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Multicultural communities show resilience through pandemic

1 December 20200 comments

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the resilience, agility and togetherness of Australia’s diverse communities, according to some of the nation’s multicultural leaders.

But it has also exposed latent racism, created rifts between some communities and governments and thrown up issues around communication and inclusiveness when it comes to multicultural Australia, the leaders say.

‘Unprecedented’ has been the word widely used to describe 2020, but for Lebanese born Australian journalist Jan Fran, ‘resilience’ is the word she will remember this year.

“I’ll look back and I will remember how great we were at banding together and wanting to find a solution to this issue,” Ms Fran said.

“The sheer resilience of Australians, and the resilience of families, and the resilience of people, to really work to get through this,” she said.

CEO of migrant and refugee settlement agency AMES Australia Catherine Scarth said while multicultural communities will look back on the pandemic with mixed feelings, their resilience and agility will stand out.

“Core communities just got on with things themselves, looked after each other and responded to the gaps very quickly,” Ms Scarth said.

“It’s that resilience and adaptability, as migrants respond to what’s going on and respond quickly,” she said.

Multicultural communities have been the target of unwanted attention during the pandemic. With spikes in racist attacks, derogatory comments, hostile relationships with China and a sudden lockdown of public housing, migrant communities have endured the pandemic in ways others have not.

A recent survey of over 3,000 people found 84.5 per cent of Asian Australians reported at least one instance of discrimination between January and October 2020.

Alice Pung, an award winning Asian Australian author, said the pandemic has prompted racism across the country.

“It’s really brought up this ugly blatant racism that we’ve always had,” Ms Pung said.

“Especially against the Chinese at this time, but also this sense of fear against the country of China which people feel like they are justified in having now because of this pandemic.”

Additionally Ms Pung said the targeting of multicultural communities through the media has been unpleasant.

“The media does affect me a bit, just because I sometimes get asked to talk about Asian Australian issues especially during the COVID period, and you feel like you have to defend your entire community,” she said.

“When you read the media reports it’s always, ‘all these people in the western suburbs were visiting family members and things like that.

“We love our families and we are used to extended families. We’ve been extra careful,” Ms Pung said.

Comedian Nazeem Hussain said gathering as a group is a big part of being in a multicultural community, so this year has been challenging.

“A big part of coming from a multicultural community is being able to meet at either a temple, or a mosque, or a church, or a local restaurant or bump into someone at the grocery store. We sort of have our spots,” he said.

“We’ve had to find ways to congregate online instead of at community centre,” Mr Hussain said.

Despite not being able to meet in person due to COVID restrictions, Mr Hussain said communities overcame the initial challenges through organising events, groups meetings and celebrations for cultural days online.

“I think in many ways, we’ve figured out a new way to stay connected,” he said.

Ms Scarth said the flexibility during the pandemic has been tremendous.

“Migrant communities and core communities adapted much more quickly, their businesses have survived and kept going.”

Moving forward Mr Hussain suspects that there won’t be a need for community meetings to be conducted face to face.

“I think attending or organising face to face meetings can take a really long time and can slow the progress of the community,” he said.

“Given that much of community and community building is done by volunteers it’s important to capitalise on momentum, goodwill and energy, and to strike while the iron is hot,” Mr Hussain said.

Dr Hass Dellal, head of the Australian Multicultural Foundation, said COVID has provided an opportunity for multicultural communities to further build on the social, economic and political capital through creating opportunities for communities to connect.

“It’s a great opportunity in terms of the accelerating and rebuilding areas of employment, or education, through inclusive communication strategies that develop trust flows between communities and government,” he said.

“Fostering increased participation in community life and developing a greater understanding of the immigrant experience and of the personal impact of COVID on our diverse communities will reinforce trust and [will] bind people together.”

Ms Scarth said COVID has allowed the multicultural sector to be far more versatile and has opened the door for refugees and migrants who may not have engaged with English classes. 

“Ordinarily they might not have been able to attend class because of work or looking after children,” she said.

“Because so many of the classes went online, they were able to study and improve their English at night after the kids go to bed.

“Hopefully they’re far more engaged,” Ms Scarth said.

Head of the Dandenong-based Southern Migrant Resource Centre Ramesh Kumar said that the pandemic would have long-lasting cascading effects for many nations around the world and within communities in Australia.

“It will take some developing countries more than 20 years to recover from this,’ Mr Kumar said.

“We have also seen increased isolation and mental health issues. The pandemic has disrupted our social system which is very much built on trust – but during the lockdown we saw mistrust on the rise,” he said.

“Some communities are more disadvantaged than others. Kids learning form home maybe didn’t have enough space or they didn’t have the digital resources they needed.

“I think the pandemic will have an effect on our multicultural communities. There has been a fracturing and quite a bit of hurt with some communities being perceived as to blame for COVID.

