Most of us only know what we hear in the news about African refugees. But we need to know whether these boys and girls get as much attention to their needs when becoming Australian citizens as do our most privileged children.
The warm feeling from bringing them to this land of the free away from appalling circumstances is not enough - just as the warm feeling from planting hundreds of trees is not enough, if the trees die uncared for.
Australia’s refugee history is that of accepting people who are increasingly unlike the first British settlers, although this is always done while retaining some prejudice. The more alike the first settlers, the easier they are to accept.
Nineteenth century immigration of very alien Chinese and Afghans set off the White Australia Policy. The pre-war Jewish refugees were mostly educated middle-class Europeans: they still faced some anti-Semitism. Postwar immigration began with more from familiar stock, nevertheless labelled “whinging Poms’, and the blue-eyed, fair-haired refugees also looking like Brits were called “Bloody Balts”. The next European immigrants included olive-complexioned peasants; they were called “wogs”, and even “New Australians” became a term of abuse.
Each immigrant wave was also prejudiced towards the next wave. In schools there were fights, such as between Middle-Eastern Cypriots, Turks and Lebanese, whose cultures and religions were even more alien. Vietnamese refugees, the next big wave, were still more unlike in appearance, race, and language, but many found comfortable acceptance as Catholics.
Today students from Asia, hoping to stay, usually have the advantages of education and enough English to fit in and make their way. Brown Pacific Islanders can have advantages of English, familiarity with Europeans, and our image of their exotic island homes, but they may still have social difficulties gaining employment and in their cultural behaviour.
All along aid has come from the government, churches, voluntary organisations, friendly neighbours, and the associations that immigrants set up. Aid to settle in, English tutoring, encouraging multiculturalism and celebrating diversity have all had successes and failures.
The newest wave, the black refugees from the Horn of Africa, are the most different from our present cultural mix. Africans have been coming to Australia for many years. Most have been English-speakers from European ex- colonies, and able to fit into our communities. However, many of the African refugees admitted since 1984 come with the most disadvantages, after great suffering, from places famine-ridden or war torn, with least transmission of culture, education and experience of civil government.
Government assistance to migrants has been lessening as the bigger waves have subsided. There is greater need for voluntary support and local African associations.
The most disadvantaged of all the black African refugees are the teenage boys. Many with no education at all are flung into age-level classes in secondary schools and may sink rather than swim. Their English language assistance may not help them with their class-work. Girls, too, may lose their way and drop out, and few notice their plight. The boys are noticeable when they cause trouble to others.
Many live in families of eight or more, crammed into small housing. They have no space for homework, or access to the computers other students take for granted. Fathers as role models may be working away from home, unemployed, or just not there. Women and girls may receive more volunteers’ help with English and needed skills - they may attend more regularly and be easier to teach. The men and boys tend to have rangy athletic builds, and other Australians can be a bit scared of them.
The most disadvantaged of all African boys come alone and have no relatives here. With awful experiences beyond our imagining, they may have had to develop tactics to survive which are not acceptable here.