'I really cried': Refugees rebuild after Lismore floods

·3-min read

When Sarah King watched the waters inundating her home in northern NSW, she summoned the spirit of her ancestors sold into slavery to steel herself.

The actor and radio presenter fled the civil war in Sierra Leone in 1997 for neighbouring Guinea, before coming to Australia 15 years ago.

The floods in the Northern Rivers region, with Lismore as the epicentre, claimed at least 10 lives in February last year. For Ms King, it brought flashbacks of the hurried escape from Sierra Leone to save herself.

"When the flood came, it was just like I was on a ferry in the middle of an ocean," she told AAP.

"There was no way of escape. I just resigned to my fate and did as much as I could and waited."

With her phone battery dying, she climbed on top of her dining table and used a red top tied around a broom stick to reach through an opening in the roof and catch the attention of any passing rescuers.

The ferocious floods, culminating in one of the worst natural disasters in Australia's history, reached her hips.

"As I started wading through the raging waters around me, I thought about my ancestors working in the plantations - through all that suffering they had song to take them through," she said.

Ms King started to slowly sing to stay alive. Eventually, a military chopper pulled her out of her backyard.

The sense of dread not only evoked memories of running to save herself from the decade-long civil war in her homeland, which claimed 50,000 lives, but also massive mudslides in 2017 that killed over 1100 people.

"In my grieving with what's happening around me ... I thought about the people in Sierra Leone and I grieved for them ... but even in that situation, in that state of mind. I was still hopeful," she said.

More than a year on, Ms King is among about 1000 residents living in temporary accommodation in a pod near Lismore.

Around 200 mostly West African refugees settled in Lismore and Mullumbimby from 2003 in a regional resettlement scheme.

Most eventually left for major cities, but others such as Adeyemi Johnson stayed on.

Weeks before the deluge, he celebrated his daughter's wedding in Adelaide, where his wife stayed after the nuptials.

For Mr Johnson, the region's community spirit was on full display in the Goonellabah aquatic centre, which functioned as an evacuation hub for people like the 60-year-old and his son.

When he went to pick up new clothes to replace the soggy ones he had been wearing for five days, he broke down.

"That's where I really shed tears. I really cried," Mr Johnson told AAP.

"When I came to Australia from Sierra Leone, we had nothing.

"We acquired so many things to try to make life comfortable - but all that we worked for in the last 15 years just got washed away within just a few hours.

"When my wife came and saw everything out of the house covered in mud, she too broke down".

The former accountant and dissident journalist arrived in Lismore in 2008 as a humanitarian entrant after spending several years as a refugee in Guinea.

"I witnessed so many executions ... I saw killing face to face. Soldiers killed innocent people ... it was very bloody," he said.

Mr Johnson studied for a nursing degree and built a life with his wife and children in Lismore, where he is a pastor at a local Presbyterian church.

"At least here when the floods came, we were not escaping for our dear life because we had time to move - it's not like when you're in war," he said.

For now, Mr Johnson lives in temporary accommodation in Goonellabah while he waits for a new home, but he remains buoyed by Lismore's openness and embrace of his family.

"We lost everything, but the resilience was so great - it brought us together. We all lie on each other's shoulders and we've comforted each other," he said.