By Mark Kearney
That is the key finding of a new study into the impact of Karen refugees on Bendigo, 150 kilometres north of Melbourne.
Karen people are an ethnic minority from Myanmar, tens of thousands of whom live in refugee camps on the country's border with Thailand.
Those not born into camps worked as subsistence farmers in small mountain villages in the region.
Since 2007, when the first family of Karen refugees arrived in Bendigo, their community has grown to about 1,000.
The most recent census in 2016 found Karen was the second most commonly spoken language in Bendigo.
The new study from Deloitte Access Economics and Adult Multicultural Education Services (AMES) Australia estimated the Karen community has contributed $67.1 million to the Bendigo economy.
The study also found 177 full-time equivalent positions were created for Karen workers.
AMES Australia chief executive Cath Scarth said the study's results were an endorsement of regional refugee resettlement.
"When well-facilitated, it can make a significant contribution to the economic as well as the cultural-social fabric of regional communities," Ms Scarth said.
Refugees diligent, loyal
The company's Ann Conway described the Karen workers as loyal and hardworking.
"Diverse demographics are very good because from an organisational, cultural perspective, having the diversity provides greater motivation," Ms Conway said.
"The different cultures within the workforce seem to feed off one another, and there's been some really good relationships built across the various nationalities."
Ms Conway said while language barriers persisted, several Karen staff were paid to act as translators, while social services in Bendigo also offered support.
Loddon Campaspe Multicultural Services (LCMS) is one of those sources of support in Bendigo for new arrivals.
Executive officer Kate McInnes said refugee resettlement had transformed the Bendigo community, as well as its economy.
The change is significant for the Bendigo local government area, which was considered the country's least culturally diverse at the time of the 2011 census.
"I love that we can be living in a regional setting but have that cultural diversity where [my children] get to mix with people from all over world. They get to experience festivals from all over the world," Ms McInnes said.
Breaking down barriers
Ms McInnes said the burgeoning refugee community had been instrumental in breaking down religious tensions, the sort that fuelled protests against plans for a Bendigo mosque in 2015.
"We have seen some ugly protests from a section of the community that are not very welcoming," Ms McInnes said.
"One dinner or one barbecue or one cup of tea can change people's attitudes, because people haven't had that opportunity previously to meet anyone who's come to Australia as a refugee."
A new lease on life
A nursing graduate, Ms Pha Thei now works with LCMS as a community development worker.
The 24-year-old said she was proud of her community for its progress, considering how difficult it was in the months and years following their arrival.
"We [didn't] have another Karen family we could go visit on the weekend," she said.
"It was very hard to communicate, very hard to go shopping, very to go out for socialising."
Ms Pha Thei identified care for ageing Karen people as a challenge that still needed addressing.
"We need to give them a lot of support around finding services," she said, adding that learning English was another hurdle for the elderly.
"Young people are doing fine because they're studying at school, they have their teachers to give them a hand."
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