Voices of Australia - Activity sheet 4
In 1975 the Racial Discrimination Act came into force.
It was a landmark for Australia - the first federal law to say that all people have
the right to be treated fairly, regardless of their background, culture or colour.
Thirty years on, it continues to be a strong statement about our shared values -
that racism and discrimination have no place in our community.
Voices of Australia is our way of marking this important anniversary.
Over the next 50 minutes you'll listen to stories from all corners of Australia and
from people from many different backgrounds.
There are stories about what Australia means to people, and what makes it home.
Stories of important friendships, and seeing the world with new eyes.
Stories about breaking down barriers, small and large.
Stories of the experience of racism, and how it was overcome.
And, finally, stories of the transformation from tolerance to respect.
Voices of Australia is an honest look at how we live together in this
These stories give us the opportunity to listen to each other - the starting point
to understanding, acceptance and respect.
While some of the stories are painful, above all, Voices of Australia is
about people's strength and their hopefulness - it's about the day-to-day process of
getting on with each other and growing together, as individuals and as a nation.
Welcome to Voices of Australia.
1. Australia: Our home
It's an ancient land - and home to the world's oldest culture.
But it is also 'young and free' - a vibrant multicultural society.
In Australia, we value freedom, equality, respect for others - in short, the 'fair
And yet the past two centuries have been marked with conflict and
Australia today is a work in progress; changing; growing; making room for people of
all colours and cultures.
Australia is our home. And each of us has a special connection to it.
Flo Watson is a traditional owner with the Kunganji (Kun-Gan-Ji) people in Yarrabah,
south of Cairns. For her, a sense of home comes from a spiritual belonging to the land
of her people.
Well as we say, as Aboriginal people, the Earth is our mother.
As part of our Aboriginal heritage in Yarrabah we have got the rainbow serpent and
he lives just around the corner in a place called King Beach.
And that is the story that was handed down to me by my fathers, grandfathers, great
grandfather's, aunties and uncles, that we have got the rainbow serpent and he stirs
the water once an elder goes up and taps the water three times.
And that water becomes medicine water. It has got healing properties we believe and
whenever we're sick or if we have ceremonies or christenings or weddings we go over to
that to see the rainbow serpent and that is our spiritual connection.
It is a longing to always go home. It is just beautiful. It is a beautiful spiritual
connection. It is a feeling that only Aboriginal people can explain.
Like Flo Watson, Kathy Mills believes that it's important that Aboriginal people
share their stories and teach non-Aboriginal people about the importance of
An elder of the Koongurukan ('Koong-urukkan') people, south-west of Darwin, Kathy
wrote a poem about a sacred women's place called 'Topatinj' (Top-a-tinj).
This sacredness for land we hold Is sacred to our very soul It
is a source from which we came
And to that source we will return again
The spirits of the land conduct this ancient law
As they instruct their future generation
Keep the places where they place their feet
And that might be a certain tree
Or a rock or a spring but in reality It is source of life within and the
object that holds
As our heart beats, so our life unfolds
Of course, no matter what our background, Australia gets under our skin and into
ourbones - the look and feel of the landscape, the sights and smells, the people.
Steve Pratt, now a member of the ACT Parliament, previously worked with CARE
Australia to deliver humanitarian projects in many conflict-torn countries around the
His memories of Australia were particularly important to him during many difficult
times, especially during 1999 when he was captured and held in detention for five
months by authorities in Serbia.
The qualities that resonated with me about Australia and it being home was the
Australian bush, the Australian natural environment, our seas, our beaches, our
And certainly when I was going through a very difficult period in captivity in
Yugoslavia in '99 of course these sorts of images came back to me very, very
Of course too, and just as important as the natural environment, was the Australian
people. I fondly remembered the rather warm, easy-going nature of the Australian
people, and also the way that the Australian society in recent years had become quite
harmonious in terms of its new multicultural diversity.
And there seemed to me, as I remembered, a much greater tolerance and harmony in
Australia than what I was experiencing in many societies that I had to work in, where I
was seeing problems all the time - conflict, racism, intolerance.
Australia has a reputation around the world as a safe and peaceful place, based on
respect for people's rights and the rule of law.
It is these qualities that attract many migrants to come to Australia, and adopt it
as their home.
People like Marat Sverdlov ('r' pronounced) and his family, who left the Ukraine in
1992 during the upheaval that followed its breakaway from the former Soviet Union.
We were the first ones to the airport for the flight, although the second to last
family to leave because even though it wasn't illegal to leave the country any more the
authorities did everything they could to slow everyone down.
We had a few choices but we took the flight to Adelaide. Our other choices were to
go to Israel, which probably wouldn't have been a good idea, and the United States.
Well living costs are higher in the United States and we were only allowed to take
100 Australian dollars per person out of the country with us - so I'm rather glad we
came to Australia.
The country really does have a good feel about it. Probably the unique thing about
Australia is the attitude that people have to each other - there's more mateship and
goodwill. I mean you walk down the street, people smile at you and say hello. You don't
get that in Russia.
