Consultations Homepage || Meeting Notes: 29 April 2003
Consultation with Arabic Workers Network, Bankstown, 29 April 2003
The meeting was facilitated by Omeima Sukkarieh and Susanna Iuliano from HREOC and was attended by 12 participants from the Arabic Workers Network. The network is convened by the Australian Arabic Communities Council to encourage workers whose clients are members of Sydney's Arabic community to exchange information and develop skills through regular bi-monthly meetings, information sessions and training workshops. The network is comprised of approximately 190 members.
1. What are your experiences of discrimination and vilification?
Participants responded to this question personally and professionally. All participants reported that discrimination was a problem for their clients. In some cases participants were also personally affected by discrimination and vilification because of their religion and/or ethnic background.
Discrimination is happening personally and to clients on a daily basis, particularly women in hijab or those with different names ...
I see and smell discrimination every morning, every day - in government, on public transport, in cabs ...
Discrimination is definitely happening - especially against Muslim women in hijab who try to get services from mainstream service providers.
Discussion of discrimination alternated between the personal and professional experiences of participants in a range of different contexts.
One participant felt the acute impact of September 11 in her workplace, a federal government agency. "People I worked with didn't want to look at me or talk to me. " As the only veiled Muslim women in her office, she had felt socially excluded at work prior to September 11 2001. However, the terrorist attacks brought problems with colleagues to the fore forcing her to take a week of stress leave. She raised the problem of her social exclusion with her supervisor who took action by delivering anti-discrimination training to all workers in the office. The anti-discrimination training had been available at this workplace for some time, but was not actually implemented until after September 11, 2001. The worker felt this was a case of 'too little too late' and subsequently left the employer.
Another participant, a Muslim woman who works for the New South Wales Department of Public Prosecutions reported an incident where, after setting off a scanner entering a Court, she was told jokingly by a security guard to 'take out her weapons. ' Offended by the comment, she reported the security guard to his manager and the guard was 'spoken to.' Part of the reason she was so offended by the guard's comments was the lack of respect for her professional status that she felt was implicit in his derisive remark. "I was not seen as a professional because I wear the hijab".
Recognition of overseas-qualifications of Arabic-speaking clients was also a major issue raised by participants. Even if overseas qualifications were recognised in Australia, participants felt that Australian employers were reluctant to hire people without local experience.
Arabic speaking people are not getting further in employment. We have anti-discrimination laws but it doesn't help with recognition of overseas qualifications... There are a lot of people working in jobs not suited to their qualifications - people with PhDs are working as cleaners.
The migration system raises expectations about the kind of work you can get - but lack of local experiences means that people can't get into those jobs. No local experience - no job.
The universities might accept a degree from overseas, but employers don't ...
While no participants explicitly stated that these problems were unique to the Arabic-speaking community, one participant summed up the specific impact on Arab Australians:
Middle-class Arabs are becoming working class in Australia and working class Arabs are becoming an underclass.
Participants felt that a consequence of discriminatory hiring practices and failure to recognise overseas qualifications was a lack of workplace diversity, particularly at management levels.
There is no diversity of representation in schools, on Councils or at higher levels in Government. Diversity is not reflected at a managerial level.
One participant was involved in working directly with young girls of Arabic background in a public school in Western Sydney as part of a NSW Department of Education and Training funded 'Links to Learning' program. 'Links to Learning' projects operate in New South Wales for either students who are at risk of leaving school early, or for young people who left school early and are not in training or employment.
The youth worker noted that Arabic girls at this particular school were angry following the September 11 attacks and the Lebanese gang-rape crisis in Western Sydney and wanted to discuss these issues in a group. The worker was discouraged from leading such a group discussion by the school unless supervised by another teacher. In this and other instances, the worker felt hampered and disempowered in her work with Arabic girls by the school management.
In the street or on public transport
Participants reported that women who wear hijab appear to be most affected by discrimination in public places.
Discrimination is happening to mothers in streets, in shopping centres and on public transport ...After September 11, just reading the expressions of other people on public transport made my wife feel very uncomfortable. The discrimination is not overt - it's underlying. You wish people would just say honestly 'we don't like you'.
