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FEATURED AUSTRALIA: Indigenous Cabbage Tree Island community moves into new temporary home after flooding displaces

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#AceNewsDesk – Students displaced from an Indigenous community on the Northern Rivers have moved into a temporary campus, nearly nine months after floods destroyed their school.

Play Video. Duration: 3 minutes 51 seconds
Cabbage Tree Island community reunite for school’s reopening(Stephanie Boltje)none

The Cabbage Tree Island Public School is among the thousands of buildings considered uninhabitable from the New South Wales’ floods in February.

Until their school is rebuilt the students will be taught in a demountable school erected in the village of Wardell, about six minutes drive away from Cabbage Tree Island.

the front of Cabbage Tree Island School is shown with a sign and school buildings behind a gate
Conversations are beginning about what to do with the Cabbage Tree Island school.(ABC News: Stephanie Boltje)none

For the primary schoolers it feels like the first day of school again, as they tour their new classrooms with a mix of excitement and apprehension.

Year 6 student Aaliyha Roberts said this move has made her feel more settled.

“I think it’s good because we are back together again and we are a big family and just having a connection just feels really good,” the student said.Principal Dyonne Anderson welcomes the Cabbo community at the new school opening.(ABC News: Adam Wyatt)none

The new public school consists of two classrooms for the kindy to year 6 students, a communal room, a library, as well as space for the teachers and admin staff.

Until this facility was built the 37 kids went to the Southern Cross School of Distance Education in East Ballina.

The students explained to The Drum that the bigger school was different from the tight-knit one they were used to.

“It didn’t feel right, it didn’t feel like it was our own school,” year 5 student Doneisha Ferguson explained.The students sing a song about the evacuation of Cabbage Tree Island.(ABC news: Stephanie Boltje)none

Celebrating a new school day

Their official move to Wardell was delayed by five weeks due to bad weather, but last week the students celebrated the move with song, dance and a smoking ceremony.

Despite ongoing construction work, Principal Dyonne Anderson has been determined to get the students into their own space before the end of the school year.

“Just the energy that was within the room was something that we’ve been waiting for,” she told The Drum.

“It’s been hard.”

Ms Anderson said that she has witnessed the mental health struggles of adults, as well as children in these past few months.

“We are stronger when we are together and certainly the love and support is greater when we are close by,” she said.The Cabbage Tree Island Public School is out of bounds for community members.(ABC News: Stephanie Boltje)none

Nyangbal and Dunghutti woman Teresa Anderson has not only worked at the Cabbage Tree Island school for 21 years as a teacher’s assistant, generations of her family have also been educated on the island.

She told The Drum that she is sad that they “had to lose everything that we had” including the historic photos of the community but she is glad to see the children excited about their new space.

The new demountable school is located at the centre of a prefab village that has been funded by the New South Wales government and will be managed by Uniting NSW.ACT.

About half of the Cabbage Tree Island residents displaced by the floods have moved into their box-like homes that range from studio size to three-bedrooms.

The remainder of the residents are expected to join them by Christmas.Access to Cabbage Tree Island is restricted with homes now considered a safety hazard due to mould and structural damage.(ABC News: Adam Wyatt)none

‘It’s not home’: the loss of a community

Aunty Teresa Anderson lost her family home and has made the move into one of the demountable pod homes on the transformed Wardell recreation grounds.

Since the floods she has lived in eight homes from Ballina to Brisbane.

“It’s not home, it’s not Cabbo, it’s not my island home but it’ll do for two to three years,” she said.

“It is going to keep me happy and stress free because I am not moving all the time.”

Some residents have spent months couch surfing, or living in caravans and motorhomes across the region since being evacuated.

Aunty Teresa has witnessed the Elders of her community reduced to tears as they reunite with their family members at the new site.Aunty Teresa Anderson lost her house to the floods and has now made one of the pods home.

“Just watching their faces and their happiness — there is a smile from ear to ear — where they were so glad that they are with their community again,” she told The Drum.

Their Cabbage Tree Island home, in the middle of the Richmond River, is now completely deserted, apart from the odd contractor.

The school is covered in signs saying do not enter, the playground is overgrown and the mud-stained classrooms sit empty.

All of the 26 homes on the island have been condemned, or are considered uninhabitable.

One of the students who lived on the island, Jatika Davis-Marlowe, said she feels “heartbroken and sad” that they “lost all of their stuff” but hopes to return in a couple of years.

A return to their island home, but will it be safe?

Ms Anderson is one of the residents who told The Drum they want to return to Cabbage Tree Island.

“I would like to see Cabbage Tree Island rebuilt, our school there, our community back together being strong,” she said.

The Education Department said consultation was underway to rebuild the school back to its original location.

But questions remain about the rest of the community.

Ms Anderson said many of the community members she speaks to want to live on “Cabbo” again and they want to be heard.

“There have been decisions made where our community have had very little say in it,” Ms Anderson told The Drum.

“That certainly takes us back to not such a great memorable place around some of the past government policies and practices where our community had no control.”Jali Aboriginal Land Council CEO Chris Binge says it’s heartbreaking to see the Island left to ruin.(ABC News: Stephanie Boltje)none

Jali Aboriginal Land Council owns and manages all the properties on the island, which at times can house up to 260 people.

The CEO, Chris Binge, is at pains to explain that everyone in the community will have their say about what should happen.

But he said if homes are rebuilt on the island as a group they will need to consider what will withstand a raging torrent like the one that came through earlier this year.

“I think we need to be really honest about this,” Mr Binge laments.

“Floods are going to happen again we have no control over what impact that might be.”

In certain parts of the island the water reached the floorboards of the second storey homes.

Mr Binge points to where 25 to 30 metres of land has been lost to the floodwaters, and said at high tide the waters now lap at the low-lying houses.

He told The Drum that it was heartbreaking to come back each day to see the island left deserted.

“Our first priority is trying to bring people home and this is home,” Mr Binge said.

“That is the community’s wants and needs but we have to be realistic about what that might look like.”

An eight to 12 week feasibility study has begun to see what options exist for Cabbage Tree Island.

“Experts in their field will be able to tell us exactly what we can and can’t do to move forward.”

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