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Plans to use part of an aged-care facility in an outer Melbourne suburb as temporary housing for refugees have been welcomed by the local community. But that hasn’t stopped anti-immigration protesters descending. By Denham Sadler.

Melbourne suburb Eltham welcomes refugees

In 1987 a species of butterfly thought to be extinct was discovered in a suburb 20 kilometres north-east of Melbourne’s CBD.

The Eltham copper butterfly was found in a site on the verge of being bulldozed for a residential development. The local Eltham community united, successfully campaigning and fundraising to have the site transformed into a reservation for the butterfly colonies.

Thanks to the ongoing efforts of the locals, the species still lives.

The tale is a local legend showing the power of a grassroots group intent on warding off outside forces to protect an endangered species.

Last month, more than 8000 butterflies once again adorned the streets of Eltham.

The Eltham copper butterfly has become the symbol of a new struggle facing the suburb, after plans were announced to settle about 100 refugees within Eltham’s retirement home complex.

The plan caught the attention of far-right-wing protest groups, who piled into the suburb for what they dubbed the “Battle of Eltham”. As 70 or so protesters converged, they were met by handcrafted butterflies, one for every person who signed an online pledge welcoming the refugees. The silent demonstration was orchestrated by Welcome to Eltham, a local group working to help the refugees settle, and put together in the dead of night, long before the outsiders arrived mostly from Sydney, Bendigo and Melton.

At 11am Eltham was eerily quiet. The main street was blocked for a counter-protest of about 200, mostly locals, voicing their support for the refugees. Once the right-wing protesters had gathered, they were entirely blocked in by police, with the counter-protesters dispersing long ago. 

The Battle of Eltham turned out to be little more than two hours of 70 or so right-wing protesters voicing their opposition to immigration and Islam with a few token references to Eltham.

It was watched by a handful of curious locals, a bored pack of journalists and at least 200 police officers.

“These people aren’t even from Eltham,” one local remarked.

“This is about as much excitement as we’ve seen in 15 years,” said another.

The plan to settle refugees in Eltham, a suburb of just over 18,000 people, was hatched in July last year when St Vincent’s Health Australia bought an Eltham retirement village
from Melbourne City Mission.

A block of dilapidated units in the complex, mostly destroyed in floods on Christmas Day 2010, were quickly identified as wasted space and, in partnership with CatholicCare, St Vincent’s set out to rebuild the site to house refugees from Syria and Iraq.

The retirement village is large, covering almost seven hectares behind the train tracks separating the town centre from the sloping suburban hills. The rebuilt units are in the middle of the two aged-care facilities, separated from both by a main road. Inside they are small but homely.

Up to 120 Syrian and Iraqi refugees will be settled in these 60 units. They’ll be families – mostly mothers, children and no single men – and priority will be given to Christian refugees.

They’ll live in the units for two years – paying rent and building up a rental history – before the site becomes affordable rental housing for seniors.

Aside from the set amount provided to all refugees, the project in Eltham has received no government funding, with St Vincent’s spending $6 million from its reserves to rebuild the units and provide support for the new arrivals.

It was New Year’s Eve last year when Eltham local Nina Kelabora heard a group of refugees would be settled within her close-knit community. She was excited and, when plans were finalised, called a neighbourhood meeting to discuss ways to make the process as smooth as possible. 

Welcome to Eltham formed that night, but those behind it had no idea what they were throwing themselves into.

“We were planning to gather donations and have a barbecue – that’s pretty much it,” Kelabora says. “We didn’t know we’d be dealing with the political side and with outside groups trying to interfere and cause trouble.”

Fellow co-founder Gillian Essex says the group aims to be a “welcome mat” for the refugees, and will be providing a welcome book with contributions from more than 700 locals, housewarming gifts, household essentials and local knowledge.

“We want to create this really positive, welcoming picture of who we are as a community,” Essex says. 

But the group soon found itself countering opposition to the plan, much of which centred on misinformation and inflammatory rhetoric.

The opposition initially focused on the refugee settlement’s location, with some fearing elderly Australians would be forced out of the facility or new arrivals would be jumping the waiting list.

But St Vincent’s Health Australia CEO Toby Hall says there’s no waiting list at the Eltham centre and no residents will be displaced because of the plan.

“If anyone wanted to come in now, they could,” Hall says. “There is no one being displaced from aged care at all from this and there never would have been. That’s an absolute misnomer.”

Concerns have also been raised by locals and family members of the aged-care residents over security in the facility and the proximity of the units, but an employee says it’s “not even the same complex” and residents are “unlikely to ever cross paths” with the refugees unless they want to.

After a meeting with the families got “quite heated”, Hall says they and the facility’s residents’ association now support the plan.

But when some still opposed reached out to the media and took to Facebook, the issue quickly escalated beyond local concern over the location. Right-wing groups latched on to the issue, bringing it into the nation’s spotlight as a debate about immigration and Islam. 

While there are some Eltham residents opposing the settlement, the overwhelming majority of those now against it aren’t from the local area, with some not even coming from Victoria.

“The Eltham community has been put in a very difficult situation because all these people from a long, long way away are descending on Eltham and making their opinions of Eltham known,” Hall says. “It’s a sad case of people pushing something they’re concerned about when the vast majority of the community have supported this.”

Eltham residents have already offered various items for the refugees, including dance and sewing classes and cricket club memberships. Storage spaces for donated items have been filled three times over.

Eltham is a friendly suburb – a sleepy and unassuming village proud of its rolling hills and expansive parks. Located in the famed green wedge of outer suburbs that have managed to keep their trees, Eltham sits on the border of Melbourne and regional Victoria.

The main square is quaint in a way that flies gleefully in the face of the handful of inner-city-styled cafes that have popped up recently. Parked in a safe Labor seat, the town rarely sees campaigning or big spending. It’s largely ignored politically, and that’s the way the locals like it.

Most Saturdays the cafes are full and the local tennis centre is packed. But the weekend of the protest they were deserted, with competitions cancelled for fear of the demonstration getting out of hand.

Eltham has been unwillingly thrown into the centre of Australia’s most divisive and debased political debate. It’s a suburb being moulded to suit various agendas, while it just wants to go back to being ignored.

In the next few weeks, up to 120 refugees will be settled in Eltham – that’s something that both sides can agree on. “We’ve lost this battle,” protesters were told by organiser Nick Folkes.

While most coverage has zeroed in on how this issue has divided the sleepy suburb, above all it has served to unite most of the community.

Just like saving the Eltham copper butterfly in 1987, locals have once again banded together to protect new groups and ward off outside forces.

“The incredible thing is that it has brought our community together, and [the refugees] haven’t even arrived yet,” Kelabora says.

The Welcome to Eltham founders pulled into the spotlight have borne the ire of the protesters, but the group won’t stop until the refugees are happily settled in their new homes.

“Who we are as a community is really threatened by some of the activity of these right-wing groups,” Essex says.

“We have to make our voices louder, and that’s what our group is trying to do. The voices of compassion and love have to be louder than the voices of hate.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 3, 2016 as "Butterfly effect". Subscribe here.

Denham Sadler
is a freelance writer based in Melbourne.