There is no denying Sam Atukorala is a figurehead of Shepparton’s multicultural community. His work as a strategic engagement co-ordinator and contributions to the Ethnic Council have paved the way for many new migrants to settle here.
Arriving in Sydney 19 years ago from Sri Lanka, Mr Atukorala came to study finance as a 27-year-old student. He graduated in 2003 and moved to Melbourne to work in the banking sector. “I travelled around a bit before settling in Melbourne, where I eventually met my wife, Apsara,” Mr Atukorala said.
When his wife found work as a quality tester at Tatura Milk they decided to relocate to Shepparton. For the first time in his life, Mr Atukorala took a break from work. “We had enough savings to survive and my wife agreed for me to take some time out until the children got settled,” he said.
When Mr Atukorala was ready to return to work, he realised it was hard to find banking jobs. “I wasn’t really happy, I wasn’t connected to Shepparton I wasn’t really a big fan of Shepparton at all,” he said.
Mr Atukorala and his family were going to see their friends and family in Melbourne every weekend. “I wanted to go back (to Melbourne),” he said. “I was still in two minds; I didn’t make an effort to make friends.”
But the Shepparton community turned out to be warmer than he had expected, and he befriended his neighbour Kevin Sole in an unusual situation. It was a hot day in December 2013 and the air-conditioning stopped working in Mr Atukorala’s Kialla Lakes home. “The inside of the house was about 48 to 50°C, so I checked my family into a hotel (to access air-conditioning),” he said.
The following day his neighbour asked why he had gone to the hotel. “You’re my friend I’ve got a five-bedroom house and air-conditioning, you can come and stay with us,” Mr Sole said. It was the first time in the 13 years Mr Atukorala had been in Australia that someone other than family had invited him to stay at their home.
The Soles insisted that Mr Atukorala and his family stay the night, so they did. “It made me feel like the Shepparton community were welcoming and after that I did what I could to connect with the community,” he said. “I have to give a lot of credit to them (the Sole family) for their generosity and making me feel welcome, as it could have been a very different story.”