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Somebody Different: Eddie Whitham from Tamworth

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By Kiera Eardley

“My life has been a long journey”

At seventy-eight years old, Eddie Whitham’s life is as busy as they come. Born in Wangaratta and now a long-term Tamworth local, he holds a lifelong passion for people’s welfare and wellbeing, which has afforded him the fond moniker of ‘Uncle Eddie’ around town. His organisation, Multicultural Tamworth, exists to assist migrants settling in the area in all facets of life, and operates as a helpful friend rather than a difficult-to-understand bureaucratic service. People respond best to face-to-face contact, he says, which explains his habit of inviting those who need his help over to his house for a cup of tea and a chat. To him, it doesn’t matter who they are or what their background is—as long as they need him, he’ll be there.

“It’s about engaging with people,” says Eddie. “It works because we communicate in a way they can understand, and they trust us. Every human being that comes to Australia should be able to practice their religion and speak their language; we encourage the young people to learn the language of their grandparents, so they’re still able to talk to grandma.”

For new migrants, Eddie notes that the biggest barrier to inclusion is the jargon used by government services. It’s impersonal and “impossible” to understand, with too much extraneous information, and engaging with people on a personal level is the best antidote to this. When he engages with migrants, he puts them first and works on a case-by-case basis in the problem-solving process, always encouraging them to think laterally.

“You make things up as you go! If someone wants to get married but can’t get back to India to celebrate with their family because of the pandemic, then we tell them to have a civil ceremony now and a big traditional celebration later. We have to keep helping people to work through things themselves, not just do it for them.”

“My life has been a long journey”
Generosity from the get-go

"My parents always cared for other people. That’s an inspiring way to grow up.”

Raised as one of nine children in his family, Eddie credits his upbringing as the source of his passion for people’s welfare. His parents met in Jerusalem during World War II, and his Polish mother became one of the first war brides to immigrate to Australia in that war.

“Even when things were tough, with Mum keeping house and Dad working hard every day, my parents always cared for other people. That’s an inspiring way to grow up.”

This altruistic attitude first came into strong practice in 1978, as the Indochina Wars were concluding. Eddie had married his wife Barbara and moved to Tamworth ten years prior, and the pair decided to do something on a local level about the millions of people from Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos who had been displaced by the wars. Alongside local churches and other members of the community, Eddie and Barbara supported a “steady stream” of migrant families over several years, and many towns surrounding Tamworth followed suit. Today, they are proud of the small Laotian community in the region that stemmed from this first wave of immigration in the late-1970s, who now have grandchildren growing up in the local area.

In 2006, there was a “heated” impasse between the Immigration Department and the Tamworth Council over the proposed settlement of Sudanese refugees in the area. The debate was “not a good advertisement for our city”, so Eddie offered to step in and sort out the issue by dealing with people directly. His onerous efforts were successful, and he was invited to join the advisory board of Multicultural NSW where he has now resided for 15 years.

Migrants began arriving in the Tamworth area in 2009, looking for employment and a new place to settle. Eddie observed a level of resentment amongst locals and unions which he recognised from the immigration influx in 1978. Many people were using divisive language, questioning why so many of “them” were arriving, saying that “they” were taking “our” jobs. So, Eddie took it upon himself to educate his community on the benefits of immigration, a mission which garnered plenty of local news coverage.

“What I was doing wasn’t usually something done by a loner who isn’t attached to an NGO or bureaucracy, so I got people’s attention. After a while, I found myself being invited to every group’s meeting in the area to explain what immigration meant to them.”

"My parents always cared for other people. That’s an inspiring way to grow up.”
Multicultural Tamworth

“We tell newcomers, ‘we are your relatives, we are a family"

With so much media attention and local influence, Eddie devised a talk to deliver on the topic of immigration. He refined it over time by catering the talk to the questions people would ask, and he became so efficient that “nobody asked any more questions after I’d spoken”. He found that the greatest way to get people to self-reflect on their views about immigration is to ask, “do you realise that everybody in this country has come from overseas, somehow? We’re all a part of migration, and this country is built on it”.

After one such presentation in 2013, two women approached Eddie and asked to form a group, where he could teach them and others to do the same community work. And so, Multicultural Tamworth was born. The group services only migrants, in order to remain effective, and is guided by its motto “Neighbours for Newcomers”.

“We tell newcomers, ‘we are your relatives, we are a family, we have to work together through good times and bad times’. It helps build that trust from the beginning.”

