Swan Hill Embraces Diversity

The first time I experienced Harmony Day it was thousands of miles from the Mallee. While working in an International School in the Middle East with an enrolment of over 60 different nationalities, Harmony Days were a colourful spectacle of diverse food, clothing and entertainment that felt so removed from our Mallee towns back home. For one day every year, people from all around the world were connected by their unique backgrounds and experiences, and I eagerly anticipated the yearly celebration.

Fast forward over a decade and I’m proud to say that here we were on Saturday, reminiscing of our overseas adventure at Swan Hill’s very own Harmony Day. It was like déjà vu as Riverside Park was transformed into a magical world of colour and contagious joy from all corners of the globe.

For Swan Hill Harmony Day organisers, it all started with a simple conversation over seven years ago… ‘It would be great if we could show how diverse our community is…with a festival or event.’ Then, after googling National Harmony Day, a series of conversations with community leaders across the region and a grant from Swan Hill Rural City Council, Swan Hill Harmony Day was born. And as approximately 1200 community members embraced the eighth year of the buzzing Harmony Celebrations yesterday, it is clear that Harmony Day will remain a permanent fixture on our events calendar. A praiseworthy effort from a country town located four hours north of Melbourne.

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There is no question that the food is a huge drawcard for those attending Harmony Day, and this year’s Harmony Day was no exception. Festival goers were treated to an array of tantalising International cuisines that were cooked locally, from countries such as Indonesia, India, Zimbabwe, Philippines, South Sudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan and an Aussie BBQ cooked by Sunrise Rotary Club. Food was high on our priority list upon arrival, but after sampling some appetizing food from Indonesia, Zimbabwe, Philippines and my own delicious Korean meal of Japchae (sweet potato glass noodles!), the kids were lured in by the kid’s experiential play zone.

Just like last year’s Harmony Day, the kid’s cast their permanent anchors amidst the giant-sized box construction area where the fun was unveiled. If there is one thing Harmony Day organisers nail every year, it is the kid’s entertainment. With endless boxes of any size imaginable, unlimited masking tape (who needs more than a box and some tape to have fun) and a creative station with paints and glue, the kids were able to flaunt their creativity freely. But more importantly, without messing up our house!

However, while we revelled in the oversized box city, the real attraction was the exclusive housing estate on display in the rotunda next door. Over the past few months numerous community groups of all ages and backgrounds from the area were asked to create their own artistic versions of ‘home’ with their little wooden houses that were kindly donated by Dahlsens and Karinie Building Supplies, and built by the Swan Hill Woodworker’s Club. The incredible art project was bursting with colourful intrigue, and for the first half of the night, masses of people took pleasure in viewing the eye-catching display in all its glory.

Regardless of our diverse backgrounds, everyone has their own impression of what ‘home’ means to them, and it is this commonality that united the Swan Hill community at Harmony Day as 1300 unique little wooden homes were then generously gifted to members of the community later in the night with small voluntary donations intended for local charities.

We were lucky enough to end up with our own little street of carefully selected houses and our lounge room floor now resembles Brighton Beach with an airstrip, and a diverse residential street of human and animal occupants all living in Harmony next to the MCG. My kids have enjoyed pondering the origins of their creators, and while they may not represent their idea of ‘home,’ they have combined their resources to create their own imaginary neighbourhood.

Swan Hill residents and those from afar were also treated to various singing and dancing performances from different community and cultural groups. Additionally, they enjoyed a cultural fashion parade and were given a Kendo (Japanese martial art) and Bokusho demonstrations, before settling into the balmy night with a picnic rug and some music from the headline act, SOL Nation.

While our Mallee town is often overshadowed by its seemingly more progressive city counterparts, our Swan Hill community is a leading light when it comes to cultural diversity and harmonious living. Kim  Bennett – a humble organiser who has been the driving force behind the event and the ‘Home’ project, fondly recalls the growth in cultural diversity and shift in attitudes within the community since moving here almost a decade ago. “Harmony Day absolutely restores your faith in the community. People come to be kind to each other. The good will and generosity is heart-warming.” Say no more.

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While Harmony Day only happens once a year, there is no reason why we shouldn’t celebrate diversity every day. For, ‘the beauty in the world lies in the diversity of its people.’

As for the remaining 1295 houses that have gone out into the world, post a picture of your little home and tag #homeswanhill so the artists can follow the journey of their little homes.

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