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They did it themselves


There are too many to count and certainly too many to mention: when floods hit northern NSW, thousands of women and men suddenly found themselves in roles they didn’t expect.

They became rescuers, helicopter coordinators, accommodation hunters and food deliverers. They became the mud army, mobilised to leave thousands of homes as liveable as they were before waters rose on the 1st of March.

And they became part of the Koori Mail crew, flooded out of their Lismore HQ but fighting for Aboriginal communities and futures.

Some of these women generously gave us their time amidst the aftermath and exhaustion. Here are their extraordinary stories…

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Kate Noller and Pauline Allin rescued horses and livestock from the floods PHOTO Natalie Grono

THE ANIMAL RESCUERS: Kate Noller, 35, from Byron Bay and Pauline Allin, 37, from Broken Head 

It began with a single horse trapped in rising flood waters in Woodburn.

“A friend posted a heart-wrenching video of a horse that was drowning,” recalls Pauline Allin, who works in marketing and as a horse carer, of the moment she realised this was no ordinary flood. By the next day, she was coordinating a rescue boat helmed by friends including Kate Noller, the owner of Zephyr Horses.

They didn’t find the horse. Battling the sheer scale of the inundation, the trip showed them the enormity of what they were facing.

“It was very dangerous. We were capable, but the reason we had to mobilise was that we realised no help was coming, we had to do it ourselves,” says Kate. “We were not prepared on that first day for what we were going to see … we came back mentally shattered”.

It was the first of scores of missions into NSW’s decimated Northern Rivers region, where the pair have become instrumental in leading vets and farmers in the unfathomable task of rescuing many thousands of horses and cows.

They reunited a newborn calf with its mother four days after being separated and dropped hay where they could. But for every rescue, they watched, helpless, as hundreds more animals drowned. One farmer estimates that 70 per cent of all livestock in the region has perished in the flood.

The pair’s GoFundMe page has now raised more than $140,000, and their goal is to establish a taskforce to help avoid such deadly outcomes in future floods.

“We can’t prevent the rain,” says Kate, “but we are able to make sure that there are systems in place to prevent this from happening again.”

THE TECH HERO: Alisha Williams, 30, from Brisbane created a digital platform to coordinate the recovery.

It took Alisha Williams four-and-a-half hours to write the software that became central to coordinating housing and donations in the aftermath of northern NSW’s floods.

FloodsRecovery2022.com began as a way to support friends affected by the Queensland emergency, but when floods then ripped through NSW, the e-commerce business owner saw an urgent need for accurately connecting those who need help with those offering help. Learning the size of the task, she drove to Byron Bay, basing herself close to where the need was greatest, and started collecting a team of volunteers who now help her with every element of the job.

Her “bare bones” interface answered an enormous need: Within 72 hours, her site had 20,000 followers, with posts garnering 15,000 views each. It led to families being housed, counsellors being linked to victims and homes being cleared and cleaned.

“When you’re here and you see people in these communities, you see how much people desperately need each other,” she says.

She knows that need won’t dissipate with the flood waters – “because it doesn’t feel like anything’s under control yet” – but, like all of the helpers she has met, she suddenly finds herself far from her home and her business, working intensely with strangers.

“Midway through conversations with volunteers,” she says, “we stop and say ‘Isn’t this surreal, how did this happen?’”

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Sarah Black bushbashed her way to flood victims PHOTO Natalie Grono

THE PARAMEDIC: Sarah Black, 40, from Federal spent hours trekking through the bush to reach injured flood survivors 

When the emergency call came in, there was little Mullumbimby ambulance station officers could do to get help to Upper Wilson’s Creek.

A massive landslide had careened through Shafiqa Irwin’s home, crushing her ankles. The only road in was cut off by torrential flood waters and a fallen tree.

“I knew she was up there with some horrific injuries, I knew I had to try,” says paramedic Sarah Black, who monitored flood levels then, with her boyfriend, drove as far as she could before hiking through bush, skirting floodwater by following the ridgeline. More than three hours after they set off – and 13 hours after the accident – they reached the destroyed home and the cabin Shafiqa had been taken to.

“They didn’t expect us to turn up and they didn’t know anyone was coming. It was pretty good to see the look on their faces,” Sarah says of the moment she arrived. Even with a satellite phone, communications were severely impacted and a helicopter was unable to land. They left by road the following day when the water had subsided, and Shafiqa is now recovering at Gold Coast University Hospital.

Sarah is no stranger to working through natural disasters but says this flood is “beyond anything” she has seen. Mullumbimby has pulled together unlike ever before and, on her day off, Sarah and 30 other paramedics worked to help three colleagues who lost homes in Woodburn.

“The community response has been phenomenal,” she says. “It has blown me away.”

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Meditation teacher Jacqui Lewis marshalled the community to deliver aid PHOTO Natalie Grono

THE COMMUNITY CONNECTOR: Jacqui Lewis, 41, from Mullumbimby Creek marshalled volunteers to deliver aid.

