I stood back and marvelled at this truly fine example of a shantytown. It was absolutely bloody awesome. Before the idea was thought of, every man and his dog wondered how our 12,000 refugee intake would work here in Australia. Europe, with the influx of over a million refugees, was really struggling. What to do with a mere 12,000 was a cinch when we as a nation started to think about it. Now other countries are looking at Australia’s example and really taking note.
It took just one person, a decorated Vietnam Veteran called Bernie Davidson, to write a letter to a couple of the major newspapers stating his ideas and voilà, a ground swell began that just kept growing. Bernie wasn’t the most articulate bloke, but after decades spent in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation centres he reckoned he knew how to put his feelings into a story in the form of a simple letter. He felt that he’d wasted a fair chunk of his life already, so he was poised to do something monumental. Bernie was a delightful fellow, always the first to lend a helping hand wherever it was needed. Ironically he only had one, as his left hand had been blown off during his time in the jungles of Vietnam in the 1960’s. Along with many other Vietnam Veterans, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and for years many things in his life had been a struggle, but he was usually able to put his problems aside if there was someone in real need. He mentioned nothing about his disability in the letter to the newspapers though. Instead he called on Vietnam Vets and other interested parties to come forward if they liked what was contained in his letter and help his dream come true.
Basically he had two ideas to help the arriving refugees. One was to do with the farming community. ‘Farmers,’ he wrote in his letter, ‘are doing it tough, so tough that some, frustrated by their situation, are taking their own lives. It’s not just continual droughts that are having a detrimental effect on their livelihoods. Floods too have caused immense hardship in some regions. Then there’s the wild dog problem, stock diseases, falling stock and produce prices and in the dairy industry due to ongoing supermarket milk wars, farmers are having to deal with absurd wholesale milk prices – the list goes on and on.’
Bernie had relatives on the land. He regularly spent Christmas holidays with an aunt and uncle on their sheep farm in the Griffith region of south west New South Wales when he was a kid. He knew first-hand how tough it was even in those days for people on the land. It was here too that he first encountered racist attitudes and he discovered that even as a boy still in primary school, he wanted to stand up for the ‘wogs’ as they were so unkindly referred to. He developed a strong friendship with Giuseppe, a boy his own age on the farm next door, and looked forward to every holiday that he went to his aunt and uncle’s farm so that he could meet up with Giuseppe. He delighted in learning from Giuseppe’s parents and grandparents, learning of a life so different from his own. He adored the family unit with all its generations, each person helping on the farm, each with their own unique jobs. He loved the cooking too and remembered how Giuseppe’s grandmother would call Giuseppe and him in from their mischievous games to stop for lunch, a freshly slaughtered animal roasting in the oven with aromas and flavours so different from what he was used to. Garlic of a particularly smelly variety, as he thought then, the lemony flavour of thyme, oregano, basil and rosemary (basilico and rosmarino – the first words he learned in Italian), all with such aromatic oils. These memorable aromas coupled with the sweat of workers straight from a hard morning of work in the fields, made the dining table very different from any Bernie had ever experienced. Everyone in the extended family would stop work to enjoy these lunch-time feasts and Bernie would be overjoyed to be included in the joyous conversations, which he understood little of, but with copious amounts of laughter and happiness, which he thrived on. He was offered his first glass of red wine at this table from Giuseppe’s grandfather, but at the time wondered why adults drank the stuff.
The idea he came up with and what he decided to put into the letter to the newspapers was this: that some of the refugees could do a year on an Aussie farm, helping the struggling farmers in some way. He said it’d be a bit like doing an apprenticeship and at the same time show the Australian public that they were sincere in wanting to integrate into this great country. They could help with the planting and harvesting of crops, assist with animals, do some fencing, just about anything that farming life could throw at them. This was the easy part. He was sure his idea would take hold in one or two communities, and once a few people saw the benefits, farmers from other communities would want to be a part of the plan. It’d be a win-win situation for all.
His next idea was considerably more complex. A few years earlier when he visited the Herberton Museum on the Atherton Tableland in far north Queensland, he’d been really impressed by the place. It was an entire village of buildings and businesses from yesteryear. It sparked an idea at the time where he thought that there should be more of this kind of open-air learning facility. Now with the current influx of so many people from other parts of the world, something clicked. He was able to envisage something really special.
He wanted to build a shantytown, the only one of its kind in the world, with literally hundreds of examples of the dwellings and shops that people in the third world lived and worked in. He wanted it to be a spectacular educational open-air museum more than anything else, but he felt that it could be a fantastic drawcard for tourists as well. If the job was done properly, it would be a real eye-opener, and as a builder himself, Bernie felt he knew exactly how such a village could work.
