Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Australia’s multicultural society works!

Multicultural Australia is another thing John Howard and his cronies just don’t get. We had Howard’s views on our different cultures when he defended Kevin Andrew’s disgraceful justification for the recent changes to refugee intakes. In addition when he explained his ideas on reconciliation, the Prime Minister spoke of integration but seemed to mean assimilation to a unified monoculture. It is a throwback to his white picket fence days of the 80's.

The following reflections are based on my experiences during the 80’s and 90’s teaching in Melbourne secondary schools with high non-English speaking background and English as a Second Language student populations: 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. 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.

Some personal stories:

A 21 year old Afghan Year 12 student had come to Australia via Italy and Sweden. he liked Australians most because we were less racist. When applying for Special entry to Monash Science he told me about a mental block sometimes during Physics classes. During a Science class in Afghanistan he watched as his teacher’s brains were blown across the classrooms windows by militia troops. He didn’t need special consideration as he gained entry into Monash without it.

With a great touch of irony the Year 8’s 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 Xanana would save them. I humoured him because at the time it seemed as likely as Nelson Mandela being released had during the 70's and 80's. 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. As teenagers 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 60's 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.

Finally, I was surprised that the other part of the refugee intake changes has gone virtually without comment. Apparently the increase in Middle East 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 as asylum seekers.

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