World comes to Dalwallinu

Headshot of Katherine Fleming
Katherine FlemingThe West Australian

The main street of Dalwallinu is typical of a Wheatbelt town - the wide road, the quintessential pub, a friendly cafe and saleyards full of machinery.

But the street, the shops and the town are busier than usual; its once-dwindling population bolstered by people who travelled a long way to make this country town their home.

At the local hospital are nurses from countries including India and Zimbabwe.

At the machinery business on the outskirts, there are two mechanics from the Philippines, three workers from England and one from Ireland.

In a farm supplies store, the woman behind the counter is beaming that her two young sons have arrived from the Philippines and will start school next term.

They are Dalwallinu's new residents, overseas workers recruited on temporary skilled visas and the target of a local government repopulation program to encourage them to bring their families, gain permanent residency and citizenship and make the town their long-term home.

At a time when many towns have been shrinking, Dalwallinu's population has grown by 186, representing a 15 per cent increase since the 2011 Census.

There are 47 more students at schools across the district than at the end of 2012.

Last year, the high school hired five new teachers and the town's youth group has also been revived.

An extra 83 jobs have been created and unemployment is less than one per cent.

As of this month, the Shire of Dalwallinu's records show 43 people on the temporary visas had become permanent residents.

"All these things are going towards the growth of our town," shire president Robert Nixon said.

"If you go down the main street, the number of people and cars would be at the upper end of the scale for a Wheatbelt town. Dalwallinu is a friendly place and people get a sense of belonging to the community."

It was a little over four years ago when Dalwallinu decided to do something about its declining population, shortage of workers and increasingly empty schools and sports facilities.

Labour-saving farming technology had led to fewer jobs and people moved away, many drawn to Perth.

The initial concept was to bring humanitarian refugees to the area but Mr Nixon said they soon discovered Dalwallinu did not have the social services and support needed.

Undeterred, the focus turned to the labour shortages stifling local businesses where demand was growing, particularly light industry.

Employers were recruiting overseas workers, so the shire started encouraging those people to bring their families and move for good, rather than send money home and eventually leave.

A shortage of housing was and remains a critical issue, so the Shire built almost a dozen houses.

It also funded English lessons, from basic through to advanced and including the local "Dally dialect".

It organised regular community barbecues and made sure everyone was invited to the Christmas street parties.

Signs went up around town directing new residents to pick up a welcome pack, containing offers of support as well as a directory of local contacts.

The Shire appointed a teacher from the English classes, Lois Best, as community liaison officer.

She took parents to school to help enrol their children, guided them on applying for jobs or work permits and advised on everything from accommodation to banking and government procedures.

Over the past four years, workers have come mostly from the Philippines but also from India, Burma, Thailand, China, Finland, Britain, Korea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Africa and New Zealand.

At first, it was mostly fathers who left wives and children behind.

But after a seminar in August 2012 on how to bring their families to join them, there was a notable increase in relatives arriving.

Today, the new residents hold a variety of jobs - mechanics, painters, administration officers, stockmen, cleaners, shop assistants, nurses, carers and hospitality workers.

Grace Matias and their five children followed husband Gerry to Dalwallinu in 2012.

A veterinary surgeon in their native Philippines, he now works as a stockman on a nearby farm.

Mrs Matias works at the Shire offices and recently finished training to be a volunteer ambulance officer.

"We came from a regional area so we have blended in well because the people are so welcoming," Mrs Matias said.

Geraldine Vergara, also from the Philippines, has been in Dalwallinu for about 10 months and described it as quiet but friendly.

As she expertly kept track of masses of farming equipment in his store, employer John Wallis joked she was so dedicated, it was only "three weeks before she was the boss".

Her husband moved about a year before her and just this month, their five and nine-year-old sons joined them. It was a similar story for Paul and Ledilyn Lagdameo, who both work at Shermac Engineering.

Mr Lagdameo, a painter, arrived in late 2011, followed by his wife and child.

Their seven-year-old daughter was thriving in a class full of children from different backgrounds and the family were looking to buy a house.

"If you are from a crowded place, it takes time to get used to it being so quiet," Mr Lagdameo said.

"But we have been permanent residents for over a year and decided even if I had to find work elsewhere, my wife and daughter would stay here."

Their employer, Kim Ray, has about eight of 20 workers on skilled visas and said many made sacrifices and spent time away from family to secure a better future.

"People are able to significantly improve their lot in life by taking a job in this country town," he said.

Opportunities for better jobs and education are drawcards.

After Alexia Ndawana moved from Zimbabwe to Dalwallinu, where her mother took a job as a nurse, she earned a scholarship to the prestigious Methodist Ladies College.

For British migrant turned Australian citizen Matthew Joyner, an agriculture specialist with a weakness for big tractors, Dalwallinu "is the centre of the world".

He has lived there almost seven years, working for Boekeman Machinery, which has six of about 16 workers from overseas.

"There has definitely been a change in the sorts of faces you see in town and that's a good thing," he said. "Diversity is an advantage."

Mr Nixon said it was vital to encourage people to move to regional areas.

"Agriculture is here to stay and is has got to grow," he said.

"You either get the situation where the Wheatbelt becomes a population desert or where we . . . make sure country towns retain viable communities.

"We have five towns in the Shire - Dalwallinu, Kalannie, Wubin, Pithara and Buntine - and it is our policy to keep and grow them if possible.

"I think it is unacceptable Perth has three-quarters of the State's population. It is only fair and equitable the Wheatbelt and remote areas have a fair share of the population growth, considering the wealth is coming from those regional areas."

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