He’d always known that there was something lacking in people’s understanding of life in the developing world – and opening their eyes and minds to methods by which people were forced to live outside developed countries could only have a positive effect. In recent years he’d worried about the growing racist attitudes in Australia and was embarrassed by the treatment that many asylum seekers received. He felt that the problem of racism too could be helped with his shantytown idea. He didn’t feel he was being naïve, but any method through which people could experience what life was like for others who struggled to make ends meet or in some instances, just to stay alive, was bound to be a plus.
In this unusual and unique village, Bernie envisaged sections representing all continents. There’d be an African section, a South American section, an Asian section, an Oceania section and more, whatever the refugees in consultation with the necessary planning authorities and a committee that would be formed, thought best. Houses, lean-tos, shops, stores and even markets typical of these regions could be on display with handicrafts and products likely to be found in these parts of the world, available for sale. Most importantly though, the vast majority of people involved in building the town and then afterwards, in staffing the place would be either refugees or migrants who had recently been welcomed to Australia.
After his first letter was published, several websites took up the cause, and one of the major current affairs programs ran a story on his ideas. People all over social media immediately began to chat and many came up with additional suggestions, regarding both the farm assistance plan and what Bernie considered the more exciting Shantytown plan. A few open-minded politicians encouraged farmers to come forward as potential recipients of a refugee family and Vietnam Veteran organisations offered help in the form of supervisory tradesmen for Shantytown itself. The federal member for the northern rivers of New South Wales was most excited and came on board encouraging a well-known and iconic Australian entrepreneur to be a part of the Shantytown plan and within a few months a 75 hectare property had been purchased north of Byron Bay and inland a bit, accessible from a new stretch of the improved Pacific Highway, perfectly suitable for a development such as this one which had successfully passed the planning stage and was now ready to begin.
It was an exciting period in the lives of many people. Bernie was somewhat overwhelmed that both his dreams were coming true, but he was handling the situation well. He didn’t let this new fame go to his head. A friend whose job was in publicity suggested he pull back a bit and not do all the interviews he was asked to do. This was very good advice. Within a few short weeks of his letters being published, dozens of refugee families had started work on farms throughout the country and within a few months, the idea, like Bernie predicted, went ahead in leaps and bounds.
And regarding the building of Shantytown, for many of those involved in the lead-up to the turning of the first sod including the refugees, its planning and then construction became the most exciting event in their lives. There’d been such a general lack of empathy for many of the refugees, who through no fault of their own had to flee their homeland, sometimes enduring months or even years of absolute hardship. Now, genuinely feeling like they’d been rescued by a nation of warm and welcoming people, they were on the whole ecstatic about their new lives.
The Shantytown idea developed so quickly. Popular ideas sometimes just flourish. When the first part of Bernie’s plan was instantaneously so successful and farmers were experiencing the immediate benefits of refugee involvement, part two of his plan simply took off.
Over a hundred war veterans, not only from the Vietnam War, but also more recent conflicts, a few of them severely disabled, helped nearly a thousand refugees and former refugees and migrants bring the dream to reality in a construction period that took a little under a year, many of the buildings being relatively simple to construct. As well, at the main entrance to the village, they built a few more substantial buildings to house a museum and offices plus a 60 bed motel, and an amazing restaurant area, a bit like a giant food hall, to demonstrate the cooking styles of the countries represented. There was also a small auditorium and a theatre. These more substantial buildings slowed the project down a bit, but together with the refugee group, the Veterans and a team of local builders and other tradesmen had the whole village completed in just under the twelve months planned.
Bernie had been asked to be on the advisory board of Shantytown to offer ideas right from the beginning and he accepted graciously. Inside, he was thrilled to have been asked and found it exciting to be involved to say the least. He wasn’t pushy with his suggestions, but remembering how difficult it was in Vietnam for all the men he served with, he wanted to make certain things very clear.
‘Even with the training we were given,’ he said, ‘everything was new when we arrived, and our understanding of customs and so on was near nil. We didn’t even know what side of the road the local Vietnamese drove on. No-one cared to mention it in our training.’
Bernie wanted to open up a world of knowledge that he felt was missing in the education of children first of all, but also of all members of society in western cultures. ‘Not enough is known about our world,’ he said frankly, ‘certainly not the developing world. Kids today know about the US, smart phones and gadgets which actually dumb-down the population rather than do what the buyers of all this techno stuff think they do.’ And as far as their schooling is concerned, some subjects could actually be replaced with more important life-lessons as he referred to them.
When the final jobs were being completed on Shantytown, an impressive village had been created. A dozen different countries were represented from the continent of Africa, fourteen from South & Central America, eight from Asia, three from the Middle East and ten from Oceania including an Aboriginal Meriam house of the Torres Strait Islands (20th century) and a spinifex shelter typical of the real outback (19th century). Nearly every country built more than one example of home, shop or shelter. Australia, it was decided early in the project, needed to be included simply because some people who live on this continent have not lived, and do not live, a modern sophisticated developed-world existence. To include examples of Aboriginal dwellings was a very good move.
