Four Vietnamese friends in Melbourne

Four Vietnamese friends in Melbourne

Aboriginal languages of Australia

Aboriginal languages of Australia

Doug talks about the Arrernte way of life to visitors to the Alice Springs Desert Park

Doug talks about the Arrernte way of life to visitors to the Alice Springs Desert Park

            Lina and I have been in Australia for ten days.  We visited with Filipino friends in Sydney.   Helen raised six children in Metro Manila after separating from an abusive husband; went back to school when her three boys were old enough to look after their younger sisters; found work on graduation in a slum area where she created programs that gave her students the chance to excel against all the odds; immigrated to Australia and completed her career counseling young people in the immigrant and refugee communities; and now enjoys her retirement with children and grandchildren all in Sydney or within a couple of hours.  She has led a life of courage, endurance and faith in the face of poverty and tremendous obstacles.

Her story is repeated over and over.   Lina struck up a conversation at a bus stop with a young man just arrived from South Sudan.  He lived years in a refugee camp and has just now immigrated to Sydney.  He was on his way to a job interview, hoping to find a foothold here and one day bring his parents over from the camp where they still live.

The Vietnamese community in Australia mirrors the success of Vietnamese refugee communities all around the world in establishing businesses and sending their children on to higher education and professional careers.  This takes ingenuity and a willingness to try something new.  We spent an evening with three Vietnamese friends in Melbourne.  Tan came here trained as a social worker but found no work, so he learned the building trades and now has his own business.  Din tried his hand at farming but that didn’t work so he started a one man trucking company.  Son is a photographer who now runs a sushi restaurant with his wife.

We can find these stories close at hand in the US, of course.  I think of the Cambodians in Peterborough who have created stable and successful families after surviving hellish years under the Khmer Rouge and in refugee camps. All of us know these stories.  We may have lived them ourselves, we certainly know them from our family histories and we don’t need to look far to see them around us.

Success stories aside, Australia is deeply ambivalent about immigration, as are we in the US.  Immigrants provide the work force essential to harvest food and do jobs that others will not do.  Yet those who seek to enter illegally are feared and resented, and the backlash against immigration has led the Australian government to adopt inhumane policies towards those trying to reach its shores.   We see the same story being played out now in the US, though in different ways.

Australia, like the United States, is a country of recent immigrants and native peoples who themselves came here many, many thousands of years ago.   The white Australian, like the white American, lives on land that was taken from the original settlers, and with a shameful history of oppression: massacres, children taken from their families to be schooled by white people (“The Stolen Generations”), continuing discrimination.   The Australian government has taken a hugely important symbolic step in creating National Sorry Day on May 26:  on this day in 1998, the Prime Minister apologized on behalf of the nation to the aboriginal peoples for the history of oppression.

However, there has not been consistent, strategic follow through on the promises made.  Poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, diabetes, domestic violence, sub- standard schools and a high dropout rate, early pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases – these are the scourges of many aboriginal communities as they are of native communities in the US.  I felt such sadness to be reminded of this history, a sadness magnified by the recognition that this shameful history is also ours in the US.  And our country has never had the grace to go so far as to create a national Sorry Day.

There are bright spots here in Australia, not only individuals who have transcended this history but intact communities that honor their traditions and have resisted those scourges.   A Danish immigrant has worked for years in remote communities and has established respectful relationships with the elders.   His company builds and renovates housing in these communities, often staying for months to complete a project.  He has trained and hired many aboriginal men and women, always working within the traditional laws.  If a worker from outside is found to have brought in alcohol, that worker is sent away immediately.

It would be a mistake to use these stories to blind ourselves to the huge injustice that persists, but it’s also a mistake to dismiss them as unimportant.  The aboriginal peoples have persisted for somewhere between 40-80,000 years in a most unforgiving environment.  They have lived through an Ice Age and a 1,500 year drought, and they have developed remarkable technology and social mechanisms to ensure their survival.  A ranger at the Alice Springs Desert Park, himself a member of the Arrernte people, shared some of this with us and expressed the confidence that his people were once again making a transition to another time in their history.

That combination of endurance and faith is what we all need in the years ahead.

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