Refugees who fled conflict find solace in Victorian Indigenous cultural ceremony

By Joanna Crothers and Danielle Bonica

ABC News Australia

Saturday, May 5, 2018

PHOTO: Refugees said taking part in the traditional ceremony helped give them a sense of belonging. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

Dozens of refugees in Victoria's south-west have discovered parallels between Aboriginal culture and their own, after taking part in an ancient Indigenous ceremony.

Refugees from South Sudan, Burma and Iran climbed up to the top of Wurdi Yawang or Big Rock in the You Yangs, south-west of Melbourne for a gathering of the elders ceremony.

Wurdi Yawang is a culturally significant site, set amidst the distinctive granite peaks of the You Yangs, which rise from the volcanic plains between Geelong and Melbourne.

It is a spiritual place that has been used by Indigenous ancestors for thousands of years as a gathering place.

PHOTO: The ceremony drew refugees from many different communities. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

The gathering of the elders ceremony marked the start of an extreme two-day "arts walk", which traces the songlines — or history — of the Wadawurrung people in the region.

James Reuei was born in South Sudan and became a refugee while living in east Africa. 

He said he would remember what he had seen so he could better understand Australia and the city he now lives in; Geelong.

PHOTO: James Reuei said elders were also honoured in South Sudanese culture. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)


"Indigenous people are part of this community and we want to join them and respect their tradition," he said.

Mr Reuei said similarities between Indigenous culture and his own helped give him a feeling of belonging.

Augustino Moedu from Burma said he also wanted to celebrate Aboriginal people.

"It's very important for the community to get a good spirit, and to get peace and harmony. It's a way of unity," he said. 

"We come to celebrate the elders. Because elders in the community are very important, especially in the African community and we need to honour them."


 PHOTO: Francis Ling, originally from Indonesia, has ochre daubed on his face. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

Celebration with music and dance

Wadawurrung traditional owner Corrina Eccles led a song and dance in language with other women.

"Those stories are important to pass down to other generations … we find that people from other cultures really embrace it," she said. "They want to know more about the first peoples, they want to know more about the stories, they want to connect to the first peoples of the land."


PHOTO: Corrina Eccles said refugees are keen to learn about Indigenous culture. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica) 


Ms Eccles said dance was particularly helpful for sharing history with people from other countries.

"We all have different languages. We find they [people from other countries] really embrace, respect and value what we have to share. 

"It's really significant that it starts with the first peoples sharing our story," she said.

"It's people being knowledgeable of the first people that cared for this land, for this country."

"If we don't have healthy country, we don't have healthy people" she said. 

The ceremony was also attended by Greens leader Senator Richard Di Natale who agreed caring for country was essential.

"When we protect country, we protect ourselves," he said.


PHOTO: Australian Greens leader Richard Di Natale joined the traditional ceremony. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)


A call to ceremony was performed by Barry Gilson who sang in the Wathaurung language.

"What I sung means rejoice and celebrate," he said.

"Singing has strong historical values and we try to educate people and keep the culture fresh, revitalised. 

"To bring it out of the hibernation it was put in through colonisation."

The Mountain to Mouth event will finish when walkers arrive at the head of the Barwon River on Saturday night. 


PHOTO: The Wadawurrung ceremony took place among the granite ridges of the You Yangs. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)