One young, female, Muslim participant reported 3 separate incidents of verbal harassment from fellow passengers that happened to her on the bus in Parramatta. On one of the occasions, she approached the bus driver in tears but was ignored by him. This and other experiences prompted her to assert, "I just want to be left alone".
Another young Muslim woman reported feeling less secure when travelling outside of her own neighbourhood (Bankstown) to other Sydney neighbourhoods where there are fewer Muslim women. Although less than 10 kilometres separates Bankstown from Kogarah, she felt that "leaving Bankstown to go to Kogarah was like going to a war zone" and reported being spat at on the street in Kogarah and targeted by security guards at the Kogarah train station.
In the media
Most participants felt that media misrepresentations of the Arabic and Muslim impacted directly on communities exacerbating divisions between groups and fostering racism in the wider community. One member of the network was actively monitoring the print media for articles which portrayed Australian Muslims in a negative light.
One participant was particularly incensed by a specific case of media misrepresentation that occurred in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001. A news broadcast reporting the September 11 terrorist attacks on a commercial network in Sydney showed a background image of Australian Muslims allegedly 'celebrating' the terrorist attacks. However, the pictures purporting to show Muslims celebrating September 11 were taken during the previous year's Eid celebrations: the network had broadcast the images out of context without any explanation.
Participants were keen to point out examples of institutionalised racism - a problem they regarded as more insidious and enduring than instances of discrimination or vilification on the street.
The problems didn't start on September 11 - the problem is institutional and it's been going on since the establishment of Australia.
I am always expected to defend, clarify and justify everything to 'them' - 'them' being not just 'Anglos' but also migrants and government departments.
There's not just discrimination at a grass roots level, but in institutions like Government departments, schools, Councils, in the media.
One participant raised the issue of discrimination in the housing rental market and recounted how he had personally been discouraged by a landlord from putting in an application to rent an apartment after responding to a series of questions about his background.
I applied to rent a unit from a Greek landlady. The first question was 'where are you from?' I said, 'I am Palestinian.' She asked, 'are you Christian or Muslim?' I replied, 'I am Muslim'. Then the landlady said that the flat was not suitable for me and refused to rent it to me.
There was some brief commentary on police relations with the Arabic community in New South Wales. Some participants discussed feedback they had received from young Arabic males about being 'over-policed' with regular searches and car checks. Another participant relayed how her clients felt that police were non-responsive to Arabs and would not come out if they were called about noise or neighbourhood disturbances. One participant also raised the issue of 'ethnic descriptors' used by the police when releasing information about crime suspects or missing persons to the media in order to help them identify suspects or locate missing persons. The worker felt that the use of ethnic descriptors in report of a public demonstration by youth in Sydney had unfairly targeted youth of 'Middle Eastern' appearance.
One participant recounted how a family member had been stopped and questioned and not allowed to board a plane at Launceston airport because he was carrying what security guards thought was a 'suspicious package' (which was a post-pac filled with business papers).
Delivery of social services to migrants and refugees was an area of particular concern to several participants involved in settlement work. One participant described how the closure of several migrant resource centres in Sydney's west and an impending cut to the number of bi-lingual community workers will impact on Arabic refugees in particular. "Arabic refugees will have more difficulty getting help from someone who speaks their language." These refugees and migrants will then come to community organisations who can help in their own languages but who may not necessarily have the resources to cope with additional clients. The community worker had already seen an increase in numbers of refugees seeking assistance. While working on settlement issues, with Arabic refugees and migrants, one settlement worker noted how, "people want to talk about other incidents of racism - in schools, on the street. People are not feeling safe."
2. What is being done to fight anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination?
Participants were aware of a number of different initiatives undertaken by community and government organisations to fight anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice.
The Australian Arabic Communities Council began a 'Racism Register' after 11 September 2001 to try to collate information from members of Sydney's Arabic community about incidents of discrimination and vilification. One participant argued that while the statistics generated by the register may be of interest and use to government bodies such as HREOC and the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board, they offer little practical assistance to community members.
People complaining to the register are comforted but not satisfied. What will it do? People need to feel a sense of justice.
Participants also mentioned attempts by the AACC to institute a monthly 'media' dinner where prominent members of the media were invited to a dinner to meet members of the local Arabic community. The purpose of the dinners was to help build networks and relationships with media and engage in constructive dialogue. The AACC sent invitations to more than 20 media personalities - none of whom it accepted the invitation. The initiative was then dropped.
