The Lashkaris - Ahmad (seated), Mohommad, Amina, Rukari and Zahra - are among about 700 Afghans who call Shepparton home. Photo: Justin McManus

FROM the sanctuary of a cream brick veneer house in a Shepparton suburb, Mohommad Lashkari reacts with horror at the thought of fellow Afghan refugees being sent back to his homeland under the federal government's immigration crackdown.

''It is bad enough someone having been to Pakistan, but the Taliban will kill anybody who has been to Australia. It is just their attitude,'' he says.

''They will also try to get money out of you and maybe kidnap your little sister, chop her head off and send it back to you.''

The Lashkari family are among about 700 Afghans who now call Shepparton home.

Mohommad's father, Ahmad, made the dangerous boat journey via Pakistan to Ashmore Reef and the Port Hedland Detention Centre 10 years ago, before initially settling in Sydney.

But they decided they didn't like the northern city, especially its house prices, and moved instead to the rural city now claiming to be Australia's most ethnically diverse.

Shepparton has an international reputation not just for the canned fruit it sends the world, but also for the people it takes in from that world.

Adnan Al Ghazal, originally an Iraqi refugee, says the central Victorian city's reputation as a haven of tolerance and prosperity is such that many people have it as their target before they leave home countries. ''People are talking about Shepparton in detention centres. It's known everywhere,'' Mr Al Ghazal said.

Now, with the suggestion that refugees should be made to settle in country areas with labour shortages, government agencies are looking to Shepparton as an example of how people from diverse ethnic backgrounds can live harmoniously.


You bloody Aussies have given me more than my fair chance. I am living a very happy life and I want to give something back.


Mr Al Ghazal, one of the leaders of the Shepparton Iraqi community, said the city had received delegations from Canberra and several states to investigate its ethnic harmony.

''It has a good reputation in taking into account different cultural needs and credit should go to many of the postwar European migrants - the Italians, Greeks, Turks who opened the way for the new settlers.''

Shoukat Rafiee is an Afghan welfare officer who works for the Ethnic Council of Shepparton. He said many of his countrymen were coming to Shepparton to find work on farms and many others were commuting to the abattoirs at Seymour.

He laughed at the idea that Australia was a racist country.

''In Afghanistan you can be killed for racial, religious or tribal difference. Here people are good to each other, the locals have always made us feel welcome. Nobody has any desire to go back to Afghanistan.''

Shepparton Mayor Geoff Dobson said 11 per cent of the city's population were born overseas and 32 languages were spoken.

He said he was particularly impressed with how recent immigrants from Sudan and the Congo had made themselves at home and reached out to the community with their music and dancing groups.

''I think the Afghans and Iraqis are a bit different,'' he said.

''They tend to keep to themselves and don't become so engaged in the mainstream community.''

But not Azam Elmaz, an ethnic Albanian from Macedonia who arrived in 1983 with $2.40 in his pocket. He runs a popular cafe in the main street and devotes a portion of his takings to community projects.

He and his wife Jehian are now helping set up a weekend soup kitchen for homeless people. He is also a chaplain in the prison system. A devout Muslim, he sees it as his duty to help others. ''You bloody Aussies have given me more than my fair chance. I am living a very happy life and I want to give something back.''