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Young Somalis are Australians too

  • 12 August 2009

In recent days the spokesmen for the Melbourne Somali community have been getting a work out. The alleged involvement of some young Somali men in a terror plot has placed them repeatedly in front of cameras, to explain the profound challenges their young people are facing every day.

Thus, on the ABC's Stateline, one community leader described the atmosphere at the Ministry of Housing flats in the inner west suburb of Flemington where many of Melbourne's most recently arrived Somalis live: 'If you go to most young Africans, they're unemployed. Some of them will actually sit down and tell you "I have no future in this country."'

These are words that should galvanise us: 'I have no future in this country.' Early this year I heard almost exactly the same confession from a young Somali girl. I was tutoring her, as one of a raft of volunteers involved in an after-school tutoring scheme that was run by the Somali community and sponsored by Jesuit Social Services.

 This teenage girl told me how she hated school because she felt dumb and people told her she was dumb. She said she did not know what was going to happen to her. I found this confession painful. My time at school and now at university has oriented me towards promise, pointed me to the possibilities that lie ahead. Perhaps I had assumed that a refugee arriving in a new country, a safe haven, would automatically feel a sense of promise too. But remarks like those of the young Somali woman, demonstrate long before alleged terror plots come into play, that we make this assumption far too easily. The Somalis in Melbourne now, like other African refugees, have come to Australia with singular and vivid experiences that often include war and trauma, poor health and limited access to education. Even considered by themselves, these are isolating factors. But in Flemington isolation and separation seem structured into the Somali community, if only through their dwelling place. The high rise apartment blocks loom grey and cold, removed from the rest of the suburb by car parks and a freeway. In their distinctiveness, they represent the first difficulty encountered by Somali young people. if we are honest with ourselves, we shall acknowledge that those Ministry of Housing towers in themselves symbolise living 'outside' mainstream norms