Multicultural Australia is something John Howard and his cronies just don’t get. We saw Howard's views on our different cultures recently when he defended Immigration Minister Kevin Andrew’s disgraceful justification for the changes to refugee intakes. In addition when he explained his latest ideas on reconciliation, the Prime Minister spoke of integration but seemed to mean assimilation into some kind of unified monoculture. It is a throwback to his white picket fence days of the 80s when he first floated anti-Asian immigration ideas.
The Prime Minister wants our students to understand the narrative of our history. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to know or understand the real stories of migrants in this country. Or perhaps he chooses to ignore them when it suits. Like his almost total avoidance of Aboriginal communities for eleven years he has shown little interest in the real joys so many of us have experienced in the unfolding story of our multicultural society.
The following reflections are based on my experiences during the 80’s and 90’s teaching with high Non-English-Speaking-background (NESB) and English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) student populations in Melbourne secondary schools: Preston East, Oakleigh, Westall and Noble Park. Westall’s curriculum offered a choice of nine languages other than English including Greek, Italian, Spanish, French, Chinese, Japanese, Khmer, Vietnamese and Arabic. It still offers seven.
A common factor was refugees who had attended English Language Centres such as the one in Noble Park. We had it all: Catholics from Vietnam and East Timor; Muslims from Lebanon, Ethiopia, Somalia and Afghanistan; Cook Islanders; all the groups from the former Yugoslavian republic. And this is just to mention a few.
It wasn’t utopia. There were gangs and violence, sometimes ethnically based but not always. There was rivalry between groups and lots of problems associated with adjusting to a new country. But these young people embraced Australia without having to lose their roots, language and culture. We were all richer for it.
Below are some personal stories from these experiences.
A 21-year-old Afghan Year 12 student had come to Australia via Italy and Sweden. He said he liked Australians most because we were less racist. When applying for special entry to study science at Monash University he told me about a mental block he sometimes experienced during Physics classes. During a Science class in Afghanistan he had once watched as his teacher’s brains were blown across the classroom’s windows by militia troops. He didn’t need special consideration as he gained entry into Monash without it.
In another class, the Year 8’s, with a great touch of irony, chose to see the film ‘Rambo’ as part of a Human Rights Commission funded excursion. We were bonding with students from Dimboola as a cross-cultural exchange. On the bus afterwards the Vietnamese students were laughing about the actors who had very heavy American accents when they spoke Vietnamese.
During a class talk, a Year 7 student with a history of violent behaviour at school told how his school in Bosnia had lost all its teachers during the war. Untrained elderly people replaced them and anarchy reigned both inside and outside the school.
One of my Year 10 East Timorese students used to tell me that he had believed Xanana Gusmao would save them. I humoured him because at the time it seemed as likely as Nelson Mandela's release had during the 70s and 80s. Our students' problems were more immediate as the East Timorese were labelled as unwelcome by both Labor and Liberal governments and told to go to Portugal. The school received no funding for them and I was told that refugee advocate groups feared that they would be further victimised if their situation were publicised. They won both fights against the odds. Very un-Australian of them.
A Soccer team coached by a Croatian was made up mostly of students of Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian backgrounds. Their families were refugees from a war where they were bitter enemies and genocide had surfaced as "ethnic cleansing". The team went on to win the Victorian State Schools competition that year. For a while the teenage machismo was replaced by genuine humility, as the boys didn’t need to boast or role play.
Kevin Andrews says that violence and gangs are not part of our culture. If only it were true! Some of our students once stoned the opposition team’s bus after losing because it contained the umpires. Some of our players went on to play with a well-known AFL club. When I was a teenager, we would hide any St Kilda football club colours as we left Victoria Park after games against Collingwood. If we lost, the locals attacked us. If they lost, they would fight amongst themselves as well as attacking opposition supporters. The good old days!
During the mid 60s the most dangerous places on Saturday nights were the stations on the Dandenong line. The gangs in those days were definitely Anglo-Saxon. In 1996 there was a gang fight on Noble Park station. Some of our students were expelled as a consequence of their participation. One of the ringleaders was a Sikh. A good thing Andrews wasn’t Immigration Minister then.
It’s hard to tell with Kevin Andrews whether he is genuinely ignorant or his inflammatory comments on the Sudanese community in Australia were a deliberate use of the race card. His track record would indicate the latter. He won’t be missed if the Coalition loses. He has certainly added to the perception that this government will do anything to win and leaves morality in church where it belongs.
The great debate about Australian values has not been enhanced by this nasty episode. Nor is it helpful to paint the rest of us as saints by labelling unacceptable behaviour as un-Australian. This might be paradise but somehow a lot of us have slipped past the character test.
As a final point, I was surprised that the other change to the refugee intake has gone virtually without comment. Apparently the increase in Middle Eastern refugees, especially Iraqis, will be predominantly of Christian background. It seems that race and religion have re-emerged as factors in our refugee policies. Many refugees such as the Sudanese Africans won’t find a queue to join. Their only hope, if the Howard Government is returned to office, is to join the Burmese refugees on Nauru.
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