“It was absolute carnage left, right and centre,” Jacqui Lewis recalls of the flood disaster that swept through her region. “What I was seeing was so horrific and there was no help coming. To say the stress levels were high would be a total understatement.”

On top of lost homes and injuries, there was no fresh water, electricity and potentially life-saving phones and internet.

With a team of volunteers, The Broad Place meditation teacher and mentor swiftly set up a triage system at Mullumbimby Civic Centre, working out how to dispatch help. It was ad hoc but effective: they organised helicopters, rescue teams, clean water and supplies. They raised many thousands of dollars and, critically, reconnected communities with communications.

She fought for media attention and reached out to Elon Musk via Instagram, eventually securing a donation of 100 Starlink satellite internet systems – an offer that was then stymied by bureaucratic red tape.

It seems a stretch from her usual role, but to Jacqui, the work is a “giant extrapolation” of her skills at a unique moment that has come to define the local spirit. “This community is like a big, beautiful protective web,” she says. “People go out of their way to help others. That’s rare in modern society.”

Her focus has now shifted to ensuring a failure of governmental leadership and crisis services in disasters is never repeated. “The Australian people have been so let down.”

This story originally appeared on Primer.

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Life on the breadline

It takes a massive amount of courage to share one’s journey into poverty with strangers. Debe did that, both with me, and with the SBS audience, for the network’s new documentary about living in poverty, Could You Survive on the Breadline? Here’s a little of her story, as written by me for SBS Voices, and I thank Debe for her honesty, drive and care at a time when she has so little left to give

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“Carers are drowning. If we’re not drowning in debt, we’re drowning in lack of self-care”

Could you survive on less than $65.30 a day?

At $426.30 a week, the poverty line is something most of us have never had to face. But 3.24 million Australians, many of whom depend on government welfare payments, are living in poverty – a place of fear, stigma and powerlessness that is laid bare in new SBS series, Could You Survive on the Breadline?

For Debe, 62, in Sydney’s west, it was her husband’s illness that threw her into poverty. For 120 hours every week, she is on hand to nurse her husband, Ron, who is 74 and has advanced dementia. He is immobile, incontinent and can no longer talk.

Debe has chosen to provide home care for Ron rather than sending him to a nursing home. To give him the round-the-clock attention he needs, she left her job as a cleaner and has spent all of their superannuation and savings. She now relies on her local food bank to help put meals on the table.

“Carers are drowning. If we’re not drowning in debt, we’re drowning in lack of self-care,” Debe tells SBS Voices.

“My husband literally relies on me to move his body, keep him clean, keep him socially engaged and to help with pressure care and feeding. I’m his arms, his legs, his voice, I’m everything. And people don’t understand how consuming that is,” she says.

The government provides her with a carer’s payment and carer’s allowance totalling $861.20 a fortnight, or around $3.60 an hour. With that, she must first account for the consumables she buys for Ron’s care, including pads, sheets, wipes, medication, food supplements, gloves, sanitisers, creams and cleaning products that are critical to his wellbeing.

Debe is fortunate in that she and Ron have paid off their home, but her latest water bill was about $500 and her electricity over $1000.

Ron is supported by a home care package that does not cover the cost of his equipment and care worker, who is paid $42-$60 an hour, six hours a day.

After using her own support payments towards the care worker, Debe is left with almost nothing. Without the “life saving” charity of her church food bank, which provides her with fruit, vegetables and meat for just $8 a fortnight, even food would be a stretch.

There are no holidays, no meals out, no purchases for herself and even the hairdresser is beyond the budget.

“People need to know that carers are doing it tough financially. People think you’re at home, the government is throwing you money,” she says. “I’m grateful for that amount of money but it doesn’t even touch the surface.”  

Could You Survive on the Breadline? follows three prominent Australians as they attempt to survive on welfare budgets, along the way challenging preconceived ideas about those who rely on government support and the realities of the welfare system. Social security is often called a safety net – and yet, as the program shows, it so often leaves its recipients anything but protected.

Masterchef winner Julie Goodwin, who has first-hand experience of collecting welfare and understands its stigma, spends time with Debe and Ron in the series and says it is “criminal” that the welfare Debe receives is not enough to cover food, let alone a home care structure that allows her any respite.

“No self-care is a recipe for burnout and disaster,” Julie says, adding that there is “no way on earth” the budget she was given on the program – a combination of the JobSeeker payment and the Disability Support Pension – would cover food, rent, bills, a car and clothing. 

The load is taking its toll on Debe and she is now applying for the NDIS because of her own chronic ill-health. In rare moments of downtime, she paints rocks and gives herself a manicure – small acts that she says help “keep your sanity and keep your connection”. She also advocates for carers and studies support in aged care as ways to take positives from her situation.

But it is her community that really keeps her afloat, she says. Her six children, 14 grandchildren, church and carer network are part of the loving community that Ron stays at the heart of by staying at home.

Debe is sharing her story with the hope that it may help shift welfare policy, which must adapt to the needs of carers.

“With dementia, you grieve while they’re still here,” she tells Julie on camera. “Because I know that I’m losing my husband and the government’s not doing what it can and what it ought to do.”

