HREOC Website: Isma - Listen: National consultations on eliminating prejudice against Arab and Muslim Australias

Consultations Homepage || Meeting Notes: 26 May 2003

Refugee women’s group, Ecumenical Migration Centre, Melbourne, 26 May 2003

Eight members of the refugee women’s group and two EMC workers attended the consultation which was facilitated by Omeima Sukkarieh (transcript and translating) and Susanna Iuliano from HREOC. The Ecumenical Migration Centre was established in 1962 and became a part of the Brotherhood of St Laurence in 1999.

Experiences of discrimination

General comments about discrimination and tolerance

“Because all people in this country are migrants, I think all of them can understand or respect others religions and cultures. Because it is a multicultural society and so they respect in a very humanistic way others cultural and religious beliefs.”

“It is important to note that the picture is not all bad and that there are very good people in Australia who do show respect for others. A person which is ignorant of difference and has no idea about others will discriminate and therefore can’t respect others’ religions because they have no knowledge of it including why they wear the hijab, etc. But an educated person is more likely to show respect for others.”

“You have people that are ‘shadideen’ / fundamental / extremists and stubborn who don’t want to ever learn about other religions, etc. These people are everywhere and because discrimination takes place in everyday life these people can be in Centrelink, on buses, or even in MRC’s. You can walk in the street and people look at you differently and you just know. It could be so indirect that only you can feel it. And it’s happening all over the place.”

“They come out into this country to get the better life and they do. There are so many good things that they are experiencing being in Australia, they sort of just try and forget because they are not very important to them most of the time. Their focus is on something else, and sometimes these experiences can seem minimal compared to some things they have experienced before coming to Australia.”

“I have experienced discrimination sometimes mostly with people saying go back to your own country, you don’t belong here, but nothing too serious. No-one really notices that we are actually from Indonesia; they think we are from China or are Vietnamese.”

“Not everything we experience is big and there are many small things that happen that people don’t take too seriously and the small things really don’t matter sometimes.”

“I just want to say to the Australian people that everything that has happened is not our fault and even in our country there is war. How come to explain or apologise to everyone that it’s not our fault. It’s politics and we are all human in the end. Smile and say hello. I want to say sorry because I understand why you are angry but how come, you have to understand us to explain that it’s not religion: our religion is not like that. But no-one asks you, they just judge you. We want to volunteer to do many positive things to help teachers, work with disabled people, but all we want is help to do these things. So that’s why I like the EMC because they listened to me and others and they help us get experience. I didn’t imagine that I would get to this point because of all the bad things that happened to me. I know that 90 % of people are good people but to the rest I ask how come? Who is going to help us move away from this? Don’t hate us because of our appearance or what we look like. We need to work and do good things. We need to be part of the community and part of society.”

Experiences at work

An Eritrean woman who has been in Australia for some 18 months, described her efforts to obtain employment through Centrelink.

“After a year of being in Australia, I finished studies at the language school, Centrelink sent me of course to find work, so they sent me to an employment/ job network agency to help me find work. The agency found me work in a hotel so I went straight away to work in the hotel, and I spoke to her and the lady at the hotel who was my supervisor there, and I had a meeting with them and we talked about the uniform requirements and she saw me wearing the scarf. [I explained that I] also need to wear long sleeves and she said it was fine as long as I wore a white shirt and black pants. I said that was fine.

“So I started work the first day and the second day she asked me if it was possible to take off my scarf and I said no. So she asked if I could wear a cap instead and I thought, well yes I will wear a cap on top the hijab. But I didn’t because I knew that she was just making excuses to get me out. She wanted me to wear the cap to hide the scarf.

“On the third day of work she said to me that I looked very good today, and I knew that she was mocking me because she didn’t want the hijab, so she then handed me a t-shirt and told me to wear it after I had told her that I can’t wear short sleeves. So I told her that I couldn’t wear it because I wore the hijab and that my religion wouldn’t allow it. There were two other colleagues standing next to her at the time and one of them said, ‘Leave your religion’. Then the lady asked me if I was going to work in a factory would I be wearing the same thing. I said ‘I don’t have any understanding of how a factory works so I can’t answer that’. I then said ‘I told you that I was not able to wear short sleeves on the first day, so why did you accept me knowing that if you are not happy?’ I was upset. I was most upset at the fact that I couldn’t speak English well enough to respond to them better. So even if they wanted me to stay on I was unhappy and wanted to get out. But after this conversation she said to me that if was going to wear the hijab, then I had to leave the job. I asked her ‘Well do you want me to leave?’ and she said, ‘Well why don’t you leave’.