The AACC also offers cross-cultural awareness training to government departments and community groups. While most participants agreed that cross-cultural training for government service providers is a good thing, they cautioned that it not a panacea for all problems.
Government strategies and projects
Many participants identified individual Living in Harmony grant projects such as the Melkite Catholic Church in Greenacre's 'Sharing the Spirit of Harmony' project and the St. George Migrant Resource Centre and Youth Zone Youth Centre 'Living in Harmony and Combating Racism Project'. While these projects were seen as valued and welcome initiatives, there was more general criticism of the Living in Harmony grants project and the focus on 'Harmony Day' festivities.
'Harmony Day' is too tokenistic - it doesn't necessarily cancel out the bigger political picture.
The government is dishing out money to individual organisations when ongoing projects are more important.
3. What more could be done to fight anti-Arab and anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination?
Promoting positive public awareness
Education is the most important strategy for future chance. We need to work on education for better outcomes in ten years time.
All participants agreed that education was crucial to bringing about future, long term change in attitudes towards Arab Australians. Education was seen as necessary not just for young people in a school setting, but to a broader audience of 'Anglo-Australians' and other migrant groups.
Challenging stereotypical representations of Arabs in the Australian media was identified by all participants as vital to overcoming prejudice and discrimination. Participants felt this could be best done by identifying and engaging key spokespeople (not necessarily just community members) from a variety of different fields (sport, entertainment etc) to publicly support anti-racism campaigns. Participants also felt there was a need for more positive and varied images of Arabs and Muslims in the Australian media. One participant suggested that Muslims should have a greater television presence, particularly on children's television programs such as Playschool and Sesame Street.
You never see pictures of girls in hijab on children's programs.
Why can't there be a Muslim Wiggle?
Providing community support
The best solutions are community generated solutions ...
Participants saw the need for Arabic and Islamic lawyers, journalists, university students to join together and network to advocate on behalf of the Islamic and Arabic communities. Several workers also argued the necessity of providing additional support to newly arrived migrants and refugees in the community. They expressed the need for more interpreters - not just those with knowledge of Arabic but those with specific knowledge of Iraqi and Assyrian dialects - who could assist newly arrived migrants and refugees during the settlement process.
Informing communities about their rights
Participants felt there was an urgent need for Arab and Muslim youth to be educated about their rights. One participant suggested there should be closer links between community organisations and bodies such as the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Board and HREOC to inform people about complaints processes and channel complaints. A community settlement worker reported that migrants and refugees from Arabic backgrounds are not getting information about complaints processes - either internal complaints processes for service providers such as Centrelink, or external bodies such as HREOC and the ADB. Not all participants agreed that informing community members about complaints processes was a worthwhile strategy, particularly if complaints processes required individuals to make complaints.
Organisations like HREOC have no power to initiate complaints on behalf of clients ...we are marginalising people more if you don't allow organisations to take up complaints on their behalf.
[Note: Under the Racial Discrimination Act there is limited scope for making representative complaints. However, generally speaking, the law only allows a person to make a complaint on behalf of another if they are themselves 'aggrieved' (ie they are personally affected or targeted) or if they belong to a trade union that an 'aggrieved' person belongs to.]
Ensuring complaints are taken seriously
Participants noted the reluctance of members of the Arabic community who had experienced discrimination or vilification to come forward and make formal complaints. Lack of awareness of complaints processes was seen as one reason for the paucity of complaints. As a remedy, several participants suggested that bodies like HREOC and the NSW ADB should make complaints processes more relevant and they should build more effective partnerships with community organisations like the AACC.
One participant suggested that the only way to encourage members of the Arabic and Islamic communities to make formal complaints was to provide them with better outcomes. There was strong criticism of HREOC's capacity to bring about satisfactory outcomes for Islamic complainants by one participant, whose brother's complaint was rejected by HREOC because the discrimination was due to religion and did not happen in his workplace. [Note: The Racial Discrimination Act does not outlaw discrimination on the grounds of religion unless it occurs in employment].
Another migrant community settlement worker also argued for more effort to ensure that internal complaints processes within different government departments take complaints from their Arabic clientele more seriously.