Bernie had taken particular interest in the construction of the thatched-roof Vietnamese home, elevated on wooden poles so as to keep animals out and as protection from the wet ground of Vietnam. However it was the amazing cross-section and differences depicted between the many countries represented that made the village so spectacular.
The official opening saw thousands of excited visitors from all over Australia, an international contingent and hundreds of media representatives arrive to join in on this big event. Even the BBC and CNN were in attendance.
Built as an educational experience more than anything else, a labyrinth of tracks took visitors from one region to the next with informative signboards for those wanting the traditional explanation of what was what, but also available was the more modern wireless headphone-style of interpretative tour. People who grew up in the styles of houses and lean-tos depicted from all corners of the world were there to answer questions from visitors. Demonstrations ran continually with all sorts of handicrafts being made like carpets and rugs, clothes and knick-knacks. There was a furniture construction area, people doing timber whittling, several blacksmiths, potters, jewellery makers and a large array of fascinating displays could be viewed.
The exotic culinary delights from places like India, Senegal, Paraguay and beyond blew everyone away. The range and quality of the unique foods which were offered from the dozens of countries represented was astonishing. There were literally hundreds of unusual choices of foods and dishes available. And considering that Australia’s multi-cultural society had in recent years already provided a fantastic range of foods, what was on offer in Shantytown was almost overwhelming.
What was to excite some people most though was the music. Music from a large number of countries was going to be on show. Bernie had secretly harboured ambitions most of his life to somehow involve himself with music. When he was in Vietnam this dream came a step closer when he heard the sublime street music of a particular musician he came across while he was on leave in a small out of the way village in the middle of nowhere. Playing the ‘Dan Bau’, the old man made the single string instrument sing in the most captivating way. Bernie and the other troops on leave with him were truly mesmerised. Bernie hoped that after the war he could bring such musicians to Australia for no other reason than to share with his own countrymen the music he’d been lucky enough to witness while in Vietnam, the music which was one of the few positive things in his whole time in the country. It only happened a couple of times that he witnessed unusual instruments being played, but on both occasions, the experience was out of this world.
Now, here in Shantytown, instruments like the West African kora, a 21 string instrument resembling the harp, as well as the djembe, udu and balafon, the pipes and flutes of South America, the drums, ocarina and slit gongs of the Pacific and Oceania, the Vietnamese erhu and danmo, the Indian sitar and literally hundreds of other highly unusual instruments were going to offer spine tingling sensations for everyone lucky enough to experience them. Bernie was ecstatic with every facet of the town, but especially the part that music played in the experience.
And like everywhere throughout Shantytown, each and every person demonstrating the music was to be a refugee or migrant, all keen to impart their knowledge and skills to the Australian public, and of course to international visitors too.
So opening day had arrived. The press was filming, dignitaries were in place, speech notes at the ready, and the place was really buzzing. It was the NSW premier who spoke first.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome,’ he began. ‘Welcome to the most unusual theme park in Australia, perhaps the most unusual in the world. What you will be able to meander around shortly is the finest example of its kind anywhere on earth. This was not the dream of an aspiring entrepreneur, nor that of a savvy businessman with a clever plan. Instead it was the idea of a Vietnam Veteran who had been in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation centres for decades. And it wasn’t his only idea. Many of you will have heard of the outstanding success that the farming community throughout Australia has experienced by involving refugees to help struggling farmers recently. This too was his idea. And that man, ladies and gentlemen, is this man on my left, Bernie Davidson.’
The premier began to applaud and everybody else joined in. Bernie grinned from ear to ear.
Continuing on the premier added, ‘The Australian farming community is greatly indebted to Bernie’s initial idea. For years they’d been doing it tough. Now, things have changed drastically. Not just small towns, but entire communities have been drawn together all helping each other. Innovative businesses have started up as a result. It’s nothing short of amazing. And, ladies and gentlemen, I think the same is about to happen here at Shantytown. This is a lot more than examples of dwellings from countries across the globe, and it’s a lot more than the foods people enjoy in different countries. It’s the music, it’s the arts and crafts and perhaps most importantly, it’s the interaction that we will all have with the people who work here, the very people whose houses, businesses, markets and way of life are on display for us all to learn from. And there is just so much to learn in this wonderful town.’
Speeches are speeches and after the premier finished, the others who followed him waffled on a bit, but when Bernie cut the ribbon and the people had the chance to look around, the village was considered unanimously to be a great success.
All sorts of people congratulated Bernie in person. Some patted him on the back, shook his hand, others smiled, waved and gave a respectful nod.
The prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau dressed so casually and not looking at all like a world leader, pulled Bernie aside and said, ‘You’ve helped develop an excellent idea here, Mr Davidson. I love this place.’ He was sporting a big grin as he asked, ‘Would you like to come to Canada and help build another one of these fine villages?’
Bernie was shocked but overjoyed. ‘Of course I’d love to. It would be an honour.’
And so a couple of months later Bernie was on a plane to Vancouver about to embark on a new journey, to build a version of his idea that incorporated a lot more than he ever dreamed of. Double the size of the Australian Shantytown, this new village was to be constructed in two distinct sections, one specifically depicting Canadian and Inuit buildings, and the other depicting buildings from the rest of the world.
Trudeau had been impressed with the number of disabled folk who had been involved in the Aussie Shantytown and directed his team to invite interested people from all Canada’s disabled groups to get involved in whatever capacity they felt they could. Of particular concern to the prime minister was the alarming rate of attempted suicides in indigenous communities like Attawapiskat in northern Ontario, and so people from this community were invited to be involved too, specifically designing and constructing a home typical of that region. It offered Attawapiskat and similar communities an opportunity to be involved in a very rewarding project.
So even before Bernie arrived, people were being interviewed from indigenous communities like this and from all walks of life and all levels of disability hoping to be part of the design, building and eventual running of the village. At first, mixing people who have disabilities with refugees was considered a potential volatile mix, but those chosen were done so with great care and compassion, and the eventual combination of workers was ideal.
There were administrative and clerical jobs on offer, design and construction positions, sales and marketing appointments and a lot more. People were being interviewed for jobs eighteen months in advance of the positions becoming available, as it was considered that this village would take about a year and a half to construct. Unlike the Australian version, the Canadian Shantytown was to have a much larger accommodation area. People would be able to stay overnight in a quaint but extremely comfortable hotel as well as a large variety of the actual cottages depicted throughout the village. There was also to be a natural history museum and a campus of the University of British Columbia.
Throughout the construction of the village, many on the board considered that the original name Vancouver Shantytown Village was somewhat of a misnomer as the complex spread impressively over 100 hectares and was to have no fewer than 300 buildings. It was decided therefore to drop the word ‘village’ and simply call the place Vancouver Shantytown.
It was fast becoming so much more impressive than the original Australian version, but Bernie was receiving weekly reports from back home, and he was chuffed at the figures. Thousands were coming through the gates each week, with a steady increase in both day visitors and those staying overnight, including school groups. Of great interest though was the fact that politicians and business leaders from abroad were visiting, most likely with the thought of doing something similar in their own countries.
This Shantytown was different, no doubt about it. Whereas the Australian Shantytown had individual examples of the homes, shops and markets of the third world, the Canadian version in some sections was to incorporate entire villages, clusters of dwellings, and as well, perhaps surprisingly, a replica of a bombed out Beirut city block, plus a number of audio visual displays from other war zones. This Shantytown was therefore considerably different to the original one in Australia. And for visitors to get around this unusual town, rickshaw rides were offered. However, so as not to detract from the authenticity of the displays, they had to keep to the main trails only, just like the bicycles. Other than that it was foot traffic and wheelchairs of only.
Completion date was nearing and the final touches were being added to the roads and bike trails. Solar panels by the hundred had been installed on the larger more contemporary and substantial buildings, and even a few dozen wind generators had been positioned on the hill adjoining the property. No longer referred to as a village it was hardly even a town anymore. It was a mini-metropolis, and soon it would be providing all its own power needs and employing over a thousand people. As well, a large proportion of the fresh produce required in the many restaurants and food stalls was to be grown on site in greenhouses. Seedlings had been propagated out-of-season so as to maximise growth of an abundance of fruits, vegetables and herbs almost year ‘round and considering the problems of frost and sub zero temperatures, these greenhouses were state-of-the-art food production centres.
Bernie quietly admitted that this was a far cry from what he first envisaged with the initial Shantytown back in Australia, but Prime Minister Trudeau and his team of advisors started pushing right from the beginning to make this a spectacularly modern and impressive example of self-sufficiency as well as a town full of the homes, shops and markets of the developing world. It was a strange marriage of ideas, but one which was poised to work well and to make a real difference in the lives of many.
‘We don’t want to be the isolationist world that America is – we want to open our minds and actually learn something from the developing world,’ one journalist wrote as the town neared completion.
When the gates opened for the first time in the summer of 2018, that’s exactly what started happening. People began to understand in a better sense what life was like in the developing world, what struggles people had to deal with on a daily basis, how difficult it was for some just to stay alive.
By the end of the same year, two other shantytowns were under construction, one on the border of Germany and The Netherlands in a collaborative effort by both governments, and another in Austria, which was to be an inside museum constructed in three giant stadiums. The number employed during and after construction in the five shantytowns around the world exceeded twenty thousand. The number of people enlightened by the shantytown experience was far, far greater.