TAMWORTH, AUSTRALIA — Half a world away from Tennessee, Tamworth is every inch the antipodean answer to Nashville. The town, set amid rolling cattle country in New South Wales, is renowned as Australia's country-music capital.
A 36-ft. golden guitar greets visitors on a main highway, men in cowboy hats rattle past in pick-up trucks, and on the main street shops sell saddles, whips, line-dancing boots, and the latest Remington and Winchester rifles.
During Tamworth's annual country music festival, which starts Friday, the town welcomes 600 musicians and 50,000 visitors for a week of big-stage concerts, smoky back-room jamming sessions, and a rodeo.
But it has given a decidedly chilly reception to a proposal by the federal government that it resettle five African refugee families – just a few of the steadily increasing number of Africans accepted for "humanitarian resettlement" in Australia. Though the town council this week backed off its December decision to reject the Sudanese families outright, the town has come under fire for being racist.
"I'm aghast to think that after 35 years of establishing Tamworth's reputation as the country-music capital of Australia, it's been tarnished by a few off-the-cuff remarks," says Max Ellis, a curator of a country music museum here. "It's a distortion of what we are really like.... There may be a handful of people who are vocal in their views but they are in no way representative."
Councilors opposed to the resettlement cited a survey of 500 locals that showed that three-quarters wanted nothing to do with the Africans, and said they were concerned that Sudanese men would commit crimes, harass women, and could bring with them diseases such as tuberculosis.
Some of the town's 40,000 residents also worried that despite their small number, the Africans could cause the sort of racial tension that sparked riots between white and Middle Eastern gangs in the Sydney beachside suburb of Cronulla in December 2005.
"There are big cultural differences – Sudanese men find it hard to take orders from women," said Tamworth's mayor, James Treloar. "Plus we don't have the trauma and torture counseling facilities that these people need." Since 2000, the number of Africans accepted for humanitarian resettlement has jumped to 7,100 from 1,700. Of those, the largest number came from Sudan, with others from Burundi, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.
This week, Tamworth's council said it would consider letting the refugees in but only if local community groups can prove they are capable of providing support services.
Mayor Treloar said he still opposed the federal government's refugee resettlement package, however. "If we did a survey, I think you would be shocked at how many people share my concerns," he said Wednesday. "People come up to me on the street and congratulate me for my stance." He denied that the council had shifted its position as a result of intense media attention, including reports on the BBC and Al Jazeera.
Warren Woodley, one of the councilors who voted in favor of the resettlement program, says the controversy has deeply tarnished Tamworth's reputation. "I was embarrassed by the mayor's comments," he says. "Is Tamworth racist? If it is, I never knew it was and I've lived here all my life."
The Reverend Ken Fenton, from South Tamworth Anglican Church, helped organize a 1,500-signature petition in favor of accepting the new batch of refugees.
"You do have your classic rednecks here," he concedes. "But I think there are lot of people in the middle who are just not sure. Logically, it's ridiculous – we're only talking about five families."
Tamworth is already home to about 25 Sudanese refugees, who, like their countrymen spread across Australia, fled civil war and unrest in southern Sudan. Most of them work in the local abattoirs, butchering sheep and cattle from the surrounding ranches – jobs that no local wants to do.
But many locals remain fiercely opposed to accepting any more Sudanese. "They're noisy, they chase sheilas [young women] around the streets, and they play loud music. I detest them," says a man who lives across the road from two Sudanese refugees and refused to give his name. "You can take all these fellas and stick them in a bag and shove them in the river."
Diktor Malok, one of the refugees across the road, came to Tamworth after trekking hundreds of miles from Sudan to Uganda, where he then spent four years in a refugee camp. "We feel very upset and disappointed. People say we're lawbreakers and that we're taking their jobs, which is totally wrong."
Henry Tombek, another young refugee, says he no longer ventures into Tamworth's center after being punched in the face one night in what he says was an unprovoked attack. "Why do they pick on us like this? The main reason is because we are black, I think," says Mr. Tombek, who wants to become an engineer and move to Sydney.
Lying 380 miles north of that multicultural city, Tamworth is a bastion of white, rural Australia where American-style Western culture has been embraced and given an Aussie twist. In a packed local pub, a singer in cowboy boots belts out a ballad with the refrain: "So don't change Australia, Australia is what we are, From the kangaroo to the platypus, and the pink-crested galah."