Renew, don’t reclaim

Australia just won the World Cup in cricket; the footy season has literally kicked off; Neighbours just celebrated 30 years on television; Vegemite, Tim Tams and beer are still available in every supermarket. Easter is just past, and it’s almost ANZAC Day when we will venerate our diggers like we always do. Our politicians still shout at each other (in English!) in Canberra.

All’s well in Australia!

Yet, we just witnessed nationwide ‘reclaim Australia’ rallies. We heard that ‘our’ Australia is being taken away by those who would impose ‘their’ un-Australian way of life on all of us ‘true Aussies’.

Who is ‘them’? It’s migrants… no, let’s be honest: they say it’s Muslim migrants (New Zealanders, English, Irish – they’re OK!) with their veils and robes, who speak their foreign languages and who eat strange foods. Pretty soon, it’s claimed, our women will be forbidden from driving, our girls will be married off at nine and our boys will forsake footy for religious studies. We’ll have to follow their laws, eat their foods and…the list goes on. We need to act before Australia, the pure white Australia we love, vanishes before our very eyes, they say. So: ‘Reclaim Australia!’ 

I see a different picture. It is a picture I wish ‘reclaim’ supporters could see. If they did, they might reconsider their views.

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Here’s the picture: I have been helping my friend prepare for his citizenship test. We have been reading the government’s website, reviewing the material in Our Common Bond, the study guide for the test. We have studied Australian politics, history, geography and even the components of the national emblem. (Do you know why one star on the flag has seven points? My friend does, and now I do, too!)

We recently went to Melbourne for him to take his citizenship test. I waited along with people from at least 10 different countries who were there for their test. 15 minutes after sitting the test he emerged with a smile: “100%!” he said. I shook his hand and we beamed. Eventually he will receive a letter from his local council inviting him to the next citizenship ceremony where he will be a fair dinkum Aussie, mate!

Why is this relevant to the reclaim phenomenon? It so happens my friend is a Muslim from Sudan, a refugee who fled persecution, along with his young wife, and eventually found a new home here. I am an American born Jew, an Australian citizen since 1996 and a retired teacher, who spends an hour or so a week with my Sudanese Muslim friend helping him with English and studying Our Common Bond for his citizenship test. 

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An American Australian Jew and a Sudanese Muslim refugee: it may seem an unlikely combination, even the beginning of a joke, but our different origins, faiths and cultures have not prevented us from working together and becoming friends and, soon, fellow Australians. I don’t fear that one day Australia will be ruled by Sharia law, especially after getting to know my friend and his own views on the subject. He has no objections with welcoming me, a Jew, to his home during Ramadan and studying together. We have nothing to fear from each other, and Australia has nothing to fear from him, (nor from me for that matter!)

Perhaps Reclaim supporters fear that what once happened to the Indigenous following the arrival of white Europeans will happen again, but this time to them, when enough ‘newcomers’ have arrived. They fail to see that unlike 200 years ago, contemporary Australia has been enriched by the arrival of many different people and their faiths, languages and cultures. We thrive on diversity, not homogeneity. We have laws which protect the rights of all.

My Muslim friend, soon to be a citizen, and I are just two of the thousands of Aussies who respect their differences whilst able to strengthen their common bond. So, a request: don’t fear our new citizens, or those who wish to become citizens. Get to know them. Help our newcomers integrate into Australian society without demanding they abandon their connection to their faith and birthplaces. After all, we are all immigrants unless you happen to be an Indigenous Australian.

Rather than ‘reclaim’ some idealised vision of a homogenous, supposedly utopian Aussie society, let’s instead forge a common bond with others, regardless of their origins. A common bond: it’s not just the name of the citizenship study material, it is at the heart of citizenship and being Australian.

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