My parents were fairly shocked the first time we went shopping here and one of the
assistants actually came and asked if they could help us. It seems pretty simple but
you don't get that sort of thing where we come from so my parents were shocked
speechless just by someone being randomly nice.
I'm glad I've grown up here surrounded by that attitude and I don't know how I would
have made it back where we come from.
Like Marat, Razia Zahedi (Za-hi-di) is another young person who left her homeland to
come to Australia.
With her family, Razia fled Afghanistan with the hope of finding peace and stability
in a far-away country.
Unlike Marat, though, her first impressions of Australia were painful and
When I first arrived in Australia in 2000 I thought Australia would be a really
beautiful place. I didn't know much about Australia so I just pictured it in my mind
that people were very friendly and they would welcome us and straight away we were
going to have freedom.
We came and were taken to the detention centre and I was very disappointed and I
thought we were treated like prisoners in detention centre.
After spending three months in Curtin detention centre, Razia and her family were
released from detention on temporary protection visas.
She was left feeling very uncertain about her future here - and just as uncertain
about how to begin life in a culture far different from the one she had left.
After we were released we were sent to Brisbane and Brisbane is a place where at
that time there were not many Muslim people, with head scarves and stuff. It was
totally different. It was poles apart from my country.
First of all, we were not used to the Australian culture. And language was also
hard, like was one problem and I had to learn English in a special school, and I think
teachers did a lot to help us to learn English and adjust in the society.
And after learning the language I think I understood Australian culture more.
Five years later, Razia is looking forward in her life - and enthusiastic about the
possibilities for study and a career that she now has.
One of my main dreams is that I would finish my education, try my best to get really
good marks and make it to uni and study medical hopefully - and that is my dream.
I think in Australia it is more different to what it was in my country. Like I don't
have to be a boy to go to university. I can do whatever a boy can do in Australia - and
I love Australia. I love the weather. I love the people - and I am still struggling.
I am still trying to make it my home. You know. It takes time to make a country your
home which is totally different to your country.
For Razia, like many refugees and migrants, the process of feeling 'at home' in
Australia takes time. It can be a confusing and difficult journey.
Thao Nguyen (Taow New-in) arrived from Vietnam with her family when she was a baby -
refugees from the war. Growing up in Australia, cut off from friends and family, it was
hard to know just who she was or where she belonged.
Strangely, it took a trip back to Vietnam, where Thao found herself caught up in
wild sporting celebrations, to help discover her Australian identity.
And in Ho Chi Min City they all pored out and every single Honda motorcycle in the
city was out into the streets. And I got onto the back of this Honda with my cousin and
literally me my knees were touching these other people that were strangers.'
And I would look up in these shanty town balconies and grandfathers with their
chopsticks and pans were just banging the things and yelling in Vietnamese, "Long live
Vietnam. Long live Vietnam."
I just looked around and all these people look like me, you know, and momentarily I
feel like I belong somewhere.
Then I went back to Australia and I remember the first thing I felt was a complete
sense of alienation. There was so much space and it was really hard to reconcile where
And shortly after I attended this Australia Day ceremony where I was receiving this
award, and they were singing the Seekers song - you know it was so cliché. But I
started crying. I started crying and I thought 'My God - I feel Australian. I feel like
I really belong here".
And it was this really weird wonderful mesh - you know, I am not completely
Vietnamese but I am not completely like bush ocker Australian. But I have this new
Like Thao, Australia in the 21st century is a weird, wonderful mesh.
It has a unique identity - one that's drawn from the lives, stories and cultures of
all the many different people who live here.
And one that's strong enough to change and grow, as it makes make room for others
who will call Australia home in the years to come.
2. Unexpected friendships
Amareswar (amar - ees - war) Galla arrived in Canberra on a Saturday afternoon in
He had come from a rural part of India and was about to begin a research scholarship
at the Australian National University.
Much of the city was closed down - a far cry from the bustling life he'd left
behind. Plus he didn't know a soul.
But he was just about to make a very unexpected friendship with one of Australia's
most famous people, where they were both standing in line waiting to pay for their
There was a very friendly gentleman standing behind me in the queue and he was very
friendly, he asked me where do I come from, and I told him I come from India. Then he
started asking me about Indira Gandhi and the election results after the emergency that
Indira Gandhi imposed in India and how she lost the election.
So I said to him "You seem to know a lot about India - are you a specialist on
India?" He said "No, no I just have a personal interest and family interest and family
friendships in India."
And the following weekday I saw him in the Menzies Library behind the card catalogue
and I was there experiencing the Menzies Research Library at the Australian National
University for the first time. He quickly came round to me with a big smile and very
friendly and he said "Are you settling down well? Is there anything I can do for you?
Here is my phone number, please call me if you need any help."
I thought he was extremely generous, I mean this Australian.
Later on when I was borrowing my first books in the Menzies library, Mrs Clarkson
and Mr Rose behind the counter, they smiled at me and said "oh you've already met the
I said to them "Yes he's big isn't he? He's bigger than me" and then I said to them,
"Tell me, you know, who is he because he's very friendly, but I really don't know who
And they both looked at me, they looked at each other, they were quite non-plussed,
they said "You mean you don't know who he is?"
