the little things that count: A plate of food for someone lonely, new in town, from the other side of the world. A volunteer giving an English lesson. Singing together. Men chatting about crafts in their former homes.
Leonamedes Bowey, Leony to her many friends, and declared Centralian Citizen of the Year on Thursday, has practiced the art of making people welcome to Alice Springs for 40 years.
She is initially from the Philippines. She and her husband Neil David in 1984 came to Alice Springs, a town with a most amazing mixture of cultures.
Leonie says the Indian community alone numbers 5000 people in a town of 31,000.
It is currently being lambasted by interstate media, but on Australia Day politics takes a back-seat in Alice Springs. It shines as a haven for immigrants, judging by the number of people getting their citizenship.
There were 55 this year, from countries including Nepal, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Estonia, Germany, Philippines, Zimbabwe, China, Vietnam, France, United Kingdom, India, Norway, Ireland, Brazil, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Sweden, Kenya and New Zealand.
As people are reportedly leaving town in droves, the newcomers – most of them hard workers – find it to be full of opportunity, a great place to make money (many have more than one job) and an easy place to live in: None of this hour long commuting of the big cities, says Leonie (pictured with grandchildren, from left, Jordana, Marli and Mila).
“Most working places are walking distance. It’s much easier to settle in a small place.”
Leonie speaks with four decades of volunteer work under her belt, and sometimes as an office holder, with the Migrant Resource Centre, now the Multicultural Community Services of Central Australia, and as the owner of the Central Australian Migration Agency.
She says: “Most immigrants are happy to take out citizenship. They are thankful to be in Australia.”
The newcomers are puzzled by the current crime hysteria, some coming from countries with much more violence.
Australia has superior gun control, Leonie says.
In her travels she has seen homeless people sleeping in parks in San Francisco. There are more serious problems with drugs. Other immigrants come from nations where there is no democracy, no freedom of speech, she says.
Several ethnic groups have organisations. Some have events, often linked by a shared interest in national dishes. The diversity of restaurant food is a major bonus, says Leonie.
There is no serious problem with ethnic tensions from overseas being imported to Alice.
If there are disagreements, and she doesn’t know of any, they are kept under wraps, says Leonie: “Any culture needs to understand. This is Australia. Everyone is equal. It’s a harmonious community.”
The town gains much from the “new Australians”: “They get on well with each-other, assimilate fairly quickly in this small community. Life is easier to manage. They have to get on well.”
These are principles shared by the vast diversity of people in Alice Springs, says Leony.
The Multicultural Community Services of Central Australia provides settlement support, information, assistance and a hub of activities to newly arrived migrants and refugees.
The draw-backs of Alice Springs for them – and everybody else – are the cost of air travel and the perceived need for young people to get tertiary education interstate.