Cultural exchange welcomes women to Bellingen

Guests of the Cultural Exchange Program (CEP) visit the Dorrigo Rainforest Centre.

A JOYFUL weekend-long celebration of sharing and learning from diversity across cultures has been hosted by STARTTS (NSW Service for the Treatment of Torture and Trauma Survivors) in Bellingen.

This, the second Cultural Exchange Program (CEP) held in the Coffs Coast region, saw 24 women from refugee/migrant backgrounds (Cambodia, Nepal, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Peru, Samoa, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Serbia and Slovakia) welcomed from Sydney to Bellingen to experience rural life.

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STARTTS Rural and Regional Community Development Worker Ruth Kennedy, from Coffs Harbour, organised the CEP in partnership with Project Officer Susan Cunningham, from Sydney.

“It was an amazing experience for all involved,” Ruth said.

“Within a week of promotion, 26 locals opened their homes and hearts to host the visitors.

“Women arrived on Friday 5 April for a meet-and-greet and were then taken home to spend the first of three nights with their hosts.”

On Saturday, the National Parks and Wildlife Service took everyone on a free guided tour of the Dorrigo Rainforest Centre, led by rainforest educator Sandy Van Veluen.

Caterer Wan Samsuddin cooked a delicious Malaysian lunch which was enjoyed at the Glennifer home of hosts Natalie and Steven Hall.

Women prepared and shared their traditional dishes with hosts for dinner that night at the Bellingen Memorial Hall Studio.

Each presented about their culture including a traditional Cambodian clothing demonstration, a presentation about Easter in Slovakia, a Tibetan Buddhist prayer, and a Persian dance performance.

“By the night’s end, everyone was dancing,” said Ruth.

On Sunday, 80 people were immersed in a day of learning about Indigenous culture, including women from Sydney and Coffs Harbour.

The STARTTS Singlish Choir and Girrwaa Duguula Choir opened the day, singing an Indigenous song together in four languages as Uncle Micklo Jarrett gave the Welcome to Country.

Uncle Micklo then educated attendees about Indigenous culture and family systems.

The morning closed with everyone singing an Aboriginal song together.

A divine Middle Eastern lunch was catered by the combined CALD Services.

Amber Seccombe-Flanders and Dallas Gittins from Wild Earth Miimi facilitated an interactive two-hour weaving workshop.

“Next was a magical ceremony and dance workshop facilitated by Cordell and Mudjai,” said Ruth.

Women lined up outside Bellingen Memorial Hall, watching as they created a small fire.

“Ochre was painted on three parts of their face symbolising the opening of the mind and the third eye.

“Each woman drew smoke towards them symbolising the cleansing of the mind, body, spirit and soul as Mudjai and Cordell played the didgeridoo and clap sticks.

“Once ‘smoked’, women walked inside, single file, in a massive circle, anti-clockwise, symbolising the retracing of their ancestors before sitting down.”

The women were guided through various rituals Ruth described as “a deeply moving experience for all involved”.

Mudjai said they were “the most beautiful reflections he had ever heard”.

Guests learnt four Aboriginal dances – the emu, kangaroo and eagle and a water dance – representing how all things are connected.

“I knew a bit about Aboriginal culture,” participant Sophronia said, “but I never experienced the feelings that I felt of their love for their culture and their people.

“In the essence of all things, we are all Indigenous and connected.

“The Aboriginal people helped me to understand this.

“For me, Bellingen were a unified people.

“I felt positive energy all the time and I never felt different.”

STARTTS worker Rebecca said, “I have lived in Australia for seventeen years and have never felt so connected to country or Aboriginal peoples.”


Women from many different cultural backgrounds visit the Dorrigo Rainforest Centre as part of the CEP weekend.

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