For those of us who are a part of new, emerging or established diaspora communities, on our daily routes to school or work, the same questions are no strangers to our ruminating thought cycle:
What significant event will happen today in one corner of the world that will have repercussions for me, my friends or my family? Will I find myself caught up in the crossfire? How will we choose to respond, and what will follow as we try and move forward?
History has taught us that whatever it is, we will surely be caught up in often foreseeable as well as sometimes unforeseeable implications and we may be lucky to walk away unharmed.
It was a weeknight in the 1990s. My mother came home visibly distressed. My sisters and I, school kids then, would hear later about the attack our mother had suffered at the hands of a violent and racist fellow passenger on the public transport route home. In front of a carriage of silent onlookers, our mother had been verbally abused, shoved and punched.
My mother went back to work the next day, in her role as a volunteer at a not for profit organisation.
It was not that long after the incident on the tram, that I remember walking along with my sister on one of our junk mail routes in our local neighbourhood. I would have been 5, Suds would have been 13. It was getting dark when we reached this one particular house on the corner of a street we knew well. The old man was waiting for us. We offered him the material rather than putting it into his mailbox.
He shoved the rolled papers firmly back at my sister.
“Sorry we didn’t see the no advertising material sign on your letterbox” offered my sister in her best grown up voice.
“No, I don’t want this and I don’t want you people coming here and taking all our jobs”.
I remember the look on my sister’s face.
The job she had just been accused of ‘stealing’ was delivering junk mail. The money we would be paid would go towards supporting our family. My sister would rather have been at home doing school homework or watching TV like most kids her age. But the look on my sister’s face wasn’t one of frustration, it was one of sadness.
She would say to me as we turned the corner: “What a sad old man, maybe he is lonely”.
What happened to my mother on the tram, or what happened to my sister on our paper round, were not isolated experiences. My three sisters, parents and I can recall many other incidents where we had been subject to everything from violent racism to unconscious bias. Worse has happened to friends or other members in our community. But for every experience of racism we can recall, my family also can recall ten other very different memories of our early life in Victoria.
Like the time the lady from the local Uniting Church drove around to our place and delivered white goods and furniture; there was a TV that came with it all… “to keep the kids busy”.
There was a time that a neighbour cut the grass for us when we had not been able to afford our own lawn mower. There was a time that we had food vouchers brought to us. There was the time both my father as well as my mother, had jobs.
As a family new to Australia, we remembered the goodness too. In an important sense, while the negative experiences have hurt it is the goodness that seeded our journey here in Australia.
When I was three years old my family and I were privately sponsored as humanitarian refugees by Suriyan and Alison.
One of the earliest memories I have of my life links back to that hot steamy summer day we arrived at the Melbourne airport. An old white man tried to put a seat belt on a screaming four year old, me, to keep me safe as he drove us to our new home from the airport. The old man was Alison’s father, and a member of a generous family that not only brought us to Australia but helped us find our feet in this new place of refuge.
My mother’s bruises from the assault on the tram healed and she chose to return to that work place that recognised her abilities, provided her with meaningful paid work and a lifelong career that she will cherish forever.
My sister ignored the old man on the street corner, and she threw herself into her legal studies and works tirelessly today in the field of youth justice in Victoria.
Not all bruises heal, and not all hateful words can be ignored. Racism can leave scars and sometimes whether we like it or not the memories linger. This is why every day, many migrants and refugees face challenges in what are still for many of us unpredictable spaces where acceptance and welcome still does not come easily.
But perhaps instead of waiting for yet another global or national event to take place that will shape or influence our local lives, perhaps we need to reconsider how we can become leaders of our own destiny?
In the uncertain realms that are our neighbourhoods, twe still have the agency and choice of deciding what kind of community we want to live in, what sort of community led initiatives we want to be a part of in our new home.
It is up to us to define the community that we want to call home; a home and a future that responds with goodness to its challenges, as well as its opportunities.
Whether you live in Bendigo or Townsville, if you look past the hurtful ignorance and impoverishing fear of some of your neighbours, you will find many other neighbours who will enthusiastically meet you on the long road to unlocking the welcome. It is in partnership with some of these friends that we might move from waiting to respond, and starting to lead.
*Shankar Kasynathan is a newly appointed Commissioner for the Victorian Multicultural Commission and an adviser to Welcoming Australia.