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


|| 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

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

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’.

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.

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:

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

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.”

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.”

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.”

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

Local government initiatives

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

What more needs to happen?

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.”

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.”