I said "He just introduced himself as Gough, that's it." And they said "Yes, that's
Gough Whitlam, the former Prime Minister of Australia."
Of course, not everyone is welcomed to the country by a former Prime Minister.
But many who do arrive in Australia are grateful for the friendships that they form
in those early days.
Having left so much behind - often family and loved ones - a friendly face and
practical help can make those initial days that much easier.
Denis Asaf came to Australia a year ago - a refugee from Sudan.
He was initially unsure of the welcome he would receive - he was told that
Australians were very busy people, too busy to help people like him.
But within a few days of his arrival, he had a friend, Greg, from a local church to
show him around and help him settle in.
When the person tell me that thing I was a little bit scared because I say I thought
everybody was so friendly here and people help each other here. Then it was a surprise
when Dr Greg come and started to be with us.
He helped me very much to understand some of the things in Australia like
ok, the first things he was taking us around to know our suburb, like Fairfield.
Walking with us around, driving us around in a big shopping centre, to go to a swimming
And also after that he would be taking us around to understand some of the rules and
laws here, and help us to manage our finance. Like how to organise ourselves in rent
and also in budgeting for food and other things, which we don't use to do in
Without him we could have been messing around and he was the first person who came
to us and started doing these things, just voluntary we did not know him before.
He had been helping us a lot. Driving us to church and picking us from church every
time. He did all these things for us and it is just voluntary.
He don't need anything. When we ask him should we buy some petrol he tell us no.
That is not something that he wants, he just wants to help us and that is all.
Our friendships give us great support and care. But they also challenge us to see
the world through different eyes.
Friendships with people who are different to us can draw us out of ourselves, make
us confront our prejudices.
In short, they help us to grow as people.
Dragana (drAgana) Danicic (Dan-is-ich) came to Australia from Serbia 10 years ago.
She settled in Perth, a long way from her homeland that had been torn apart by war and
And here in Australia - a sort of neutral territory - she was able to forge a
lasting friendship across those deep divides.
I've made many friends here. One of the interesting things was that when I came here
the first thing I worried about was being of a Serbian background and at the time there
being trouble between Serbs and Croatians and Muslims and Bosnians. One of the first
things I worried about was how am I going to react when I see these people here because
bad things have happened and there is bad blood between us.
I tell you one thing the first friend I made here was Croatian, and we are still
friends. And good friends as well. And the funny thing is why we can be friends here,
yet in the other place there was a war, where people were best of friends one day and
the next day they turn your back on you.
But to put it quite plainly - we come from opposing sides where the other side has
done wrong to the other person. So really, once we came here it should be "I hate you
because your side has done this to me."
But the approach we took was that "Your side has done that to me and my side has
done that to you, therefore we are even." We would just laugh about it. It was more
about what we had in common.
And what we had in common was we were foreigners within this great land. We came
here from the same background. Our parents were around a similar age. We were around a
similar age. The fact that our religions were different made absolutely no difference
whatsoever. We had so much more in common. The little difference we had did not mean
anything at all.
Like Dragana, Luke Gay has gone out of his way to build friendships with people from
Growing up in a 'dinky di' suburban family in western Sydney, Luke made friends with
the children of Muslim families in his neighbourhood and at his school.
He spent time with the families, asked a lot of questions and learnt about their
As a teenager, Luke decided he wanted to join his friends in observing the holy
month of Ramadan - a special time of fasting for Muslims.
I actually have a lot of Muslim friends. A lot of them do fast and I was doing it
with them. And so it was better to know what they were going through everyday at
school, trying not to eat at school, which was pretty hard especially when you were
running around a lot.
At first they'd say "Why are you doing it? You don't have to do it" but it wasn't a
"have to" it was a "want", and something good to try.
It was definitely weird waking up, trying to wake up, when they woke up. Just trying
to remember to wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning to eat and get back to sleep and not
eat the whole day. Or drink water or anything like that so it was quite a different
But it was quite enjoyable too. Seeing what the younger kids were going through,
kids younger than me were doing it, and I thought why not give it a try. If they could
do it, maybe I could.
Another thing - we were all close. It was just bringing a bigger friendship and bond
in between us too. And I have to say it was quite enjoyable. I definitely liked it.
I've done it a few times, haven't done it lately but. My eating habits have changed
obviously. But I'd go back and do it again anytime.
When we take the risk to try something new, and we do it with the support of our
friends, we learn new things.
So what did Luke learn from fasting with his friends during Ramadan?
A lot! How much your stomach grumbles! Seeing what a lot of people go through
everyday, that's not just for Ramadan, it's every day.
And then you have to look at the way you are, and the way you can eat, and things
like that and you start to take things for granted a lot. It taught me a fair bit.
As Luke found, our friends teach us a different way of looking at the world. They
can also teach us something important about ourselves.
Shahnaz Rind (NOT pronounced like the lemon rind) lives in Western Australia. She
has an Indigenous grandmother, but her parents are from Baluchistan (Ba-LU-chistan, not
Ba-lu-CHIS-tan), a province of Pakistan.
