My parents migrated to Australia from India in 1992, a year before I was born. Our family identifies as Sikh, a minority religion in India that was founded in the 15th century, and is based on the spiritual teachings of Guru Nanak. By no means does this make me special. By 2013, Australia became home to 369,000 ‘Indian Australians’, and we now form 2.13% of the Australian population. Originating from the farming state of Punjab, Sikh men first became known for filling the demand for labour on Australian cane fields and as shepherds on sheep stations. 900 Sikh regiments fought alongside Australian soldiers in World War Two.
Indian Australians, and Sikh Australians are not a new part of Australian society.
My cultural heritage is important to me. I speak Hindi, I celebrate Diwali, I can make aloo gobi and (relatively) round roti’s like Jess in ‘Bend it like Beckham’, and my dad wears a turban like hers too. There is permanently a CD of Bollywood music in my car. When I land in Delhi airport to visit my extended family, it feels familiar, like home. But, I was born in Dandenong, English was my first language, I drink beer, I love beef, I love being outdoors and going to the beach, I listen to Triple J – I have even used the phrase “Fucking Oath Cunt” on occasion. When I land in Sydney airport after a trip overseas, I feel an even stronger sense of familiarity and relief.
Most of my closest friends are white, and many of them would not know that I experience racism on a regular basis. Most of the time I brush it off, “really, it’s not a big deal, I’m not easily offended”. Most of it IS harmless, I have amazing friends who show a genuine interest in my cultural heritage and whom I love sharing it with. But why is it that in as early as primary school I realised that I would make more friends if I ditched my Indian accent? That when I went on my first high school camp, I got locked in a portaloo and got called a ‘curry puff’? Or that a few years later at civic pool I got told to “go back to my own country”?
But what does this have to do with refugees?
Well, I believe that if you think that I deserve a fair go in Australia, then you should care about refugees too.
There seems to exist this dichotomy between people’s perceptions of migrants and refugees. A skilled migrant comes to Australia legitimately and contributes to the economy, and a poor refugee comes to Australia to feed off the welfare system. It’s simply not true. The only common difference between the two is that one comes on an assessment of their humanitarian grounds, and once on an assessment of their skills. Doctors, lawyers and engineers are amongst the hundreds of thousands who flee conflict in Iraq and Syria, and many of the migrants who drive you home in a cab after a night out in civic have come to Australia on skilled or student visas. I believe that every migrant and refugee contributes something valuable to our multicultural society.
My parents came to Australia as skilled migrants, but lived in a one bedroom flat in Dandenong for three years using cardboard boxes as bedside tables. Between them, they have contributed more than 40 years of their lives to the Australian Public Service, were selected for postings overseas, made smart financial decisions, and worked hard to make sacrifices so that my sister and I could enjoy lives they came to Australia looking for. Personally, I have experience volunteering with Indigenous communities on the South Coast, with victims of domestic violence in Canberra, working on community and youth engagement, all to make Australia a better place. I volunteer with the Australian Red Cross, because that is the nationality that I identify with.
When people talk about the need for social integration of refugees, they don’t know that as migrants, my parents faced the same cultural challenges. My mum watched neighbours every night to try and understand Australian culture. When she was invited to her first potluck dinner, she actually ‘brought a plate’ because she thought they were short. When she was sitting at a train station and got asked ‘How you going?’ she replied “…By train”.
My grandparents fled their home of Punjab during the bloody partition between India and Pakistan in the 1960’s. But I don’t even have to go that far back to find that my family has experienced persecution, as it is understood under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Statutory Definition. In the 1980’s there was mass political persecution of Sikhs in New Delhi. Both my parents saw, first hand, members of their community be looted, set on fire, raped and killed in front of them.
My parents could have come to Australia as refugees. Not because they were poor, or uneducated, but because they had the right to flee persecution. They were chosen to come to Australia based on their merit as skilled migrants. Regardless of how they arrived in Australia, they saw a beautiful country where everybody was given the opportunity to succeed and where people’s rights and dignity was protected. Regardless of how they would have arrived in Australia, they worked hard to build themselves a life and to give back to the country we call home, and my sister and I do the same. So next time you direct a harmless joke at somebody for being a ‘curry puff’ or for wearing a turban, you should think of what you are actually saying – “You’re not like us” and “You don’t belong here” – because these statements, are not just hurtful, but are in fact, wrong.