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Young Somalis are Australians too


Somalis in courtIn 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 of success and inclusion. Fnding themselves concentrated in these flat complexes, Somali immigrants can come to understand themselves as lesser citizens, even as 'unsuccessful' families.

Adults also face subsequent difficulties: language impediments, unemployment, financial difficulties and thwarted hopes. All these affect integration. When the children go to school, with poor English and faltering confidence, it can be hard to make friends. Among school mates, young people from the flats experience all kinds of pressures, to be cool and 'western' and all the rest. At home, a completely different set of expectations and parameters exist. No matter where they are, they are not quite comfortable. And so, amongst both parents and younger people, a sense of separation can become pervasive.

The commentary of recent days calls to mind a conversation at 'Flemington Tutoring' not long after Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. The group at my table, teenage girls and boys who had either been born in Australia or arrived at a young age, got talking about their backgrounds. In the course of things I asked a few questions: 'So you're Australian citizens, right, but how do you see yourselves? Do you think of yourselves as Australians?'

'Nah man, of course not, we're Somali!'

'OK, you know Barack Obama?'

'Yeah I love him, he's sooo cool, his father was a Muslim, Hussein.'

'Yeah right. Well Barack Obama's dad was Kenyan but he was growing up in America: what do you think he thought of his nationality?'

'He would've thought he was American I reckon.'

'Why? Wasn't he similar to you?'

'Nah, cause in America it's cool, like you can be black, homey you know, but here it's not like that, we're Somali.'

Conversations like this reveal something very important: that for some Somali young people in our community, it is difficult to locate an overriding, inclusive identity that fits. Whereas in America the African American story is a constituent part of the American identity, in a Somali enclave in inner Melbourne the possibility of an African-Australian identity is less clear. These young people at this very moment are working out such an identity. It is so important that it not be formed in terms of 'threat.'

Here is a challenge for all of us. A stronger sense of communal responsibility needs to be rediscovered, a recognition that if there is a problem, then we all own it, not just the figures of authority and the bureaucrats who devise 'policy solutions.' The challenge to each citizen is to avoid mentally shifting responsibility for 'integration' on to government programs or indeed on to the Somali community themselves. The challenge is to actually enact what Australia's refugee program implies: real hospitality. That means the simple act of individuals taking an interest, and being open to friendship and to share a common Australian life.

Ben ColeridgeIn 2007 Ben Coleridge worked as a language assistant in Russia. He spent September 2008 in Israel and Palestine and is currently studying Arts at the University of Melbourne.


Topic tags: Somali refugees, integration, immigration, Melbourne, Muslim



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Existing comments

Yeah right it's always the government's fault isn't it? and yeah right they are australians and plan to kill other australians. yeah right.
Until recently I would have agreed with the writer, now I would suggest that bringing in refugees from war torn areas simply means transferring war mentality and site. These Somalians who planned the terrorist acts, they had love for their new country didn't they? yeah right. They have a love for their australian countrymen haven't they? yeah right.
It's interesting they seem educated enough to plan to cripple Australian defence (by their act of attack against the army base). Yeah right great love for their country of adoption.

Hannah | 12 August 2009  

As usual, Ben's essay is thoughtful and considered, a wake-up call to us as Australians about the responsibility each of us has. The problems of a refugee or asylum seeker don't stop once he or she is accepted into the country.

The Flemington tutoring group does very valuable work, both in welcoming the stranger and in educating Australian youth in how each of us can make a difference. Even the little interactions we have in the shopping centre, the openness of a smile to a stranger, can begin to break down barriers.

But coming at the same time as yesterday's statistics on the postcodes of the majority of those who create disturbances in the CBD, the recent arrests of terror suspects from the Western suburbs should alert us to the ghetto that current policies are helping to create. Disadvantage and lack of opportunity in Melbourne's Western suburbs is not new, and the housing commission flats typify this.

Yes, we as individuals must play our part, but we elect governments to provide leadership. More must be done to break down the situation of disadvantage, of limited opportunity, of poverty and alienation in the western suburbs.

Jo | 12 August 2009  

Great piece Ben...

Peter | 12 August 2009  

To "Jo" Its always we must do more isn't it?
Pathetic mentality and its this pathetic mentality which leads to great disasters.

Hannah Smith | 12 August 2009  

I understand the intent and sympathies of this essay but it does read like an almost pythonesque 'bleeding-heart liberal' piece. It is a bit rich to blame the society that has been willing to accept these particular young men as refugees and provide them with education, housing, heath services and security ("apart from that what else have the Romans done for us") and in return: they plot to commit terrorist acts against Australia.

