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Multiculturalism at work in the suburbs

6:37 pm | Blog |

It was a beautiful day for a wedding. Smiling, happy guests gathered on a Saturday evening at a local function center in a Sydney suburb to share in the joy of a young couple’s commitment to each other. Some had travelled a short distance, others across the State and the globe. It is the sort of event that is repeated every week across Australia. Unremarkable, simple, joyous.

The bride and groom were born in Australia – part of the second generation. The bride’s mother had migrated to Australia with her parents and brother in the early 1970’s, shortly after the dismantling of the White Australia Policy. Many of her aunts and uncles also settled in Australia, to give their children an easier life, a good education and better opportunities.

Many other nationalities were also represented at the wedding– Irish, Greek and Italian amongst others. Although their stories differ, they all share a common lineage- at one time they or their parents were also immigrants. The pattern is a familiar one.

The decision to leave one’s home country is often heart wrenching. It is borne out of a need to escape conflict, persecution, poverty or a lack of opportunity. The first generation arrive with little or no money. They find whatever work they can. The mother typically takes on full time responsibilities for the young children. For those who find work it is often in low paid jobs. In their home countries some held senior and prestigious positions that they could not hope to secure here. Like engineers who take on manual jobs in Australia or doctors who work in pathology. It is both a source of frustration and embarrassment for cultures often defined by their position in society. But they do it willingly and lovingly for their children even though for most it is unfulfilling. Their reward is their children’s success.

Immigrants seek out basic accommodation on the outskirts of the city where rent is cheap. They make the long commute to work by public transport. They rarely improve their lives but do everything to ensure their children receive the best education they can afford, even if it means working a second or third job in a factory or driving a cab.

They instill in their children such a hunger to succeed that failure is not simply an opportunity missed but a life lost. If they can afford it, they enroll their children in after school and weekend classes to improve their chances of success. The children do not need to be told what is expected of them – they know it all too well. It is not surprising that children from immigrant parents often feature in the highest rankings at school and university. For them it is not simply an education – it is pay back for their parent’s sacrifices and failure is a lost inheritance.

Although there are exceptions, the plan is usually successful.

Almost everyone at the wedding was working, raising families or running their own business – dispelling the view of some, that immigrants simply seek welfare. The room was filled with professionals, tradespeople, people holding public office, volunteer coaches at the local school and football followers with a passion for the game every bit as strong as other Australians. In their individual way each is making a valuable contribution to Australia’s success and along the way fostering the next generation of bright and committed Australians.

What’s more if you asked any of them whether they felt they were Australian – it would be a resounding ‘yes’.

When we discuss immigration or multiculturalism it is too easy to focus only on the challenges or to overly intellectualize so we lose sight of the tangible evidence all around us of its success. What is more the payoff in economic and social terms is considerable and swift – usually within one or two generations as is the case with the bride and her mother.

When the father of the groom toasted the happy couple he told the story of how he would pick up his son from the train station and see him in intense conversation with a girl he had observed many times before. What wonderful people they both were and how much they were in love. Her family background did not seem to bother him or anyone else for that matter. That is when you know multiculturalism works.