Communities which roll out the welcome mat to newcomers and migrants reap rich rewards, a Queensland University of Technology (QUT) social networks researcher’s Australia Day address will say.
Dr Orit Ben-Harush, herself an Israeli migrant, will address the Australia Day event in her local community of Ocean Shores, which has appointed her its Citizen of the Year, with the message that it is in everyone’s interest to welcome and build friendships with people outside your immediate group.
For her PhD research at QUT Dr Ben-Harush interviewed 26 women from Ocean Shores in northern New South Wales to investigate how they made and maintained social networks and from that she gauged their sense-of-community.
The women, aged between 35 and 76 years were locals and newcomers, some of them seachangers, and migrants. She found a divide and differences in interactions of locals and newcomers.
“A sense of community contributes enormously to a person and a group’s social capital,” Dr Ben-Harush said.
“Strong communities have high social capital. Their members have a sense of belonging, they feel safe in their communities, and they know they have a support network when needed.
“Crime is also lower where social capital is high because people usually don’t want to harm or steal from people they know.”
Her address is based on research findings that women in the small, established towns in the area tended to build “bonding” relationships where they preferred mixing with people in their own town.
This preference meant that they donated to local causes or volunteered for local activities mostly, and tended to overlook the wider community.
Dr Ben-Harush will stress the importance of breaking down this preference to “stick to your own” and instead cultivate “bridging” relationships with other groups to raise social capital and make life better.
She said local councils had a role to play in helping people new in town to feel welcome. They could issue welcome packs to newcomers, set up online resources for them and host special activities where newcomers and locals could meet.
Setting up a volunteer network to guide newcomers could also bridge the divide between long-time locals and newcomers.
Dr Ben-Harush said proof of the benefits of getting to know other communities followed from a presentation she gave on strengthening communities.
“A number of small towns in the area have since overcome their differences and joined forces with their local council to discuss building a sportsfield they all could use,” she said.
Dr Ben-Harush will speak at the Ocean Shores Australia Day event at New Brighton Oval, 4-7pm.