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Australia’s untapped talents

By Saeed Saeed - posted Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Australia’s African communities will no doubt be relieved to see the back of the Howard Government. The erroneous stance regarding African immigrants and their settlement in Australia was extremely damaging to these emerging communities and tarnished our reputation abroad.

However, despite the quelling of the recent public hysteria regarding the African refugee intake, mud sticks no matter how unfairly, and some enduring perceptions unfairly dog African refugees.

A few years ago I had a memorable encounter with a 30-something business woman during my previous career as a security guard. “Jane” was clearly surprised that I was reading a novel. Then she was genuinely bowled over when she learnt that I was studying at university.


Now one could make a case that a security uniform does not exactly scream “intellectual” but it seems it was not so much the uniform as the skin below that triggered her perceptions. There was a clear assumption on her part that Africans in Australia have little capacity to contribute something worthwhile to Australian society - other than patrolling factories, cleaning offices and driving taxies.

I hold no ill will against Jane as her naivety was pleasantly genuine. Probably like most Australians, the only images she receives about the “dark continent” are of dictators, famine and impoverished children screaming out for adoption on Christian evangelical television shows.

It is a great testimony to Australia that Africans can dream, realistically and for the first time, of a successful future, a substantial education and stable family life: aspirations that are quite modest and ordinary given how much we take them for granted. However, when government employment programs share a similar view of Africans with Jane, such perceptions severely stunt the futures of our most vulnerable and highly motivated citizens.

According to Latrobe University’s African Research Institute, more Africans migrate to Australia with upper tertiary qualifications than migrants from countries with English as a first language, confounding common misconceptions. But such facts are never shared. Instead, we are continuously informed that African refugees are uneducated, which in reality is only under extreme circumstances.

African refugees possess personal qualities and professional expertise that are much sought after in our knowledge-based economy. Yet they remain obstructed by short-sighted employment programs, which fail to recognise participants’ strengths and potential, and which only offer pathways to jobs that are neither stable nor likely to facilitate realistic career advancement.

If settlement services and employment providers were funded according to their capability to capitalise on employment opportunities, the potential of Australia’s refugees would be unleashed to the great benefit of our society. This requires employment services to think outside the square and set people up for success. A clear example of opportunity lost is the labour shortage in Western Australia’s mining boom. Many Africans would have jumped at the opportunity to relocate as they could have relinquished their reliance on welfare and get a real chance to save for their Aussie dream of a house and future.


Australia’s African communities are ready to carve out their place in this nation’s social and economic prosperity. Only the opportunity to give something back remains illusive.

To the exceptional few that were granted a chance to shine, the results speak for themselves. Berhan Ahmed, who arrived in the late 1980s, after fleeing the war in Eritrea now holds a PhD and is a Senior Research Fellow at Melbourne University. Akoon Akoon arrived in Australia after narrowly escaping the bloodshed of Sudan. He is now a leading advocate for South Sudanese youth and is a public speaker for The Sudanese Lost Boys Association of Australia. Osman Osman called Australia home for just over two years and he has already transformed his painful life experiences into helping the community as a youth mentor and community radio broadcaster.

Many Africans proudly hold university degrees in dentistry, law, politics, and journalism. They formerly held positions as doctors, teachers, business managers and diplomats. Such skills hold weight on professional CVs, but not with the factory manager they are referred to by their local Job Network agency.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on December 3, 2007

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About the Author

Saeed Saeed is a Melbourne based freelance journalist and writer. He is regularly published in The Courier-Mail and has also had articles published in The Australian, Diversity, Australian Health and Fitness etc.

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