Uplifting multi-ethnic aspects of settlement programs

The (migrant hostel) catering company, a government agency initially, did a great job, meeting ethnic food preferences as much as possible. New community groups would be asked to suggest appropriate dishes from their culture, and to show the chefs how to prepare them. The cross-cultural benefits of living together, trying out one another’s food, the children playing together, attending church together and sharing a recreation facility, I believe, helped substantially in the settlement process.

… … When the Chileans arrived, where were they to be placed? We were told that they were miners. So we allocated them to hostels in Brisbane and Perth, the closest places to the mines in Australia. Fortunately, there were Spanish-speaking communities in these cities, who had been alerted to our need for their support. The first arrivals were, however, white-collar people who had worked in mining offices. When the mine workers finally arrived, however, the country received a bonus – they were multi-skilled tradesmen.

When we were told that we were to receive some Baha’is, we sought support from Aussie Baha’is … By agreement, we allocated them to a hostel I will not name – the management rushed off and purchased (with the best of intentions) halal meat, and arranged for an Imam to greet them. The next day I received an embarrassed phone call – what were they to do with the meat? Eat it, I said, it’s not contaminated. More cross-cultural sensitisation. What did they do with the Imam, I wondered.

The most wonderful aspect of migrant hostels was the sight of children of such a wide range of origins, colour, and language groups, playing together, and the loving care they received from untrained child-care workers. In the bigger hostels, there might be as many as four of the women, offering up to six languages. The children did not care about language or ethnicity.

The youngest children would be seen playing in little groups, communicating by eye contact, touch, and a few indecipherable sounds. Absolutely fantastic. The older ones talked to one another in a variety of languages which they all seemed to understand.

Even better, their carers really cared for the children. Their love was palpable. Most were migrants. While some of my colleagues burbled about needing to employ professionally qualified workers, others of us preferred to judge competence by the love displayed. These children, to me, represented the future of Australia. I used to take people into the centres to see what I was raving about, and they agreed with me.

Recreation facilities in the centres were reasonable. The playgrounds available attracted a multi-ethnic soccer playing group. There was table tennis, TV, books, sewing rooms, meeting rooms (especially for church services). However, I was saddened during one visit to a hostel to find that, while the World Cup soccer competition was on, the TV was locked up. As the office was open only at nine, and the key kept there, no soccer was available to this multi-ethnic group. Almost everyone in the hostel, including the workers, was soccer-mad except the senior management of Anglo-Celts. … I arranged through the ethnic welfare workers for a committee of residents to be entrusted with the key to their recreation room.

… Without recreation facilities, with or without professional input, life in hostels would be dreary. In one centre, I was able to negotiate for a professional recreation service to be provided on contract.

Another great benefit for residents at a hostel was the availability of classes in the English language. … Of course, learning English involved learning to write letters of complaint, sponsoring relatives, and generally adapting to life in Australia.

While we were all being busy managing a large network of hostels, the cost-cutting head of agency (he was still around) asked what the ‘Poms’ (British migrants) were doing in the hostels. He wanted them out … … I said that we would then have to exclude all migrants, irrespective of source. That’s why, all of a sudden, migrants were denied the most essential assistance on arrival – transit accommodation.

(These extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out’ show the positive, adaptive, inter-community relations aspects of on-arrival settlement programs centred on migrant hostels. Imagine refugees from three continents (East Asian, East European, and South American), with no shared language, relating to one another, especially on the soccer field, and the sewing and craft rooms.

Getting to know people of other ethnicities and cultures through hostel life would surely lead to a tolerant Australian society more quickly. The little children would not, of course, see any differences between themselves. That was also my experience through school in a multi-ethnic nation-in-the-making.)