The family and Beth Rodgers (middle) on a trip to Sydney.
The family and Beth Rodgers (middle) on a trip to Sydney.

‘She gave us hope’: Beth’s impact on family who fled genocide

They’d escaped genocide and witnessed atrocities those of us privileged to have been raised in Australia would struggle to comprehend.

But a Burundi family, who fled war twice before spending years in violent Tanzanian refugee camps, said they “won the lotto” when they arrived in Coffs and met Beth Rodgers.

Ms Rodgers and her daughters welcomed the single mother and her five children, aged as young as four, with open arms.

Over the next years she would leave an incredible impact not just on their lives, but also those of other Burundi families who have settled in Coffs.

She has now been nominated for a 2021 Coffs Harbour Australia Day Award.

Ms Rodgers, a Coffs resident of more than 70 years, told The Advocate she quickly became a grandmother figure to the young children of this particular family.

“They were more of an inspiration to me than I was to them,” she said.

“I met the family back in 2006 – three boys, a girl and another boy. The mother had split up with the husband and he’d gone to America. So here she was, a single mother with five children.”

The former refugees from Burundi may be some of the most traumatised of all the displaced people who have found a home in Coffs Harbour.

The families had travelled to Rwanda to escape genocide, and were forced to flee once again when the Rwandan genocide took place.

They fled to frightening Tanzanian refugee camps were they were unprotected, and witnessed horrific scenes.

This particular family said Ms Rodgers, who has now been nominated for an Australia Day Award, had given them hope when she took them under her wing.

Clockwise from top left: Coffs Harbour Australia Day award nominees Beth Rogers, Michael Bourne, John Lardner, Rosie Smart, John Higgins and Julie Ferguson.
Clockwise from top left: Coffs Harbour Australia Day award nominees Beth Rogers, Michael Bourne, John Lardner, Rosie Smart, John Higgins and Julie Ferguson.

She helped them with their homework, drove them to school and medical appointments, and even helped them understand how to become Australian citizens.

She got the children involved in netball and soccer, with some going on to become representative players for the Coffs community.

Fourteen years later, the youngest son who was just four when he arrived, is now heading off to study nursing in Brisbane alongside his older sister.

Ms Rodgers and the family recently held a celebration to mark 14 years of their arrival to Coffs.

“My family and I were having great difficulties adjusting to this massive change. We

were feeling disconnected, isolated, unable to communicate, and extremely home sick,” one family member said.

“Meeting Beth was like winning a lotto.

“Beth became an extension of my family and at a personal level, she became the grandmother I never had.”

Ms Rodgers said the years she’s spent supporting the Burundi community had given her joy.

“I was just in love with the children. They’d been through an awful lot in the war – it was a shocking war.

“I’ve had the support of my daughters, and we’ve just loved doing what we could for the family.”

Ms Rodgers admitted she was “horrified” when she first heard she was nominated for an Australia Day Award – until she realised it may encourage others to be welcoming and supportive of Coffs’ new residents.

“They should receive a friendly reception from everyone, and understanding that they’ve been through an awful lot,” she said.

“There are things people don’t realise they go through, even after they’ve arrived.”

The Coffs Coast Advocate is profiling each of Coffs Harbour’s Australia Day Award nominees ahead of the awards ceremony on January 26.