In the end, people must take responsibility for their own actions and integration is a two-way street - rejecting fundamentalist ideology and taking up the challenge of education and employment would be a good start.

I have worked with African refugees and defended their position against many unfair criticisms (remember minister Andrews) but there are some actions that remain indefensible.These fools have made life very much harder for the vast majority of African refugees who have made great efforts to become part of multi-cultural Australian society.

chris | 12 August 2009  

We are lobbied and prompted to fear 'the other'. And that is quite apart from our own intrinsic failings. To hear that these kids construct themselves as 'the other' too is awful and sad. We all do what we can but you are doing far more than me - so thank you for good words and deeds.

francis | 12 August 2009  

Thanks Ben, great article.

cronos | 12 August 2009  

Well written Ben.

Poverty & disadvantage are the root of most terrorist acts. What do these unlucky young people have to lose in this lucky country,if they feel they have no real future here & no sense of belonging!While condemning their action,these troubled young people must be helped to feel at home here. Our hidden racism is obviously tangible to them. Let us be willing to welcome the stranger,for our ancestors were all strangers once. Let's not punish all Africans because a few run amuck.

Margaret | 12 August 2009  

In other words, "A fair go!"

michael skennar | 12 August 2009  

Thanks, Ben. Well-written and thought -provoking. I didn't read your article as though you were casting blame. Keep writing!

Maryrose | 12 August 2009  

Those 'Australians' who want to tar all the Somalian refugees with the same 'terrorist' brush should then take responsibility for self-confessed 'Australian' terrorist Shane Kent.

This subject is complex and its not easy to cover in 500 words but I support Ben's sentiment. I taught at a school where we had one Somali student and she was also the only black student in the whole school. She had an introverted personality and hated being noticed. Its a challenge but I do hope that, in time, we have many identifying as Somali-Australians.

Carol | 12 August 2009  

Thanks for a well-written piece Ben. As a young Somali-Australian I sympathize with your sentiments. I do understand how hard, and frustrating it can be, at times, to break down barriers.

Having lived in Melbourne some 10yrs ago, those difficulties you’re referring to are all too familiar, I can appreciate how challenging it would be to overcome them.
I do tutoring myself and sometimes I wonder if these kids consider themselves as Australians.

I was hoping that some “reverse” brain drain, from Australia, would help bring Somalia back from the chaos but I guess we have a challenge here in Australia.

Nasser Nour | 12 August 2009  

I have seen a similar situation in Braybrook where many Somalis are domiciled. Many of these young people have told me that they feel unwanted, marginalized and excluded from mainstream society. Some older Anglo-Australians in Braybrook speak down to these people and treat them as if they're second class citizens.
I hope that we all embrace inclusion and not exclusion and welcome Somalis or any other new arrivals as part of mainstream Australian society. We are supposedly a multicultural society where we pride ourselves on diversity and empathy for all ethnic groups domiciled in Australia.

Personally I prefer the term empathy than tolerant or tolerance.

Terry Steve | 13 August 2009  

Perhaps we need to look at a better model of settlement of new arrivals?The city'ghetto'model is depressing....community settlement works so much better,where newcomers are welcomed and given ongoing settlement assistance by an experienced support group,and feel encouraged and included in their new community.

Sue Hallam,Sanctuary Refugee Foundation | 13 August 2009  

Integration and assimilation are complex issues. It takes guts and determination for any migrant to do the above Ben, I suggest you read the International bestseller INFIDEL, an autobiography written by AYAAN HIRSI ALI, my life.

Then re-visit your article. We all need good mentors to set us on the correct path, but in this case there is much Historical and Cultural division to learn about. This book certainly speaks about all of this.

betty Kosanovic. de Vries. | 15 August 2009  

I think this article tries its best to empathise and understand the Somali situation in Australia. This is obviously the way forward, because with a little understanding and acceptance people would realise that we are not at all that different.

I think the next step is to look forward and find ways to bridge the gaps and differences. Perhaps this will be achieved if people are objective and try to see others as individuals rather than stereotypical views perpetuated by a few bad eggs.

I'm a Somali from the UK

Abdul | 23 August 2009  

A very thoughtful and thought provoking statement. We have a long way to go to get the message to our long time residents. A smile and a quick word is not hard.

michael skennar | 03 July 2010  

Why does the West feel it owes these people something? Wealthy Asian countries don't take in these people, not a single one, for very good reasons. The West suffers for being too soft.

Tony Tan | 26 October 2013  

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