Help migrants to create their own destiny

22 March 2019

Last weekend was a significant one for Victoria’s multicultural communities, who gathered to mark the annual celebration of cultural diversity: the Premier’s Gala Dinner. For the state’s multicultural communities this event is a key highlight. It’s not very well known about in the broader community, but it should be, because it’s truly special.

On Saturday evening the event was once again imbued with a rich sense of culture and community. It was also poignant and pensive, given the tragic events of Christchurch. For our multicultural communities it was an opportunity to come together in a giant bear hug, to offer support to the Islamic community. Some said the event was bad timing. But it felt like the opposite of that. Humanity was on display everywhere. 

When I was first appointed as Victoria’s Multicultural Commissioner, in many ways it was a return to the start of my journey as a young reporter, of Greek heritage. Some 23 years ago now, I won a scholarship to work for multicultural broadcaster SBS. The scholarship targeted youth of culturally diverse backgrounds.  My next job was at the ABC. Both of those media environments exposed me to the various and complex challenges experienced by multicultural communities. Or so I thought.  

Fast forward to 2019, and multiculturalism is now a more vexed term than it was back then and the issues facing multicultural communities are also more layered. Against a backdrop of race and immigration politics playing out on local and global stages, and with more conspicuous and vicious identity politics, the scorn and vilification is evident to communities who are in the vice-grip of race-targeted media narratives. Muslim communities are afraid they will experience this more acutely now, following last week’s attacks. They fear it will incite Islamophobic attacks all over again. They feel afraid to practise their faith freely.

In a state where we come from more than 200 countries, speak more than 260 languages and dialects and follow more than 130 faiths, the cultural diversity is rich. Some of the figures claim we are more culturally diverse than New York City. I can’t confirm that, but what I can speak of is the gift that diversity brings. Research by McKinsey suggests organisations with greater leadership diversity are better positioned to attract talent, to improve customer experiences and employee satisfaction, and to make better decisions.

The Victorian Multicultural Commission’s primary role is to listen to communities and convey issues and challenges faced by multicultural communities back to the government. The Commission then helps shape and create policies to improve service delivery, access and opportunities. The aim is to ensure pathways for holistic and productive integration. When you consider the spectrum of related issues, the task is an immense one. It is not a challenge, rather an opportunity to do things better, with human resources and human capital, not just money.

It’s why we created an internship program last year in partnership with a public broadcaster to improve the outcomes of minority communities, who have faced obstacles in developing their skills. We recruited a small number of interns in the field of journalism. Three days into the job, one of our interns – of Ethiopian background – impressed her bosses so greatly that she was earmarked for ‘great things’. Our first intern is already on their payroll. Our main advice to our prospective interns was to create their own destiny. And it seems they are.

This may not be the story you want to read, but it’s the reality of multicultural communities, who bring depth, expertise and wisdom with them. No one wants to enter a new community and not feel anchored, no one wants to enter a new place and not feel like it has the possibility of being a new and welcoming home. People don’t aspire to fail. They aspire to a new and positive beginning. And what we know is that one positive story for a community, one tiny breakthrough, can alter perceptions within that community. It’s a victory for many.

Multiculturalism shows up everywhere, from our sports fields, to our restaurants. It works because it asks people to accept one another, without a label. It’s even showing up now – in the wake of the tragedy in Christchurch – as communities offer support to those who do not follow the same faith as them, just as they did on Sunday, at the ‘Open Mosque Day’. The day, which is held annually, attracted record crowds and support from the broader community. People came together to grieve and console one another. They came together as one.

It is in these moments that we realise that people, not like us, are just people, like us. Their resilience, kindness and willingness to be accepted and participate fully in civic life is so tangible. But we need to do the work to help them get there, in the same way society supported us as young, aspiring entrants, in the same way I began my journey. Then it’s up to them. When they succeed, that’s a good news story for all of us.

*An edited version of this piece first appeared on page 35 of the print edition of the Herald Sun on Friday 22 March 2019.

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