“You Belong” – Changing Refugees’ Lives in Toowoomba, With Love

Above: One of the many faces at a refugee welcome picnic hosted by You Belong, Toowoomba. Photos: You Belong / Facebook

By: Clare Bruce

When Queenslander Tim Buxton and his New Yorker wife felt called by God to the Middle East to work with people in need, they had no idea what was about to erupt.

It was 2014, and Tim and his young family arrived in Northern Iraq on a fateful day: the same day that ISIS invaded. It was a shock to the system.

The couple had felt called to work with people in need, but Tim wondered if they should cancel their plans and take their family, with three small children, back to a safer place. But they realized God was at work.

“We didn’t know anything about ISIS,” he said. “We didn’t actually go with an intention to specifically help refugees. But we got there the same day that ISIS invaded Northern Iraq. The airport we flew into was only 30 miles from the city of Mosul.

“But, as we kind of started to get a bit of a better idea of what was going on, we realised that maybe this was just the very reason why we were here – to help (some of the) 1.5 million people who had fled overnight into the region that we were in.”

Tim Buxton and family
Above: Tim Buxton and family.

The region they were living in was a very safe, sheltered mountain area, so they felt they were in a good position to make a difference.

“To get to our home, it’s seven army checkpoints and three mountain ranges,” Tim explained. “So, we felt really, really safe, really secure, and really confident that God had put us here for the very specific purpose of being able to respond to this crisis. We just got a real peace.”

Tim and his wife, along with another family that made the move with them, ended up establishing their own small community for refugees.

“We said to the local mayor, ‘’How can we help you?’, and he told us, ‘’There’s 23 families that have just fled Mosul. And there’s not even room for them in abandoned buildings anymore. Would you take them in?’”

With financial support from friends and churches, the Buxtons set up a micro-refugee camp. As time progressed, they also set up a school and a hospital, and a trauma care program. Among the people they helped were the Yazidi people, who were horrifically persecuted by ISIS.

When Enemies Become Lifelong Friends

Young people teach each other cultural dances at a You Belong Welcome Party.
Above: Young people teach each other cultural dances at a You Belong Welcome Party.

One of Tim’s standout memories of his three years in Iraq was watching families of Yazidis and Muslims helping one another and becoming firm friends.

“In one particular camp, we had two groups of families that lived side by side. One was a group of Shia Muslim families from Mosul. And on the other side of the road, was a group of Yazidi families. In all reality, these should be enemies. But as we cared for them and did trauma care programs with them, and drove their children to the same school together, after two years of this, I was just amazed at how they interacted with each other.

“When you get up close with people, when you get to know them as a human being, then it’s impossible to hate them.” – Tim Buxton

“If one group got some electricity and the other didn’t, they would split the line and take care of each other. If one group got delivered food somehow from a neighbor or from some organization and the others weren’t there, they would make sure that they would share the food. And when the Muslims returned home to Mosul as it was liberated… there was so much crying…as the two tribal leaders of these opposing ethnic groups and religious groups hugged each other and wept.”

He said it was a lesson in how people of different ideologies can learn to love one another.

“When you get up close with people, when you hear their stories, when you get to know them as a human being, then it’s impossible to hate them,” he said.

Helping Refugees in Toowoomba to Settle into Australian Life

Refugees and Australians gather together at a You Belong Welcome Picnic.
Above: Refugees and Australians gather together at a You Belong Welcome Picnic.

Fast forward to 2019, and Tim is now living back in Queensland with his wife and family, doing more life-changing work. He has established You Belong: a refugee support and settlement group in Toowoomba, where many Yazidi refugees from Northern Iraq have made their homes.

Remarkably, many were from refugee camps right near where Tim was living in Iraq.

“Obviously they were still suffering from a lot of heartache and pain. Not only the trauma they’d experienced, but knowing that many of their family members were still in Iraq or captivity. We knew we just had to do something to help these families.”

Boys from Northern Iraq enjoying the Australian sunshine at a You Belong picnic.
Above: Boys from Northern Iraq enjoying the Australian sunshine at a You Belong picnic.

You Belong is now an established organization, with volunteers who help connect new families with the local community, hosting welcome parties and picnics, and helping them get their lives established.

Tim believes all Australians have a responsibility to reach out and help their new neighbours integrate into the community.

“It’s got to be about relationships and building relationships,” he said. “We can try and send them to TAFE, and assign caseworkers, and all these things, but it’s actually just through making a friend with an Australian that they’re going to learn the language.

“They’re going to feel more comfortable trying and fumbling along the way if they’ve got friends, and feel like they’ve actually got people that they can spend time with.”

As newly arrived refugees befriend Australians at welcome parties and cultural exchanges, Tim watches their hopes rise.

A You Belong Welcome Party.
Above: A You Belong Welcome Party.

“There’s this sense of, Wow, maybe we can make it work here in Australia. Maybe we can find a life here, maybe it’s a place that we can start something new for our kids,” he said.

One of Tim’s greatest values is for Australians to not just learn about refugees, but to learn from them.

“I lived for three and a half years [in Northern Iraq], and I felt incredible hospitality,” he said. “Their sense of community, and love for family, for one another, is second to none. We’ve got lots to learn. I think if we go with that posture of humility… then we’ll better off and our cultures will be richer. And hopefully Australia will be a better place.”

Article supplied with thanks to Hope Media.

About the Author: Clare is a digital journalist for the Broadcast Industry.