“Also I think people in multicultural communities feel let down by government and this may set back the cause of multicultural Australia,” Mr Kumar said.

But he said one of the positives to come out of the pandemic was pause for thought.

“Maybe the pandemic has given us time to reflect on how we treat each other and how we treat the environment,” Mr Kumar said.

“It may be a chance for us to reset out humanity and I think and hope people will behave differently after this. The experience has made a lot of us more patient and respectful and more tolerant and understanding,” he said.        

Reflecting on what 2020 has meant for multicultural communities, the year is like looking at a Da Vinci painting – full of chiaroscuro.

For Ms Pung, the opportunity to spend to spend time with family filled her with gratitude.

“I would just be so grateful I got a chance to, to spend this time with my parents as an adult because I hadn’t lived at home since I was 22,” she said.

In addition Ms Pung will remember when the Premier announced a mandate on mask wearing.

“He instigated mask wearing which previously was seen as like an Asian thing.”

“Asians are paranoid about disease, or even Asians are bringing the disease in here, that’s why they wear masks, and now everyone’s wearing them.

“So that’s one of the enduring images, of Victorians all wearing masks. It’s no longer a race issue anymore,” Ms Pung said.

For Mr Hussain, the opportunity to appreciate the small things in life and the experience of seeing things reopen again will stay with him beyond 2020.

“I will remember how exciting it felt to even meet a single friend out in a park just for a social reason or exercising,” he said.

“How much we’ve had to appreciate very small things.

“I think you just sort of grow used to just taking special places for granted like places of worship and community centres,” Mr Hussain said.

For Ms Fran, the moment her husband came home with an extra freezer will stick in her mind.

“I will never forget the freezer that I found in my home office that my husband had bought just in case the apocalypse happened and we needed to eat frozen food,” she said.

“Even if I want to forget it I can’t because it’s staring me right in the face every day.”

Although for both Ms Fran and Mr Hussain not all memories of the pandemic are positive.

The abiding image of the Public Housing flats being lockdown stands out as a reflection of the endurance Melbourne’s multicultural communities showed during the pandemic. 

“The abiding image for me sadly is when police stormed the public housing towers in Victoria, at the height of the second wave,” Ms Fran said.

“There’s a lot of people in those towers who are from multicultural communities and don’t speak English as a first language.

“And I think the way that we saw the police go into those towers, in my view, was completely inappropriate and could have and should have been handled better,” she said.

Mr Hussain said multicultural communities have a historic relationship with police that is fraught with friction.

“There was little communication and no real clear explanation of what was going on,” he said.

“It felt discriminatory because some suburbs in more affluent areas in Melbourne weren’t locked down in the same way, despite the clusters be just as problematic or as risky.

“I think people are not going to forget that and how quick and easy it was for the state to implement this fairly strict measure against people who lived these Housing Commission flats, who were largely from multicultural communities.

“I think that’s going to be a scar that may never heal,” Mr Hussain said.

Ms Scarth said the notion that core communities weren’t doing the right thing was to some extent incorrect.

“I think there’ll be a sense that they were let down by governments, that the complexity of messages and the different way in which people needed to receive information wasn’t well understood by government,” she said.

“And I think there’ll be a sense that they were let down,” Ms Scarth said.

Mr Hussain said the community response to the lockdown of the towers was difficult to describe.

“Seeing on the one hand, the over policing and the unfair way that they were treated by the government and police was one image that I think people won’t forget,” he said.

“But it was on the other side of that, just seeing that outpouring of generosity from all Australians, whether they were white or not, [was] more overwhelming.

“Within 24 hours of there being a call for help from residents… the community centre was just packed to the brim with people and donated goods,” Mr Hussain said.

Dr Dellal echoes a similar sentiment about multicultural communities banding together during the pandemic.

“I saw firsthand strength and people’s generosity coming forward all the time. I suppose this increased the sense of belonging and a sense of who we are,” he said.

“In situations like this vulnerable people are exposed more when they are vulnerable during crisis. But at the same time we were able to see lots of bridge building.

“I think there was a sense of great community and good community spirit,” he said.

Dr Dellal said in the Hume region the local community put food parcels together and delivered them to the diverse community within the north.

“I think that created a sense of camaraderie, a sense of support and understanding,” he said.

“There was also unity, simply because of a crisis and due to adversity, people did come together to support each other and support their neighbours when they were in need.”

Mr Hussain said he will remember how multicultural communities came together in this time of crisis.

“We’re also going to remember how easily it was for us to come together, to find goodwill, and to just do charitable things without us without being asked to,” he said.

“I think through this sort of adversity, you see the best in communities.

“We have come out of it stronger, not just as multicultural communities but as society at large,” he said.

By Millie Spencer