Ballarat in the 1850s was a melting pot of different cultures as miners from all over the world flocked to make their fortune on the goldfields.
But once the township settled into mature prosperity based more on farming, manufacturing and industry in the late 1800s, immigration slowed dramatically. However, one part of the region which attracted a particular ethnicity was the Daylesford and Hepburn townships, which even today boast a large population with Swiss-Italian roots.In fact, the annual Swiss-Italian Festa is one of the highlights on the area’s social calendar.
The influence of the Swiss Italians – largely Italian-speaking Swiss from the cantons of Ticino and Grison and northern Italians – is still present in many building names, such as the Savoia Hotel, Parma House, Perinis and Bellinzona. In fact, The Savoia is named after the royal family of unified Italy.
Local Ian Tinetti says the 100 Swiss and Italian settlers who arrived in the 1850s had a big impact on the look of the Hepburn area, and the industries established there.
"You can see it when you go back to the old country and look at the buildings,” he said.
Mr Tinetti says about half of the people in the area have connections to those first migrants and they still share a strong bond to this day.
However, in neighbouring Ballarat, the stream of migrants began to slow when mining activity all but ceased and Ballarat's growth virtually stopped at the turn of the century. Eventually the town was overtaken by Geelong as Victoria’s premier regional city.
Over nearly 100 years, there were so few immigrants to Ballarat, the town once earned the title of Australia’s least multi-cultural city, with more than 90 per cent of its residents still having Anglo-Celtic roots.
However, the arrival of the 21st century also saw Ballarat opening its doors to people from all over the world.
In 2007, Ballarat welcomed its first immigrants from the African nation of Togolese as part of a humanitarian settlement pilot program initiated by the Howard Government.
However, the program came under heavy criticism in a report by academic Margaret Piper, for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, who highlighted its shortcomings, such as the challenges of African people coping with Ballarat winters, a lack of job opportunities, few government services and the discontent felt by some newly arrived refugees.
But after the report, Togolese refugee Komi Dzagba told The Courier he believed his life, and that of his family, had been vastly improved by moving to Ballarat. Living in a refugee camp in Benin prior to migrating, Mr Dzagaba said his family did not have access to formal education, health services were limited and so was food.
He said living in Ballarat was "like a paradise".
"I never had this in my country before," he said.
"I am now free. My kids can go to school and learn for their future and I hope too that the future will be good for me because my kids can go to school and become good men for the future."
The City of Ballarat has been one of the driving forces behind the town’s increasing multiculturalism.
In 2009, the council put together the City of Ballarat Cultural Diversity Strategy (2009-2014), which went on to win multiple awards and act as a blueprint for other towns to follow.
In 2015, a summit was held to revise the strategy and ensure its goals were being met.
The council’s then people and communities’ general manager Neville Ivey told The Courier: “In our last strategy, we established 30 different actions to improve the inclusion of migrant and refugees,” Mr Ivey said.
“This summit is about us being held accountable for those actions and working out new ways we can improve on principles we already have in place.”
One of these actions – which has also won awards - is the creation of the CALD (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse) employment program which aims to enhance social, employment and education pathways for 60 people from other nations.
That same year, Ballarat was declared a Refugee Welcome Zone, which then councillor John Philips said was pivotal in unifying the community.
Fellow former councillor Vicki Coltman told The Courier Ballarat was lobbying to become a new home for refugees and asylum seekers. She said Ballarat was open to making the region a choice for refugees, particularly children fleeing war torn countries, and had been actively promoting the city to the federal government as a preferred regional destination for refugees and asylum seekers.
“We are actively positioning ourselves as a destination,” she said.
The creation of the Ballarat Regional Multicultural Council was another step forward in this aim. The BRMC is the first stop for anyone from outside Australia settling in Ballarat, and serves as a mentor to new arrivals, helping them to get their bearings and to find support and friendship.
So, since 2007 when the first of 12 Togolese families arrived, how successful has Ballarat’s cultural diversity strategy been?
Last year, BRMC chairman Constantine Osuchukwu told The Courier the success of the annual Harmony Festival showed how interconnected the Ballarat community was.
“It showcases that our community is harmonious ... and diversity is growing,” he said. “More people are getting behind it. It builds our city and brings the community together.”