“What upsets me is who sent me to this work in the first place? Centrelink. The case manager is responsible for me here so I told my friend and called the case manager when I got home and told her what had happened and, smiling, my case manager said ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get another job’. It is her responsibility to call this woman and tell her that this was not right, and that it was unfair dismissal. She did not advocate on my behalf.”

Centrelink advised she would not be permitted to study but would have to find work.

“I was very angry and told her [case manager] that I had been trying to find work for a long time and that she had been sending me from place to place and she wasn’t very helpful. I also told her that I wanted to study so I could find a better job for myself in the future.

“I went to Centrelink to complain about the case manager and told them that I was not happy with the service she was providing and that I didn’t want her anymore as my case manager, and told them that I wanted to study. At this point I was very tired and exhausted from the process. So they gave me another interview and told me that I had to have this case manager because she was the only one responsible for this program and that she was the only one that could pass me from a program she was running and I was told I had to do so I could graduate. So we scheduled another interview with her but I never went. I didn’t go to the program either and I didn’t even know what the program was because I never went.”

About this time this lady found out about the Ecumenical Migration Centre which was able to assist her.

“The EMC at the very least listened to me. I … knew that there was someone ready and willing to help me genuinely, and I didn’t feel so isolated, and they helped me gain valuable work experience.

She is now doing volunteer work at a primary school. The EMC worker commented:

“They also allowed her to have work experience in a school and whilst she was there they gave her an opportunity to conduct a training session on Islam including why women wear the hijab, and other religious practices and part of that the person who ran that program was put through cross cultural awareness project. And part of that the kids at that school got to wear the hijab for a day and they thought it was a very successful and positive outcome.”

Incidents in public

“Sometimes its not even intentional discrimination and as soon as they get over the initial shock of seeing a woman in a hijab, then they’re ok with it. So it can be that initial reaction to you out of a fear of the unknown.”

“I used to work and after Bali I worked far and had to catch the tram to go home at night and I really felt my safety was in question on trams and in trains.”

“After September11 was the hardest time for me and a lot happened on the roads. For example, I was driving and many people would call me a ‘Muslim terrorist’, ‘Osama’ and that sort of thing. And one man told me when I was parking, ‘you have to be careful Muslim lady where you park your car’. Because he was so close to me I was a bit scared.”

What has been the police response?

A woman formerly from Somalia described the following incident which was reported to the police by another motorist.

“A lady stopped in front of me whilst I was changing lanes and she got out of the car and she made up these lies like I had an accident with her. She was yelling at me and swearing at me, and I locked my window… and she was yelling at me ‘Osama bin Laden I’m going to kill you, open your window’. I didn’t come out because I was so scared. She did this because she realized I was a Muslim lady. I stayed there one hour in the car until she called the police. [Over the phone] the police asked ‘is there an accident?’ The lady said No. But this lady pulled up in front of me and she nearly caused an accident and nearly killed me’. Then the police never came. So I just ended up reversing and driving off. She went to the police and told them that I hit her and she had a bruise and everything. And I don’t know where it came from.

“So the police knocked on my door and asked me if I had an accident. I said ‘No. But I did have trouble’. I started telling them my story but they never listened. They just started writing everything down. They went to my car and took pictures of the car and then they put a report together and sent me a letter to notify me that I had to go to court because I had allegedly hit her and she said she had witnesses, but she was lying. There was a man who saw everything and he had asked her ‘Lady why don’t you let her go? She hasn’t done anything’. But the lady refused and she said she was waiting for the police. At the time I didn’t think to get the man’s details.

“When I went to court I saw the police lady who had been harassing me for a long time. Every time she sees me she comes to my house and asks me when I have court. I went to the police station and complained to the police and they said ‘Don’t worry. She’s new’. I said ‘I don’t care if she’s new - she’s harassing me’. This happened in November 2001.

“She even found my brother and noticed his surname and began harassing him because he was my brother. I went to the police with a friend of mine the second time to complain about the continued harassment by the police officer. I said that I knew that the lady had a problem with me but what does the police lady have to do with this issue? She’s coming to my house and she knows our address.

“Anyway, I went to court and paid for a lawyer to go with me and neither the police lady nor the other driver showed up. The lawyer called her and she said that she was in bed. They didn’t just throw it out even though they knew she was a liar. They made me pay for the damages she said I had inflicted on her car, and I never did anything. I have to pay the lawyer too. I was so scared and angry. She did that just because I was a Muslim. I know it.

“I will never go to the police for anything anymore. They never help. They should have listened to two sides of the story. I went to two police stations about the police lady but they both told me that she was knew and made excuses. The solicitor was from legal aid and Muslim but he was scared because he said it was a big case and he didn’t believe me. I wrote a letter to the court saying exactly what the lady said to me about Osama and the threats she made and the judge read it out but disregarded it. And the judge questioned why I never waited for the police. But how was I supposed to do that if they never came and there was no accident?”

