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Tower of strength for war refugees




26-8-1933 10-7-2011

JOHN Filmer, a former Springvale councillor who was renowned in the Dandenong area for his volunteer work and support for migrant communities, has died of leukaemia at South Eastern Private Hospital in Nobel Park. He was 77.

Filmer had earned legendary status with the Vietnamese community before a chance meeting got him involved with a "forgotten" group of Iraqis.

He was treasurer at the Dandenong RSL in 2008 when an Iraqi immigrant spotted a Vietnam-War-era Huey helicopter mounted as a memorial outside the club and presented himself at the front desk.

"Abdullah" had been an interpreter for Australian troops in southern Iraq, and the work had earned him and scores of his colleagues death threats. They were offered humanitarian visas, and a military evacuation brought them to Australia.

In relative secrecy, the largest single group of interpreters in the country was settled in Dandenong, but they suffered from an overwhelming sense of isolation. Abdullah guessed this place with a military helicopter mounted in its car park might offer them help. He was right.

The RSL's lanky community point-man saw the Iraqis' problems as an opportunity to get to work. "They were here out of nowhere and nobody really to represent them or assist them," Filmer said. He took to lobbying government and the RSL on the Iraqi community's behalf.

Born in the Adelaide suburb of Glenelg, Filmer moved to Essendon with his family when he was aged eight, having survived scarlet fever, diphtheria and rheumatic fever.

He left school at 15 to work in a bank and then became a projectionist at a cinema complex in the city, where he met Pat Quirk, who worked in the booking office. Their off-screen romance blossomed and they married in 1968. Along the way he switched jobs to work at a city jeweller's, and after moving home from North Richmond to Noble Park, Filmer became involved in community work in the early 1970s that became a driving force for 40 years.

He served as a Springvale councillor from 1977 to 1980 during the influx of Vietnamese refugees and he was involved in setting up a migrant hostel. Another legacy was the adjustment he came up with in the design of mufflers for cars racing at Sandown Park as a noise abatement compromise over noise complaints.

Filmer never served in the military, but his father, Jack, was a World War II veteran. That connection and the prospect of furthering his community work encouraged him to join the RSL as an associate after a visit to the Dandenong club in 1995.

With the organisation behind him, he set about making a difference. He not only became treasurer but was appointed welfare and aged care officer, onerous tasks that transformed him into a full-time volunteer in retirement.

Filmer enjoyed recalling how he brought the RSL and the Iraqi interpreters together. "I did double-cross them a little bit . . . I said to them, look, I'd like you to come in on a certain Saturday it was in October in 2008 and I'd like you to meet our state president, and they came in, quite unsuspectingly."

Filmer had set up a presentation, to induct the interpreters into the RSL. By making them full service members, he defied RSL chiefs elsewhere in the country who had decided the Iraqis would need citizenship before they could join. He went ahead with honouring the interpreters "because they were people that helped our boys in service in very dangerous areas they put themselves on the line".

According to Abdullah, Filmer helped his group in a myriad of ways, ". . . sometimes advising us sometimes bringing some gifts on Christmas Day for our children". He was already widely known as a great friend and tireless supporter of Vietnamese Australians.

Phong Nguyen, federal president of the Vietnamese Community in Australia, representing 400,000 immigrants and their children, said: "We call him 'Our John'."

Nguyen described Filmer as "a great, great Australian, the embodiment of what Australia is about . . . kindness, generosity and helpfulness".

The Vietnamese community plans to make Filmer the first Australian honoured at its Ancestral Temple in Sunshine North, with a special memorial service, a portrait and a commemorative plaque.

In 2009, he won the inaugural state-wide Veteran Community Award, and last year he was named Greater Dandenong's Citizen of the Year.

These honours came while he quietly fought leukaemia, preferring to keep his illness, the chemotherapy and blood transfusions from public view as he continued his community work.

He is survived by wife, Pat, and their children Luke, Natalie, Samantha and Penny.

Gerry Carman assisted in preparing this tribute.

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