Just arriving in Australia after fleeing Ukraine following the Russian invasion was more than many refugees could have dreamt of.
Little did they know when they landed with few belongings and the clothes on their backs that they would find what they were so desperately searching for in the central west near Orange, NSW.
Refugees normally remain in major city centres to be close to established friends and relatives, but a handful took a chance in the State’s central west and have had their prayers answered.
Heading over the Blue Mountains they discovered a Catholic parish in regional NSW that has opened not only its doors but its hearts and smothered them with love.
They have been welcomed with open arms by the Catholic community of Molong, part of the parish of St Mary and St Joseph in Orange, and the town’s locals.
“More than 4,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Australia since February and as the bush telegraph continues to sing its praises, more are expected to move into the region.”
As a result they are now living in a refurbished Josephite convent at Molong and were welcomed last weekend in a ceremony attended by hundreds and presided over by parish priest Fr Greg Bellamy.
In stark contrast to the hysteria of the missile attacks and bomb blasts, the peaceful rolling hills of Orange have provided an opportunity for a new life.
To forget about the devastation back home … if only for a minute.
More than 4,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Australia since February and as the bush telegraph continues to sing its praises, more are expected to move into the region.
Everything they need has been catered for. All in need of jobs have found them, three cars have been donated so they can get around, a food roster put in place which runs beyond Christmas and even pianos donated once it was discovered there was a teacher of classical piano among them.
It’s been the spare bike in the garage, the second fridge in the shed, the friend of a friend with a vacant cottage, the aunt who knows how to make curtains, the plumber who will work Sundays, the restaurateur who can tile, the school principal happy to complete enrolment and funding paperwork.
The generosity of Orange has known no bounds.
“I love this place. It is amazing and I now feel emotionally safe,” refugee Anna Kovolenko beamed.
“Flowers, trees, friendly people, beautiful sunrises and sunsets, I could not think of a nicer place to start a new life for me and my family.
“We have this feeling that we are together and Australian people are walking beside us in our time of sadness.”
However, she added, “I fear for the safety of my father and cousin back home in what will be a long, dark, cold winter.
“They have no electricity and people don’t have light, adequate food, mobile connection or safety.
“Every day we pray to God to help our family and keep them safe from Russian bombs. God has answered our prayers in bringing us to Orange and living in this new community. And we pray he will do the same back home.”
“Ukrainian flags lined the main street as tears and cheers could be heard by locals officially welcoming the new residents with a special Mass, a blessing of their new home and – of course – an Aussie sausage sizzle.
Offering employment, great schools and thriving towns, the region appeared to be the ideal place for those looking for a new start.
The only problem was a lack of accommodation. Initially offering everything from spare rooms, granny flats and even rooms at the local pub, parishioners knew they needed to find more permanent accommodation and would have to get a little creative.
Which is what they did, and last weekend the parish of Orange turned blue and yellow welcoming their new residents with the keys to their new home, an old disused convent in Molong, 25 kilometres away.
Ukrainian flags lined the main street as tears and cheers could be heard by locals officially welcoming the new residents with a special Mass, a blessing of their new home and – of course – an Aussie sausage sizzle.
The Country Women’s Association whipped up mountains of scones with jam and cream while Indigenous community members performed traditional dances and a smoking ceremony and in return the Ukrainians played traditional music.
The celebration was the culmination of months of tireless work, albeit borne out of tragedy, and despite the 15,000 kilometres between Ukraine and Australia the refugees said they felt like they were home.
More than 100 volunteers from the parish, local Catholic schools, and the wider community, saw the transformation of the old Josephite convent into a seven-bedroom home.
Orange parish priest Fr Greg Bellamy said he’s often asked at what point do they stop helping and the answer is always the same … never.
He said the Holy Spirit had been active in his community and he hopes it would inspire others to do the same. To stand up and make a difference.
“This is not the end, we will continue supporting them while they adjust to living in Australia having a home but not a house,” he said.
“It shows what can be done. None of the refugees had any English when they arrived and look what we’ve achieved – but I must also say we thank God for Google translate.
“It’s so wonderful to see this previously empty building transformed into a place of welcome and hospitality for those in need.
“Aware that the Sisters of St Joseph occupied the building for decades, I can’t help but think St Mary MacKillop would be very pleased that the building will continue to be used to help those in need.
“From the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine, God has brought new life to us in Molong, Orange and surrounding communities, and we are glad they are here.
“I pray that we may be a blessing to them, as I am sure they will be a blessing to us. Welcome home.”
Team Ukraine initiator and teacher at James Sheahan Catholic High School, Philippa Waters, said the whole thing happened quite simply because “it was the right thing to do”.
“That was the game changer. Then, all of sudden we had a lot of people wanting to help. So we started using WhatsApp to communicate what is going on, for sharing good news and planning the renovation.”
She said the refugees needed support and that dangerous times call for “mountains of love”. “Orange is a little jewel in terms of its natural resources, and in terms of its community,” she said.
“The largest refugee crisis since World War II was unravelling and Australians were being called on to house displaced Ukrainians who were leaving their homes in droves and I knew we just had to help.
“We were running out of ideas after putting-up several families who’d moved out here, with more wanting to come, so we spoke with Fr Greg who offered us the Molong Convent for housing.
“That was the game changer. Then, all of sudden we had a lot of people wanting to help. So we started using WhatsApp to communicate what is going on, for sharing good news and planning the renovation.
”This really was such a community project, harnessing the skills of all the Churches in town.
“We had a Moslem air conditioning mechanic, a Plymouth Brethren plumber, and a retired Jewish doctor volunteer their time, it was a real interfaith project coming together as one religion.
“We like to call it Team Love against Putin.”
Principal Matthew French from St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School in Molong said the children were beyond excited to be involved and welcome the new families.
He said the community was living its mission by helping and welcoming those in need.
“The response has been absolutely incredible,” he said.
“We have two of the kids starting in kindy next year and we are beyond excited.
“Molong will be the type of place that will smother them with love, it’s a beautiful place to live.”