Available training and work experience

Participants described the assistance provided by EMC and other non-government organisations, including the EMC’s ‘Given the Chance Program’. ‘Given the Chance’ has some funding through the Victorian Department of Human Services’ Community Strengthening Unit, the Victorian Women’s Trust ( dedicated to improving the status of Victorian women) and the Invergowrie Foundation ( a private trust set up to promote and advance education for women and girls in Victoria). ‘Given the Chance’ was developed a couple of years ago and began running in October to December 2002. The EMC worker on the program described it briefly.

“Initially there were 17 in ‘Given the Chance’ and it was a program specific to refugees not just the generic employment agencies, etc, and the mentors and the work experience supervisors are trained in cultural awareness and about refugees. Since then a number of people have joined and what I do is look for mentors for them and there are a lot of people out there, primarily in the corporate sector who want to do something, who want to give something back and I have double the number of mentors I need. There are a lot of people who have the ethos of giving something back which is very strong. Obviously there isn’t huge numbers but it’s sufficient to make a difference. That’s very much the strength of this program. Our message is very much about connecting, linking, and so we are pushing the line that the mentors get as much back as the refugees do, so it’s not a top down social welfare model at all. It’s a partnership model, with cultural knowledge, cultural capital, exposure to something very different, and that’s a real benefit, a real plus. The initial focus was young but we took everybody and we took people on bridging visas and Temporary Protection Visas, so there was no discrimination about visa classes. It’s not just women either.

“And coming up the EMC are running a public speaking program throughout June and participants are invited to speak to the ANZ Women’s Corporate Unit in July. And it’s a very good opportunity for these women to talk and see what they can do.”

One of the refugee women described her experiences with EMC.

“Fortunately my experiences are positive with my dealings with Australian people, government etc. I am lucky, really. I came to Australia in 2001 and enrolled in Footscray AMES. They are very helpful people and the teachers were great. I had an operation at Royal Women’s Hospital and the teachers used to ask me about my health every day and they were very kind. I am lucky that I have very good intensive assistance from the Salvation Army intensive assistance worker in Broadmeadows. He helped me in everything, to find study, etc. EMC described to me where the mosque is in the area and helped me in many things. The EMC worker helped me get work experience in the refugee migration legal centre and she knows what my goals are for the future. She also helped bring me a mentor who helped me put my resume together and helped me find a job and she offered me many opportunities to do public speaking. Also last October, when I started the Given the Chance Program, the case worker from the Salvation Army gave me a 6 month free ticket to two zones so I can get to the EMC for this program. He also brought for me some books for computer skills to start my computer development skills and EMC paid for two courses in AMES Flagstaff, one in Business Management and the other is a computer course. My feelings are very high and very good in my experiences in Australia.”

What other support strategies are you aware of?

Support from community-based organisations

“There were a lot of things happening after Bali and September 11. The EMC along with the community legal centre taught the women safety procedures and how to keep themselves safe, including giving us their mobile numbers and each others numbers in case of an emergency or something happened to us.”

“There were places such as the legal centres that provided a lot of support to us e.g. by providing us with info of support networks and referrals and we would have this info on cards small enough to distribute to our friends and social networks.”

“The state government opened up hotlines across the state, such as one run by the ICV and everyone knew about these hotlines.”

Local government initiatives

“Every Sunday night the Reservoir Public Pool is open for Muslim women only and hundreds of women of all ages go there now. This program is reaching out to 6 other pools. There is a gym in Ascot Bay on Sundays for women only.”

What more needs to happen?

“Education about cultural differences is essential. You can’t change people’s attitudes unless they know you. At work they don’t know me until they have met me. It doesn’t matter what I was wearing anymore after they met me, so personal contact really matters.”

“In places like Centrelink there should be more employees who are Muslims, so that they can understand our issues, and the same in schools.”

“Getting a job that you’re good at and you like in Australia is really important to us. Sometimes a person has to work because of financial reasons but even so people should care about what skills and qualifications we have to offer not just see our appearance and judge our abilities based on that. If I don’t feel protected by a Centrelink case manger, how am I going to feel protected in the workplace?”

“I have a 7 year old at school and she is very social. She likes playing with everyone and one of her new Argentinian friends looked at her and touched her and said ‘your colour is black and your hair smells nice’. You can change a young person’s mind because they are so innocent. She also told my daughter ‘You have such beautiful clean skin. Why is it black?’ as she thought that she should be dirty. It’s important that you explain to your children that it’s not important what is on the outside and that they have clean skin and that on the inside everyone is the same.”