Could You Survive on the Breadline? premieres at 8.30pm, Wednesday 17 November on SBS and SBS On Demand. The three-part series will also be available to stream at SBS On Demand with subtitles in Arabic, Korean, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese and Vietnamese.  See the Program Page for more articles and insights.

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My country, Afghanistan

Four days after the Taliban took control of the city of her birth, Mahboba Rawi spoke with me about the work she is doing to help the children and women of Afghanistan. She kindly and gently told me her story having not slept or eaten properly since the collapse of Kabul, her hours now filled by the race to evacuate as many families as possible.

Here’s her story, as told to me, for SBS:

Mahboba Rawi was born and raised in Kabul, fleeing when Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979. She now lives in NSW and founded a charity to support Afghan women and children, Mahboba’s Promise, 26 years ago after a family tragedy that changed her life.

“There are no words to describe the amount of suffering in Afghanistan. What has happened is shocking and it has affected us badly emotionally – our community has a proud history of fighting and being brave but they have fought for 40 years.

Everybody in Kabul has gone into deep silence and nobody wants to leave the house. Imagine the last day of the world and absolute panic – that is what happened to my people. People tried to run away, if there was one road open they just went for it, risking their lives. Now, they are silent.

They feel betrayed, they feel abandoned, they don’t know what to do. The economy is down, the shops are closed, there is coronavirus. It’s like the whole country dropped from the sky and is in pieces and now the people have to put Afghanistan back together.

We have an orphanage in Kabul and there are about 900 displaced families in a camp close by. Each family has five to 10 children. This is only one camp, there are many more. There was war everywhere during the peace negotiations and these people fled to Kabul.

They don’t have anything, their houses have been demolished or burnt, they are homeless. One lady gave birth to a tiny little girl there, she is 10 days’ old now. The devastation, that level of poverty, my God. You go to the camp and they jump on you, they are desperate for food and water. I saw this when Russia left, it’s heartbreaking. Yesterday we gave baby milk to 100 children in the camp. Today we are cooking for 900 people. 

We have around 80 workers at Mahboba’s Promise and all of them were once in the orphanage. They are well educated and open-minded – and they look like Aussies because we take them clothes and shoes from here. What are they going to do? I told them, ‘Go ahead and help, we are not doing anything wrong, why should we be scared of the Taliban? We are Muslim, we all pray five times, we are doing the holy work of helping support people.’ I said to them, ‘If anybody is stopping you, put me on the loudspeaker and I will speak to them.’

I grew up in Kabul, but after Russia invaded Afghanistan, I fled to Pakistan and came to Australia in 1984. But in 1992 I lost a son. He drowned in Kiama. We went for a picnic and a wave came and washed him away. When I was beside his coffin I realised that I’d rather have died. After that tragedy, I became a different person. I took the sorrow and turned it into strength and I promised to dedicate my life to children in Afghanistan. I didn’t care about material things any more, my mission in life had changed and there was so much to do.

I learnt how to raise money and, 26 years later, we have built orphanages, schools, a maternity clinic and programs to educate widows and to help them stand on their feet and to heal. It’s a nightmare for any mother to lose a child, I did it and I know they did it. I became a mother and father to the widows’ children.

All of the children who were tiny little babies at the beginning have now become adults. They have finished university and they are doctors, they have law degrees and are fighting for women’s justice. My work is like a tree – and my tree has just started fruiting. But the Taliban have come to take all of the fruit. 

Afghanistan is a country with no prime minister. The Taliban have thrown out the flag. Is this democracy? Nobody wants to stay, it’s going to be a dead country. But please, Australia, don’t give up on Afghan women – they need us more than ever before.”

Find out more about Mahboba’s Promise here

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Finally, first in family

As I interviewed Katelyn Mills for this story to mark NAIDOC 2021 at SBS, I kept thinking about the book I’m reading, Who Gets to be Smart by Bri Lee. To me, Katelyn represents so much of the good fight when it comes to injecting the educational system with some horribly overdue balance – and perhaps even helping to dismantle the pervasive, oft-poisonous reach of the kyriarchy.

As she says, ‘I’ll come back here and show you all how to do it!’

Sovereignty was never ceded. This is, and always will be, Aboriginal land.

Read Katelyn’s story in full at SBS.

Here’s a little taster:

Katelyn Mills, 24, is a Gamilaraay woman studying a Master’s of Research in Education. She is from Moree, NSW, and lives in Sydney. She spoke to Daisy Dumas about being First in Family having graduated from Macquarie University in 2020 with a Bachelor of Education, majoring in Biology and Chemistry.

University felt in reach and out of reach. Growing up in Moree, my family didn’t put too much value towards education – if we weren’t up for going to school my parents didn’t really mind. I think that’s what motivated me to go to school, it gave me a sense of independence and structure I didn’t have at home. I’ve always looked up to my teachers and they inspired me to become a teacher.

As I got older, those dreams seemed more and more unattainable. As I learned more about the education system, the discrepancies between metropolitan and rural schools, and the public and private sectors, I lost a bit of hope for my future.

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