She has her Indigenous heritage - and she also has a strong Muslim identity. It's a
complex mix of cultures.
But, through an unexpected friendship at university, she learnt how to see beyond
the differences that she previously felt with most other people - and, in the process,
she learnt what she feels it means to be Australian.
I met a very nice girl and we started talking. I will be honest I think I drew to
her because she was dark skinned. So I said "OK I will be friends with her and maybe
she is Muslim and maybe we have things in common."
But when I started to talk to her she was actually a very strict Catholic. And then
I realised we had the same morals and the same values and the same family structure and
Then I thought myself "stuff this I am not going to make friends based on culture or
based on religion because it's not going my way, it is not working." That is when I
learnt something about myself. The only way I'm going to break a barrier and get people
to know me is if I get to share things with them.
So I shared my culture with her and she shared her Easter and Christmas and vice
versa we did the same sort of things. She still gives me Christmas presents and you
know I give her Christmas presents. It doesn't mean I celebrate Christmas but it is
I have been friends with her for nearly ten years and we have not had one problem
with religion or culture. And I think that is what friendship is getting to know the
soul of the person. Because if you really care about someone you don't care what
background they are, you don't care what religion they are - you just get along.
And that when I broke down that barrier I think that is really when I became
Australian, because I can't put myself into a box forever.
Our unexpected friendships enrich our lives. Through them, we learn more about
others, and ourselves.
We look for the similarities with others, and appreciate the differences.
In the process, we play a part in creating communities built on friendship, respect
3. Racism - not in my backyard
A lot of shop keepers sort of following me around and sort of going a bit overboard
with the "can I check your pockets" stuff. And I was like "yea, no worries" and I was
happy to show them inside my bag and my pockets and all that sort of stuff.
And they'd sort of still give you a little warning, you know "shoplifting is illegal
and you'll get in trouble" and all this sort of stuff. And I was like "I know, I'm not
like that, I don't steal".
But it was just because I was a little bit darker.
Although we might wish it was different, it's clear that racism still happens in
Sometimes racism can be subtle.
You walk next to an old lady she automatically clutches her bag tighter. You notice
it. They think they are not doing it but you notice it. I think it's the subtle racism
which hurts the most. You know what's happening, but they don't admit to it.
And sometimes, like with Zahra, a young refugee girl from Afghanistan, racism can be
much more aggressive.
A few months ago I was walking with my neighbour, going shopping in Bankstown, and
when we got out of the library we were talking in our own language - Dari, Persian.
And this dude he was walking in front of us like a few steps away and he just turned
around and started swearing and saying all the 'F' words and stuff.
"Stop speaking your bloody language you're in Australia". And I'm like "Sir, can I
help you?" and then he goes "Stop speaking in your own language, you're bloody in
Australia you boat people."
And I'm like "What is wrong?" Like I thought maybe I'm not meant to be here.
However it happens, racism and discrimination can cut to the heart of how someone
feels about themself. It can leave people feeling hurt and like they don't belong.
Racism and discrimination can happen everywhere - walking down the street, in shops,
in the school playground, renting a house.
It can also happen at work.
Ali Gurdag is a police officer with the Victoria Police Department.
However, he takes a positive view on how to deal with any racism that he might
encounter because of his Turkish background.
In the workplace today, I have experienced racism from members of the public.
Obviously they will look at the name and they've already got their tails up because
you are a police officer. Once they see that you're Turkish, they tend to have a few
words with you as well.
You just deal with it. You cop it on the chin because at the end of the day they
don't know me from a bar of soap. So, yes, I think there is still a little bit of
racism. I think what I find is that a lot of people are afraid to express their views
as openly as they would have in the past.
But being racist is not a bad thing if you look at it from a positive perspective,
because by being racist you're making it clear you don't understand a particular
culture, or fear a culture. That, I suppose, opens a door for further learning if you
are open to that.
Lyn, a refugee from Burma, agrees. While clear racism does exist in parts of the
community, she says that much of the time it comes from a lack of understanding about
people from different backgrounds, cultures and religions.
While there was blatant discrimination in some areas where shop assistants would not
serve you, or would ignore you, or when they did serve you would be quite blatantly
rude, I think underlying all of that is really a basic ignorance in the community about
how to deal with people of difference.
I would be asked 'How come you speak English?', 'Surely you've never lived in a
proper house before you came here?', 'Do you have cars? 'Do you have streets where you
For Lyn, sharing her background and her stories is a great way of breaking down the
prejudices or misunderstandings she sometimes comes up against.
It's also the approach that Hank Horton, from Deloraine in Tasmania, takes.
Growing up in Tasmania in the 1970s, Hank Horton remembers having his Indigenous
identity dismissed by the widely held view that Truganini, who died in 1876, was the
last 'real' Indigenous person in Tasmania.
So many European people they had a real mind set that no there is no Aboriginal
people. Truganini was the last one, so you guys are only pretending.
And it was very very hard to shake that, and even when I was at school I can
remember standing up in my history class and saying to the history teacher, "No you're
wrong - my house is full of blackfellas".
