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Best of 2011: The reluctant Australian citizen


'Citizenship' by Chris JohnstonI knew something had shifted when I caught myself referring to Australian competitors at the last Commonwealth Games as 'our athletes.'

I had been living in Melbourne for nearly six years by then, long eligible to apply for citizenship. When so many people would envy this privilege, why did I not jump at the chance as soon as I could?

It was because I was still feeling caught in an imaginary homeland. Salman Rushdie refers to this peculiar space in which migrants dwell, where they no longer feel entirely at home in their native land yet remain somewhat an outsider in their adopted one. It is not an easy landscape to navigate.

Certain things made it harder for me.

I arrived in December 2000. The following year, a Pakistani refugee self-immolated in front of Parliament after his application for his family was rejected. A Norwegian freighter was refused entry after rescuing hundreds of Afghans in international waters. Not long after this, asylum seekers were accused of throwing children overboard.

It was also the year when two planes slammed into the World Trade Centre in New York. The seismic waves spread outward. In broad daylight on an inner Melbourne street, a woman had her hijab yanked off her head by a stranger. Such tensions erupted a few years later on the beach of Cronulla.

These events had nothing to do with me, but I absorbed them. I am brown-skinned. Though not a Muslim, I have an Arabic name. Most of all, I was not born here.

I was eligible for citizenship, and on some level desired it, but was equally certain that it would be no protection against somebody on the street who decides that I do not belong. The political language at the time did nothing to invalidate such views.

Thus, my initial vision of a sun-dappled, enlightened country was replaced by shadow. It darkened further in my readings about the Stolen Generations and the conditions in which many Indigenous Australians live. I encountered the urban poverty that lay hidden.

I grappled with these things as I made a life for myself. I got married, worked for youth organisations, gained a teaching qualification, and started teaching at a state school.

I was politically aware but detached, standing at a distance in the cold of disillusionment. When terrible things were done or uttered, I had the luxury of saying, 'That is not my prime minister. This is not my government.'

Yet it became impossible to remain detached for long. As a teacher, I became conscious of my role as a conduit between my students' suburb and the rest of the world. I wondered about their future. Then I became a mother and worried about my son's.

I attended rallies, convinced I also had a stake in the issue. I started caring about what we stood for as a nation and how we fit into the international community.

In other words, my perspective shifted from the outside looking in, to inside looking out. My sense of injustice shifted from a broad, humanist understanding to a parochial concern: Australia could be better than this. We should be better people.

In the end, I decided to apply for Australian citizenship as a matter of authenticity.

I could no longer pretend the shame I feel over the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is the shame of an outsider. I could no longer pretend that the anger I feel over the treatment of asylum seekers comes from an observer.

The moment I felt that the government was accountable to me on these matters, was the moment I realised that I needed to be able to vote. To have my voice amplified by the ballot box.

My journey to citizenship had to happen this way.

If I can comfortably refer to Australians in the international arena as 'our' athletes, actors, musicians and writers, then I must also take possession of everything else, the history and politics, the inequities. Once, I had the luxury of being able to say 'This is not my government.' But now it rings more truly for me to say 'This is my country. I need to help make it better.'

I take both the light and the dark, and walk forward in full.

Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based writer. Her application for citizenship has been approved and she is waiting to make the pledge. She tweets. 

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, September 11, citizenship, children overboard



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Existing comments

I am white, I was not born here, I have no Anglo-Saxon name. I have been in Australia for over half a century. I know how an immigrant feels. I only chose to become Australian after having been here nearly 20 years. Welcome in our weird mob Fatima!

Theo Verbeek | 09 January 2012  

Give me the child in the first 7 years and I will give you the man is a purported Jesuit maxim. Yet, it depicts the life long attachment to the initial environment in which an individual grows up and in this case the country of origin for a migrant. My self; a skilled migrant from Kenya totally identify with this your article. In particular, Kenya being a great sporting country just like Australia, I too experienced cognitive dissonance into whether I should cheer the competing Australian athletes or the Kenyan athletes. For example, I still remember the words of the sports commentator at the Telstra A series 5000m race in Melbourne 2007. This is what he had to say when the Australian tore ahead of the pack in the last 400m "..ooh can you believe it Craig Mottram of Australia is coming up very strong against the mighty Kenyans.." Craig Mottram went on to win the race. However, the beauty of it all came at the end of the race when the Kenya duo of athletes exchanged hugs and pleasantries with the Australian they have come to love so much that they have nicknamed him the big 'Mzungu" (white).

Hillan Nzioka | 09 January 2012  

To Theo Verbeek. Hundred of thousands of migrants came to Australia after world war two. First non English speaking migrants from Europe then from Asia, Africa and the Middle East.With the exception of a few, they turn out to be good citizens. Not just good citizens but loyal and proud Australians look at our NSW Governor, Professor Marie Bashir AC. CVD. a Lebanese descendant. We are not the reluctant Australian citizen. Australia is our home. We love Australia.

Ron Cini | 09 January 2012  

I know exactly how it feels to be a migrant, to shift from one culture to another, caught up in 2 separate worlds, trying to consolidate them, taking the best of both to become a responsible Australian citizen, trying to retain some, perhaps the best of the natural heritage and culture to pass on to our children while at the same time giving them some freedom to capture their Australian culture and identity, always hoping praying and wishing the very best for them and as you said, worriyng. It is our country, it is our government and we have the right and duty to help make it better.

Maria Prestinenzi | 09 January 2012  

How wonderful written! Thank you! This is from an immigrant who waited 38 years to apply to become an Australian citizen, only on the day that Rudd said: sorry

fransje | 09 January 2012  

For an immigrant to wait 38 years for Rudd to say sorry before taking up Australian citizenship, I am afraid you chose the wrong country to immigrate. Most loyal and proud Australian citizens want an election now to get rid of Rudd and Julia Gillard

Ron Cini | 10 January 2012  

Awesome introspection. I wondered if my parents felt this way when they came to America. I'm sure you speak for thousands of imigrants. Spread your story - there are many people who need to stand in your shoes so as to reduce their suspicions of "aliens". I shall share this. Thank you.

Kathleen Anderson | 15 January 2012  

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