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We need our new neighbours

A reflection on refugees during the COVID-19 pandemic by Shankar Kasynathan, a Commissioner at the Victorian Multicultural Commission.

Tuesday 16 June 2020 11:12am
Street sign 'Be Kind.'

When I once asked my father about why we chose to resettle in Australia when we were running from Sri Lanka, he responded

“Where else would we have gone? Has this country not been good enough for you?”

Even as a child I could sense how lucky we were to be in Australia. I knew that we were fortunate to be resettled and sponsored here in this place. This was a safe place, with kind people and ample opportunities to make a part of it our own and a part that we would want to protect, like anyone would, their home and loved ones.

As I have grown up in this country, studied, played and worked here, I have come to form a certain realisation about the people with whom I share this place I call my neighbourhood.

As Australia faces one of its hardest tests in history – recovering from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic – we must remember that Australia needs refugees and migrants, just as much as they need a place to call home. 

Our new neighbours, and not so new neighbours, are the nurses and doctors on the front line. Refugees were working in our hospital corridors long before COVID-19 and they will be there long after we see the end of this crisis.

They are the workers who we probably take for granted in our everyday lives, yet who are critical to keeping us safe, healthy, clean and fed right now – cleaners, chefs, delivery drivers, shelf fillers, rubbish collectors, teachers and childcare workers.

Whether it be for purely economic reasons or an understanding of who we need in our towns, be they metropolitan or regional, our long-term recovery relies on bringing these new neighbours with us, if we want to truly protect our way of life and our homes. 

Shankar Kasynathan
Victorian Multicultural Commissioner, Shankar Kasynathan

At the same time, it is in the name of ‘protection’ that we have also seen the polarising views about Australia’s immigration policy in the time of COVID-19, spill out from the digital sphere onto our streets, and violently. Existing trauma is unearthed, old wounds opened, and the fear – never more painful for what would from one angle, look like a divided society. 

In the neighbourhood I grew up in the South Eastern suburbs of Melbourne, people looked out for one another. Folks of all religious backgrounds would come together over backyard fences. People would smile and chat to each other on the street. We would make meals for one another.

If we take a look at communities across Australia, including the one I live in now in central Victoria, more than ever before, our neighbours old and new, are leaning towards each other – for our very survival. This is happening not in the abstract, but in very real terms.

Not one of us in the street I grew up in, would have thought to give this the names that folk in Canberra might have for such a way of life: Social cohesion. Multiculturalism. Successful integration.

This was our new neighbourhood, and these people had become our friends. 

If we look carefully enough, we will note that in many ways, small and large, a number of our new neighbours have already been carrying us and for longer than it took for them, via painful journeys, to get here. For some of those new arrivals working in the disability, aged care or wider health sector, they have been figuratively carrying people we know, members of our family.  

That which inspires some of us to go out of our way to help some of our new neighbours is very personal and local. These tangible relationships that web together our neighbourhoods; relationships that were there long before COVID19 and are likely to be even stronger, after this pandemic comes to an end. We can be sure of this, because ultimately at the core of our bond is a shared desire to protect the safety and security that we all hold dear.    

Each neighbourhood has a journey, and it stems directly from a very real experience we have with our neighbours, their families including those members living in unimaginably awful conditions in another part of the world, waiting for a home here amongst us. Our personal connection to the challenges many of these people face and our proximity to those challenges, shape not just ourselves, but our community at large. 

In my work, I have had the opportunity to meet people like Shahab, a Ezidi refugee from Wagga Wagga who is working as a teacher’s assistant during COVID-19.

There is Jalel from Melbourne, an Ethopian refugee, privately sponsored to Australia and now working in Patient Assistance. At the end of the year he will be a fully qualified nurse. 

We find that refugees and asylum seekers get more useful when we stop seeing them as the waiting vulnerable. The fog of disconnection fades when we start to realise that those who are or could be our new neighbours, share the same world as us – and in that world, we need each other. They are the family next door or the small business owners that feed our family fast food on a Friday night. 

It is with these and several other stories in mind, that we must recognise that how we respond to the mass displacement of refugees is much more than a question of moral character, but quintessentially a question of whether our neighbourhoods can afford not to have them.

If we are genuine about protecting what we have now and for the future, we must recognise that we need our new neighbours. 

Shankar Kasynathan is a Commissioner at the Victorian Multicultural Commission.  

Shankar came to Australia with his family as refugees. Over the past 15 years he has worked closely with refugee and migrant communities in Victoria, the Northern Territory and the ACT. A skilled communications and public policy specialist, he has degrees in Economics and Public Policy. He is an active supporter of community organisations that help to build partnerships and social cohesion in regional areas. Since December 2017, Shankar has been the National Refugee Campaign Manager with Amnesty International Australia. He is also a non-executive director of Loddon Campaspe Multicultural Services and an adviser to Welcoming Australia.

Reviewed 23 June 2021

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