And mutton bird season was happening - just starting or just finishing at the time -
so there was something like 14 Aboriginal people at my home right here, and this bloke
is trying to tell me there's no Aboriginal people in Tasmania.
And I was going "Hey pal, come out to my place, there's a stack of us out home - you
can see how many blackfellas there really is." We knew where we were as Aboriginal
people, within our heart, within our soul, we knew where our spirits lied. But we were
unable to act as Aboriginal people within the broader community because they were still
denying that there was any Aboriginality out there.
And that just made existing pretty hard.
Today, Hank's passion is sharing his Aboriginal culture with the Tasmanian
community, and especially school students, at the Jahadi centre that he established He
gives the young people a 'hands on' experience of different parts of Aboriginal culture
- in the process, putting an end to the fiction that Truganini was 'the last
Feel a spear and throw a spear and wodi. Get to understand why the artwork was done.
It wasn't just for pretty pictures. It was a language it was a written way of keeping
Have a look at the woven basket, because you could not go down to Mitre 10 and buy a
bag. They get their hands on cooking a damper and tasting the mutton bird.
And each student gets to finish off their own set of clapsticks by doing an ochre
ceremony with one of the elders, Uncle Viv. He helps to ochre their set of clapsticks.
They dust them off take them home.
So they have got that bit of memorabilia now to trigger off a story. "We made them
when we were out at Jahardi." Already there are lots of students who've gone away now
with a bigger and larger understanding of the Aboriginal community here in
They accept now that Truganini is not the last one. "Hey look there are heaps of
Aboriginal people still. We spent a day with them - we wove baskets, we ate damper, we
tried mutton bird". So they can see that Truganini was not the last one. So it does
really break down those myths.
Education is an important part of tackling the stereotypes that lead to racism. But
education by itself is not enough. That's why the Racial Discrimination Act is so
important - it makes racial discrimination and racial vilification against the law.
The Act - now 30 years old - is a strong statement about the right of all people to
be treated fairly, regardless of background, culture or colour.
Hannah McGlade, an Indigenous woman from Western Australia, is one person who saw
how the law could be used to tackle racism in the community.
When I was a university lecturer I had finished law school, I came across the Race
Discrimination Act and I really thought we have got this fantastic piece of
legislation. Racism should not be happening anymore. The law is there the law is
In 1997 Hannah lodged a complaint under the Racial Discrimination Act against Ross
Lightfoot, for comments he made about Indigenous people to a national newspaper. At the
time, Mr Lightfoot was a member of Western Australia's Upper House, and was about to
become a Senator in the federal Parliament.
In the newspaper article he argued against teaching Indigenous culture in schools
and said that "Aboriginal people in their native state are the most primitive race on
I took that case after reading a newspaper account in which he was objecting to the
teaching of Aboriginal Studies at school because he was claiming that Aboriginal people
were the lowest colour in the civilisation spectrum.
And I had a young child at this time and I wanted my son to go to school and be
proud in school and not to feel the sort of shame that my generation felt when we were
going through school.
Hannah's complaint was heard by the Federal Court.
The Court agreed with her that Mr Lightfoot's statements were 'out of line with
mainstream Australian attitudes' - and that they were also against the law, because
they were likely to 'offend and insult' Indigenous people.
Successfully standing up to racism was an important victory for Hannah and her
community, the Noongar (Nung-ar) people.
I wanted to send a message out to non-Aboriginal society that you can't treat us
like that anymore and that we are not flora and fauna.
You know, in Western Australia the Native Welfare Act classified Aboriginal people
as flora and fauna, not as human as white people.
And I guess that was where I was coming from, to send out that message and also it
was really great that a lot of other Noongar people felt good about the decision.
They felt empowered, they felt that there is a law there that we can use.
Tom Calma is the (former) federal Race Discrimination Commissioner.
His job is to work with communities across Australia to address racism and
Racism is ugly. It can cause enormous hurt to individuals and communities - and
there's simply no place for it in Australia today.
That's why it's crucial that the law is there to say 'no - this sort of behaviour is
At the same time, it's important that we use education as a way of breaking down
racist stereotypes and build greater understanding in the community.
We've got to work together to make sure that everyone in Australia feels accepted
and respected - regardless of their race, culture or religion.
4. Breaking down barriers
Shahbaz Rind (NOT pronounced like lemon Rind) is part of a hip hop group called
Based in Western Australia, they spend a lot of time touring country towns and
playing to the local communities.
For Shahbaz, music is a great way of reaching out to young people.
After playing a gig, they often spend time teaching kids how to make music for
Music can be a great way to break down barriers between people - barriers like age,
race, and culture.
But as Shahbaz found, sometimes the barriers in a community can remain very
We played a gig in a small country town in WA, played the gig in the hall and then
we were teaching the kids how to rap and mix and all that sort of stuff, play the drums
and got up and had a go at everything.
The community had put a feed for us and all the people who were coming through with
this thing. It was spun out. They had the barbecue and the cooking. And there was this
group of Aboriginal community over there had put on a feed as well.
