March 2012

Multiculturalism: complex but incredibly worthwhile

Working with migrants and refugees helps you to see your country anew through their eyes. That is one of the great gifts of multiculturalism, writes Evan Ellis.

BY Evan Ellis

2012 has been a telling year for multiculturalism in Australia. It began with the Opposition Spokeswoman for Citizenship, Teresa Gambaro, creating a furor with her call for immigrants to be schooled in wearing deodorant and how to queue.

The eminent neurosurgeon, Charlie Teo was then hassled for talking straight about racism in his Australia Day address, while a few days later our PM was bustled out of the Lobby restaurant during a protest by Indigenous and non-Indigenous supporters of the tent embassy.

All this and January hadn’t even finished. It’s no wonder then that on Harmony Day (March 21) this year, many Australians could be forgiven for asking how much harmony there is to go around.

Moments like those mentioned are not unlike lightning strikes at night. They illuminate, albeit briefly, the often hidden tensions, fears, struggles and anger in our multicultural society. However, despite the deluge of commentary such moments provoke, when the media cycle moves on, it’s questionable whether the underlying issues have been addressed.

In my mind this is part of the problem. Rarely do we have the space to sit with these issues, to look into their complexity and seek genuine solutions. The real solutions take time. They require not just well-argued ideas or sound policy, but the space for strong relationships to be formed across our diverse citizenry. You just can’t do that in a 30-second sound bite.

This became evident to me as I worked for two years as the Social Justice Co-ordinator for the Parramatta Diocese. It was a rewarding role that nevertheless revealed the many challenges of multiculturalism.

To illustrate, let me briefly explore a few of the challenges facing one community that I worked with – the Sudanese community. Now even before I start I’m tripping over myself. Sudan has hundreds of ethnic and tribal divisions and language groups. This means talk of ‘the Sudanese community’ (as if they are one bloc) is somewhat simplistic. Indeed, Sudan as a single country no longer exists.

Many from this diverse community will bring with them the trauma of a long-running civil war, dispossession and life in refugee camps. Formal education, along with so much else, will have been disrupted. They will then be flung into a society radically different from their own, often with key family members left behind, where the old order of strong family and community networks no longer seems to hold.

Against such pressures they will confront racism, even in so-called safe places. A priest told me how he once invited a Sudanese choir to lead Christmas carols. Greeting people at the door, a parishioner bustled out past him saying, “I have no time for a jungle mass”. Dumbfounded, the priest wondered how many times that parishioner had sat through Matthew’s Gospel with the flight into Egypt and not been touched by the sentiment, nor wondered about which continent they found refuge.

Many from the Sudanese community will also face structural challenges, such as the fact the Department of Housing and Australia’s humanitarian program rarely work in sync. Perhaps you’re not truly an Australian until you’ve been burnt in our fiercely competitive rental market?

Add to this a very long list of other challenges I haven’t mentioned and you can see why things don’t always go smoothly. It’s when they don’t that we start hearing about the failure of multiculturalism.

However, just because something is complicated doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Just ask any parent, PhD student or mechanic. Indeed, in a globalised world where trade, ideas and people move with such (relative) freedom, we probably don’t have a choice on multiculturalism.

But should we accept multiculturalism begrudgingly? One of the things I loved most about my time as Social Justice Co-ordinator was my work with new arrivals. They had ways of surfacing my own prejudices and making me grateful for things I took for granted.

After the last Federal election I went on a rant about all the woes of our political system. A young Sudanese man listened to me patiently before shrugging and saying, “Yes, but at least Tony Abbott won’t go out and raise an army in the hills”.


I often think of a quote by G.K. Chesterton about travel: “The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land”. Working with migrants and refugees has a similar effect; you see your country anew through their eyes. That is one of the great gifts of multiculturalism.

People from other countries bring with them the freshness of new ideas and new ways of seeing, living and being. While this can create tension, it can also be a dynamic, creative and cathartic process that is mutually beneficial.

Perhaps this Harmony Day we need to take time out to rediscover what we value in multiculturalism.

As Christians in particular, we should reflect that when we welcome the stranger we welcome Jesus (Matthew 25:25). This isn’t just about us being hospitable. It’s an invitation to re-imagine the stranger, to see Christ in them. If Christ is God’s gift to the world, it is a logical extension that the immigrant and refugee are also a gift to be welcomed into society.

We would do well to ponder this on Harmony Day.

Evan Ellis

Evan Ellis is a freelance writer currently on contract in the public sector.

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