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Making multiculturalism work in Australia, one refugee at a time

Ary Hermawan

The Jakarta Post

Sydney  /  Sat, March 16, 2019  /  09:00 am
Making multiculturalism work in Australia, one refugee at a time

Cooking up a storm: Every eight weeks, a new group of refugees are given a chance to run the Four Brave Women kitchen and cook delicious meals from their country. (Courtesy of the Trading Circle/-)

A group of Indonesian journalists, including those from The Jakarta Post, were recently invited by the Australian government to visit Sydney and Brisbane from Feb. 24 to March 2 to take a closer look at how multiculturalism works in the neighboring country. The following is the report. 

 

It is naïve to say there is no racism or xenophobia in Australia. In the age of Donald Trump, in which peddlers of racial hatred and fears of “the other” have become mainstream, multiculturalism is constantly under scrutiny.

Australia is not immune to the anti-immigration sentiment that has pervaded the United States and European nations amid a global refugee crisis triggered mainly by the prolonged wars in the Middle East.

In recent years, it has seen the emergence of far-right nationalist groups such as the United Patriots Front (UPF) or Reclaim Australia, which have staged rallies in major cities in Australia calling on everyday Australians to protect “Australian values” from foreign cultures, especially Islam. 

For years, Australia has been subjected to criticism for its “Pacific Solution” policy, initiated by former Prime Minister John Howard to transport irregular migrants to detention centers in island nations in the Pacific. It also drew rebuke for its policy of turning back migrant boats on the high seas.

However, despite the emergence of far-right organizations and what critics say are harsh immigration policies, multiculturalism is still alive and well in the land down under.

That is the case not only because most Australians are relatively open to the idea and the government officially supports it, but also because some Australians are going the extra mile to make it work.

Women power: Bindi Lea, the CEO of the Trading Circle, initiated Four Brave Women, a Sydney-based restaurant run by refugees. 


Women power: Bindi Lea, the CEO of the Trading Circle, initiated Four Brave Women, a Sydney-based restaurant run by refugees. (Courtesy of The Trading Circle /-)

BINDI LEA

One of them is Bindi Lea, the CEO of the Trading Circle, a not-for-profit organization set up to, among other goals, empower female refugees in Australia who are facing multiple challenges.

In Sydney, Bindi helped facilitate the creation of a refugee-run café called the Four Brave Women. The idea behind the refugee café is simple.

“Every eight weeks a new group of refugees will take over the kitchen and cook delicious meals from their country. During this period they will serve customers both lunch and dinner, which will give diners the opportunity to meet face to face with new refugees, learn about their cultures and taste their different cuisines,” the organization says of the café on its Instagram account.

The café was opened in April last year. When the The Jakarta Post visited the establishment in February, it offered Iraqi, Syrian and Russian cuisines.

Food encounter: At the Four Brave Women kitchen, diners have the opportunity to meet face to face with new refugees, learn about their cultures and taste their different cuisines.Food encounter: At the Four Brave Women kitchen, diners have the opportunity to meet face to face with new refugees, learn about their cultures and taste their different cuisines. (Courtesy of The Trading Circle /-)

The Trading Circle has been operating for 26 years. The movement was initiated by two Australian nuns who have worked with women groups in countries around the world, including Indonesia and Thailand, to sell their handicrafts in Australia. Yet the idea of opening a restaurant to empower refugees came only recently.

“So we were across the street for about 10 years and we had a retail shop only. So I'd only sold products made by the [women groups], but then about 11 months ago, we decided we wanted to get into food,” Bindi said.

She explained that the Trading Circle had no experience running a restaurant. It was not easy, she admitted but they were doing it because they “really wanted to help refugees and asylum seekers in Australia”.

Bindi is no stranger to the struggles faced by immigrants. Her family were also immigrants who had to work hard to start a new life in Australia.

“What we really wanted to do was to provide a space where people could test the waters, because my parents were immigrants and they really struggled. I came from Greece and so did my grandparents, and they both struggled because of the language barriers and this whole new community of people.”

The Trading Circle helped the refugees acquire the needed documents to open a restaurant and also pay rent and electricity, but the refugees would also have to pay the organization a small fee to keep the program going.

In the past 11 months, the organization has worked with Iranian, Ethiopian, Sri Lankan, Ukrainian, Russian and Syrian families. They come from different religious backgrounds and some of them are even atheists.

Bindi said they got along very well. If there was an argument, it was about who among them could make the best falafel.

Cultural or religious differences were not a problem because all of them, she said, had two commonalities: being passionate about food and also being refugees. 

Standing strong: Australian-Egyptian Assmaah Helal is a professional soccer player. She is also the program operations manager for Football United and Creating Chances, two organizations that focus on youth development, mainly for refugees.Standing strong: Australian-Egyptian Assmaah Helal is a professional soccer player. She is also the program operations manager for Football United and Creating Chances, two organizations that focus on youth development, mainly for refugees. (The Jakarta Post/Ary Hermawan)

ASSMAAH HELAL

Female soccer player Assmaah Helal, a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, is another Australian woman who is working toward a multicultural Australia.

Assmaah comes from an Egptian-Australian family that migrated to Australia in the 1970s. Her parents have always been soccer enthusiasts. Her father actually tried to become a professional soccer player when he was in Egypt, but his family barred him from pursuing his dream.  

In Australia, he decided to let go of his dream. He, instead, let his sons and daughter, Assmaah, to develop a career as soccer players. Playing sport, according to Assmaah, was more than just a hobby for immigrant families in Australia.

“My dad understood the benefits of [playing sports], especially for my brothers to keep them out of trouble. Here, if you don't have anything to do after school, you can get distracted by the wrong crowd and go other places,” she said.

Assmaah, who plays for United New South Wales and is currently pursuing her master’s degree at New South Wales University, has been actively promoting sports to educate the youth, especially from migrant families.

She is now the program operations manager for Football United and Creating Chances, two organizations that focus on youth development, mainly for refugees.

Her activism began in 2008 when a woman from a migrant regional center asks her to create a sports strategy for migrant women and girls.

“Part of my job was to organize swim education programs, health education programs, some basketball, and yeah, that was my foot into Football United,” Assmaah said.

While sports have been proven to be beneficial for youth development, not all children in Australia, particularly refugees, have access them. Organizations like Football United and Creating Changes are trying to bridge that gap.

“You know, your priorities when you arrive to new places are education, employment, housing. Sport comes last on the list. You know, when it's like $300 per registration per child, it's not a priority,” Assmaah said.

Australia introduced multiculturalism as a policy in 1973 to respond to the increasing cultural diversity of the country as a result of post-war migration. The policy has been maintained by successive governments to date.

Settlement Service International (SSI), an organization focusing on assisting newcomers in Australia, called on Australian “governments and public leaders to actively support our multicultural and inclusive society”. It suggested the publication of the idea of “productive diversity” to “help the Australian public to understand the economic and social benefits of a culturally diverse society”.

“Public discussion about the benefits and challenges of a multicultural Australia should look at the evidence and the experience of Australians from migrant and refugee backgrounds,” it said.