It was weird they were not mixing. They were just sitting at opposite ends.
The spun out thing was that all the band members took a bit of food from the
community that people had organised the barbecue and went sat with the Aboriginal crew
and having a chat and eating with them and no one else was coming.
Only when we left that to go somewhere they would come and talk to you. When you
come back and sit down they would not approach that area.
Sometimes the barriers that exist in our communities are the result of deeply held
Often, however, they come about from a lack of knowledge or understanding about
different cultures, religions or backgrounds.
Either way, challenging those barriers can be a daunting experience.
Diana Abdul-Rahman lives in Canberra, and works in a large government agency.
A Muslim all her life, Diana decided two years ago to wear the hijab as a personal
expression of her faith.
However, with a lot of negative stories in the media about Muslims at the time,
Diana was unsure of the response she would receive from others.
And so off I went to work and quickly rushed in and sat down, before anyone got
And then as the people started walking in, it was the most funniest thing to see
people watching and thinking and you could see them very quietly sort of going
you know, "what's going on?"
Until the fellow who was sitting next to me said "Diana, so you you're wearing this
for today, for Ramadan?" Cause they all knew Ramadan was starting.
I said "No George, it's on forever". He goes "Ok". And everyone accepted it.
While Diana was worried that putting on the hijab might create a barrier between her
and her colleagues, she found the opposite happened.
People started asking her questions about her culture and her faith, and she was
able to challenge some common stereotypes about Muslims.
But it does break down the barriers because as soon as open my mouth with a broad
Aussie accent, people sort of realise she's one of us.
I don't have an accent and people don't need to speak to me slowly because
I have a sister who wears the hijab and she's been wearing for it a long time. And I
remember she used to say that people would talk to her very, very slowly because they
thought that wearing a hijab made you dumb.
And I suppose that if they have to deal with a Muslim in the future, that they will
think "oh, I've worked with one, I suppose this person might be the same".
Like Diana, Dean Widders has also had to address prejudice in his workplace - the
Dean is a member of the Parramatta Eels rugby league team, playing in the National
Rugby League competition.
Racism and discrimination on the field should not be tolerated. I know a lot of
people say "in the heat of the battle what happens on the field stays on the field" but
I don't look at it that way. I think there are just areas that you don't go to and you
don't say those sort of things. You don't even contemplate it you know.
Recently Dean was on the receiving end of a racial sledge during a first grade
match. While some players choose to ignore comments like that, Dean felt it was
important to tackle the problem head on.
The player to his credit was really sorry for what he said and I accept that you
know and move on. I think that is the best way to deal with it. You know confront it
and ask people "Why are you calling me this? What is your problem?" And work it all out
and hopefully it is not much to it and you can get over it and get on with life.
I think for me it is pretty easy just to stay calm and because I am happy within
myself and I am proud of who I am. I am really proud of my culture. So nothing anybody
says to me is really going to worry me or make me feel any different.
So if that is the way people think that is there problem it is not mine. I am who I
am. With that attitude it keeps me so I never ever lose control when it comes to these
sorts of things because no matter what people say it is not going to worry me.
This pride in his Aboriginal background means that Dean is keen to share more of his
culture with his fellow rugby league players.
It's also his way of helping address some of the common stereotypes and
misunderstandings about Indigenous people.
I play a lot of rugby league players even now today who do not know much about
Indigenous people, which I feel is a bit of a shame.
People grow up in Australia and they don't know much about our culture but hopefully
I can help in a way by educating people and letting them know as much as I can about
how things work and stuff like that and make a difference.
Like Dean, the importance of education in breaking down barriers has been the
driving force in the life of Vicki Mitsos, who lives in Shepparton, Victoria.
Vicki's father was a farmer and migrated to Australia from Greece, looking for a
better life for his family.
A huge barrier for them was language - no one spoke English and, at the time, there
was nowhere for them to learn.
The family had to improvise to communicate with their neighbours - like the time the
family ran out of food and had no way to get into town.
I was hungry and I remember my Mum cutting a crust of bread and putting it in her
pocket, apron. Mum always used to have to wear her apron of course, and then dragging
me across the wheat field to get to the nearest neighbour which would have been you
know like half a kilometre away.
So I remember the sweat, you know come pouring down my back, it was so hot and the
flies in my eyes and Mum saying come on we're nearly there, we're nearly there and
getting to Mrs Grinter's place, who Mum pulled the bread out and showed her and she
understood and took us in the house.
And remembering my first piece of bread where she put butter and hundred and
thousands on it. Well, to me, even today that's a very special thing.
When Vicki was 11, her family was involved in a car accident. Her father was
seriously injured and, in the ambulance and at the hospital, Vicki became his
It was a defining moment for her - where she saw how crucial it was that migrants
had the opportunity to learn English, especially those who lived outside the
She became a Greek interpreter - and since 1989 has been running English language
services for migrants of all backgrounds across much of regional Victoria.
Today we are the largest multicultural education centre throughout Australia in
regional rural Australia - a staff of 37 and 150 volunteer tutors.