This encapsulates Eddie’s attitude entirely: rather than a service burdened by paperwork and rules, he acts as a supportive friend who is approachable, problem-solving, and endlessly generous. By partnering with other organisations, Multicultural Tamworth is able to achieve the best outcomes without depending on fundraising. The greatest example of this simple approach is the Sunday afternoon gatherings Multicultural Tamworth organises at a local church building. Over 70 women are invited to the church, and everyone is asked to bring a plate of food—all the organisation has to do is supply drinks. It’s a wonderful way for migrant women to mix with local women, and the migrant women love to share their cooking with the community.

“That’s the best way to connect with people in your community; have a barbecue at your home, with a guest list that is half migrants, half ‘Aussies’, and ask everyone to bring food! It’s such an easy way to break down barriers and form meaningful connections.”

“We tell newcomers, ‘we are your relatives, we are a family"
Fiesta La Peel

"The 2019 Fiesta La Peel saw 19,000 attendees, with people from 47 different nationalities"

Multicultural Tamworth is a structure run entirely without income: “we don’t ask for things, because if we take money then we can’t be free”, says Eddie. Through strong community networks and connections, many locals are willing to lend a helping hand, from the Lions Club and Rotary Club to the local council and government groups. In 2014, the group was given an office in the Tamworth Library, and now they have 28 people learning English there. Eddie is proud that he has engineered the organisation as one with no bureaucracy, because it means everyone who works there is a “free agent” who can talk to local media on any given issue with no restrictions. Many government agencies are locked into the nine-to-five routine, but Eddie will get out of bed at 4am if somebody needs his help. Of the ten people on the Multicultural Tamworth committee, six were born overseas, which ensures the committee remains informed and in-touch with local migrants.

“You have to always be aware of what’s going on below the surface,” says Eddie. “A new migrant might appear to be doing alright, but unless you ask you never really know what they might be grappling with.”

His group deals with any and all issues facing migrants in Tamworth on a case-by-case basis, which means that they are problem-solving experts. They deal with family and neighbourly disputes, write references for new migrants, check résumés and work through employment contracts.

“You just have to know how everything works, because you never know what you’re going to get!”

For Eddie, there are many highlights to his work. He speaks fondly of the introduction of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library into Tamworth, which sees every baby born delivered a new book every month for four years, at no cost to the family. It’s a fantastic way for the children of migrants to learn English, and to own quality children’s books which might not have been otherwise affordable.

However, nothing tops the Fiesta La Peel. Run jointly with the Regional Council, Multicultural Tamworth engages the various local ethnic groups to get involved with food, song, dance, and craft for the festival. In a vibrant celebration of multiculturalism, the festival connects people from all backgrounds as they help each other out. Eddie is especially proud of the 2019 Fiesta La Peel. It saw 19,000 attendees in a city of 55,000 people, with people from 47 different nationalities setting up stalls. The festival, in Eddie’s words, is “absolutely amazing”.

"The 2019 Fiesta La Peel saw 19,000 attendees, with people from 47 different nationalities"
A busy, fulfilling lifestyle

“I just love doing things for people"

Over years of hard, community-minded work, Eddie has rightfully been recognised with awards. He was named Tamworth Citizen of the Year in 2014; “it was amazing,” he says, “because I delivered one hundred addresses across the region in that year as a result”. In 2019, he was awarded the Multicultural Minister’s Award for New South Wales. Eddie loves that he can be contacted every day by “just about anybody” with a new query, problem or challenge. He is asked by many agencies, the local police, the health system and other groups for assistance, and he is proud to have personally helped 4,500 migrants from 87 countries over the years. To them, he is known fondly as ‘Uncle Eddie’.

“I just love doing things for people. I think when we wake up to the fact that we are just one country, that we are all the same people, this nation will be a better place.”

As for his life away from Multicultural Tamworth and work, Eddie leads an adventurous and “fun” lifestyle with Barbara. “We’re really busy people,” he says, noting their involvement in running community vaccination hubs throughout 2021. They love to travel, both around Australia and abroad, and can’t wait to get back to Victoria for a visit soon. At the moment, Eddie is working on writing his life story—replete with travel anecdotes and witty quips, no doubt—as well as establishing a university in Tamworth to encourage a better local student lifestyle and engagement. He’s approaching this task as he does all others: engaging with people face-to-face, without paperwork or bureaucracy.

“When you’re the only person who does things that nobody else does? It’s fun!”

To find out more about Eddie’s work with Multicultural Tamworth, head to their Facebook page here.

“I just love doing things for people"
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