So I believe that I have honestly achieved in helping break down barriers through
the English language program because if you know English then I believe that you can
open many, many doors.
It's a key to many doors, whether it's careers, whether it's employment, whether
it's social - you name it it's got to be the English language.
Like Vicki, Dorothy Hoddinott understands the importance of education in opening up
Dorothy is the Principal of Holroyd High School, in Sydney's south west. Close to
half of all children in the school are refugees. Many of them have had huge
interruptions to their schooling - and many have had no schooling at all.
So one of the first priorities in the classroom is to help them read and write in
English. However, there's a more basic issue that the school has to address in the
lives of these kids - poverty.
I remember there was a boy who I asked said I think you as my grandmother I said I
am asking a very personal question. This is a Muslim boy how many pairs of underpants
do you have? And he said after a moment's thought maybe one.
I guess what we start with here is clothing the children. So shoes, sometimes socks,
sometimes underclothing, school pants, a couple of shirts, a sloppy joe. We provide
things like school books, exercise books and so on.
We start at that level and that is actually a huge cost but it is really important
because the message that being in uniform coming to school and having books and pens is
that your life is normal as a child.
It is really a simple thing. But actually you are raising expectations and putting
in that glimmer of hope for the future.
Creating hope for a brighter future can help make the many barriers that refugee
children face when they arrive in Australia a little less daunting.
But change takes time, and understanding. Coming from war and conflict, it can take
a while for children to learn to be children again.
Many of the children we see have lost their childhood. They have seen things that
children should never see. We had a family here where the father was a policeman and
refused to be conscripted by the Taliban.
He was taken from the home and he was murdered and he was chopped up into four
pieces and his body was left on the front door of the house. The children saw that.
However, in getting to know the students in her care, and helping them to overcome
the barriers they face, the young people have in turn given Dorothy something
Dealing with children from places like Afghanistan and Iraq, and now from Africa -
the courage and the resilience and the stoicism that these people display is
It is something which I guess has changed my life. It's changed the way I think
5. From tolerance to respect
"Australia is a tolerant country."
"Australians are tolerant people."
We hear those phrases all the time - it sounds well-meaning and generous.
But it's a different matter if being 'tolerated' makes you feel like you're 'not
good enough', or you're just being 'put up' with - not respected for who you are as a
As Hannah McGlade, a Noongar (pronounced NUNG-AR) woman from Perth explains.
I feel as an Aboriginal person that you have to work so hard to get respect. I
remember when I was just a child, my dad, actually my step-dad said to me, he was a
non-Aboriginal man, he said "An Aboriginal person cannot be as good as a white person
you have to be twice as good."
But it's a heavy burden for Aboriginal people to carry, to not to be as good and to
have to be twice as good and constantly proving. And I find that respect it has been
hard to gain and sometimes you have to fight for it.
For Hannah, part of the problem is that many non-Indigenous people don't have much
personal contact with Aboriginal people.
I feel a lot of non-Aboriginal people don't have relationships with Aboriginal
people. They don't understand us. They don't know what we're about. They don't care to
know a lot of the time sadly. And I guess they just tolerate and they have stereotypes
Overcoming stereotypes of Aboriginal people is something that Dean Widders, a
professional rugby league player with the Parramatta Eels, knows all about.
He takes it as a personal challenge to counter those often unspoken perceptions.
In rugby league a lot of the people look at Indigenous players as being unreliable
and not hard trainers and stuff like that. So I really make an effort to be the other
way - to be really reliable, to be on time all the time, to turn up to things early, to
put up my hand to do extra things, and all the time train harder than anyone else at
I've seen it change the perception of Indigenous players at my club after since I
have arrived. So I think I am doing a pretty good job there.
When he's not playing rugby league, Dean spends a lot of time working in rural and
remote Aboriginal communities across Australia.
His focus is on encouraging the young people he meets to set goals for themselves
and to go about achieving them - something he believes starts with self-respect.
One of the main things I really try and impress upon young kids is to be proud. It
doesn't matter where you're from or how you have grown up, you just have to be proud of
who you are and know that if you set your mind to something and you work hard at it,
you can achieve whatever you like.
I think that's been the case with my rugby league career. That was something I
really had to work hard for. I wasn't as naturally talented as a lot of people. It has
been a long hard slog for me.
So that's the message that I try and give kids. Believe in yourself, don't be silly,
but work hard and really reach out for your goals - you can achieve anything. Amongst
young Indigenous kids, you know, believing in yourself and being proud of where you
come from is a big issue.
Respect is something that Gragana Danicic (Dan-is-ich) also found she had to work
Ten years ago she came to Western Australia - a refugee from her war-torn home in
A successful young woman in her homeland, for the first few years in Australia she
struggled to learn the language and build a new life.
During those first awkward years, she felt 'invisible'.
When you come here and your clothes do not look too good and you might not speak
English the best and all these sorts of things, people might put up with you. I guess
from my point of view it was more about being invisible because in the eyes of the
others you weren't that good.
Then once you could speak English better and once you got into a university and once
all these other things started to happen, you then became respected.
As human beings we should have that straight away.
Amareswar Galla came from India in the late 1970s.
Like Gragana, it wasn't an easy beginning for him in Australia - and he felt that
may people did simply 'tolerate' him, rather than accept him for who he was.
But that sense of 'tolerance' went both ways.
We all need to understand each other because those of us who came as immigrants, we
also had to tolerate the bigotry of some people, the ignorance of other people as
It's not just their tolerating us, us tolerating them too.
Today Amareswar sees that Australia is changing at a very fundamental level - and
that diversity is becoming is become the norm, rather than the exception.
He's also very optimistic about how his children's generation will get on in the
new, culturally diverse Australia.
But the most important thing that Australia is now facing is you have a whole
generation of Australians, born in Australia, of one or two parents who come from
different parts of the world. I myself, I have children whose mother is German, I come
from India, and both the mother and the father are Australian citizens and the children
are born here. And they don't look German, they don't look Indian, they look something
in between, absolutely gorgeous Australians.
People of my age group still go to crosscultural awareness workshops to learn some
very basic things of engagement across cultural divides. But this younger generation
that's coming through schools and colleges and now into universities, they've grown up
in school environments which have been culturally diverse. They don't need
cross-cultural awareness workshops, they know what it is to be in a culturally diverse
Thao Nguyen is in her early 20s. She was a baby when she came to Australia from
Vietnam with her family - refugees from the war. Today she is part of the changing face
Last year I was selected to be the Australian youth representative to the United
Nations General Assembly and one person is selected and the first time in our history
it was somebody who is from a refugee background who is non Anglo and it was really
quite a remarkable thing because part of the role involved me travelling across the
country to rural Indigenous communities, like Western Australia and Tasmania.
For some people 'yeah that's fine'. For other people 'like this Asian person is
representing this whole country'. And when I was at the UN I had mixed reactions. Some
people said that is really strange, they had the notion that Australian is just white.
White is Australia. And other people yeah migrants, refugees, second generations, third
generation - that is normal.
The different reactions that Thao received seem to reflect the broader question that
Australia is facing at the start of the 21st Century: 'Just what does it mean to be
I think there are parts of Australia that, yes, have really accepted
multiculturalism and cultural diversity. And there are other pockets that are still
really quite nostalgic about White Australia.
And I think currently there are lots of different things happening on a political
level that are invoking these fears in people. Fears of difference and threats to what
we call our way of life.
I think that is really problematic because we have not even defined what our way of
life really is. And our way of life is hybridity and our way of life is diversity.
There is no doubt that Australia is one of the most diverse nations in the world.
But there's also no doubt that such diversity brings its share of challenges and
tension - something felt on a very personal level by Diana Abdul-Rahman.
Diana was born and bred in suburban Brisbane, and now lives in Canberra. However, in
the last ten years or so, she feels that her Muslim faith has made other people see her
as less 'Australian'.
During the first Gulf War in the early 1990's, she was repeatedly told that she
should 'go back to where she came from'.
She feels that the same sort of sentiments have resurfaced - but stronger - after
September 11, and the bombings in Bali and London.
Every time something happens overseas that involves say somebody who uses the
Islamic faith to do a particular incident, we pay a price here. It is so unfair. I find
that is so unfair that every time anything happens overseas, we brace ourselves here.
It's like "Ok, we're going to cop it now".
And what people need to realise is we've got nothing to do with that. I hold
strongly onto my Australianness. But when I constantly get told "well you're not really
an Australian" and "you're a Muslim", and there's undertones that Muslims are strangers
and shouldn't be part of this country and you hear things being said in the media, I
feel like a stranger in my own country.
I ask for the leadership of this country to be very clear in ensuring that the
Muslim community, the Arab community in this country - who are Australians like
everyone else - should be treated like everyone else; as equals.
Australia's leaders - our political leaders, community leaders, religious leaders -
do have a crucial role to play to in countering the voices of division and blame. But
building communities based on respect and understanding is not just the responsibility
of leaders - everyone has a role to play.
Albert Schluter (Schlüter) migrated to Australia from Germany in the aftermath
of the Second World War. His country, and the rest of the world, was still trying to
come to grips with the enormity of the genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany.
He believes that the simple notion of treating each other as equals, regardless of
culture or background, lies at the heart of creating a strong and harmonious
And we have to live together and we have to learn to live together and take the best
aspect of each person and try to accommodate them in our land, in our country.
And that's the important thing. You have to live together. I don't think you should
be tolerant, you should love thy neighbour. Not just tolerate - love him, if you
For Vicki Mitsos, respect is also about accepting the differences that might exist
between different cultures - but working together as Australians.
I remember what it was like when the Australian women tried to educate us and make
us see things their way. Where really, it's about doing things together, not being told
how to do things.
I'm proud to be an Australian, I'm proud to be a Greek. And to me, being Australian
can be whatever you want to be, as long as you remember one thing: we're all the
One - but many.
Different - but all Australians.
The journey from tolerance to respect isn't always easy.
But it's the foundation for a 21st Century Australia that's worth building.