In the late 1970s when refugees were escaping oppression, violence and wars in Asia, Ma Cho, a Chinese Sea Goddess, had her hands full protecting their lives in the rough seas. Many of the refugees turned up in Cabramatta, already a vibrant and multicultural place, and would end up providing the suburb with its well-known South East Asian character.
Strolling through the streets of Cabramatta and listening to local voices, a lot of questions formed in my mind: what has changed during the last forty years? What particular challenges did migrants face? How did they experience the balancing act between two cultures? Is it a question of either/ or? As preserving cultural practices and fitting into a new environment seems like a pretty challenging process to me, I wondered, what does it need to ‘feel at home and included’ in a new environment?
But let`s start with some general facts we heard from Marilyn at the Whitlam Library in Canley Vale. With more than seventy percent of its residents born overseas, Cabramatta is currently home to 109 nationalities. Furthermore, the suburb in south-western Sydney, governed by the Fairfield City Council has the largest Vietnamese community in Australia. Presumably this richness and diversity is what makes Cabramatta such a unique place. To get to know more about this multicultural suburb and its people we met a Cambodian migrant, Jenny,, who told us about her journey to Australia. Jenny is a vivacious woman with a positive attitude towards life, who shared her tough life story without giving you the impression she feels victimised. In the 1970s she escaped the Pol Pot Communist Regime in Cambodia, which in her opinion left the country in ruins. Fleeing in a refugee boat, Jenny was rescued by the UN and found herself in one of the migrant hostels in Sydney. With the benefit of the English skills Jenny had learnt during her youth, Jenny says she was ‘selected’ for a role assisting a UNHCR official as a translator (but as one of the GLP staff, who had heard Jenny`s story several times, told me it seems more likely that Jenny played a much more active part in getting this job). Shortly after arriving in Australia in September 1981, Jenny applied for a job and got it straight away. She was undeterred by the fact that the job required a drivers licence despite having never driven a vehicle. Overcoming this challenge, nowadays Jenny is running her own very successful small cosmetic business, which is located in Cabramatta and well-known to the community.
After Jenny`s impressive story I was pretty convinced that all you need to master life is courage, determination and strong self-belief, along with a positive attitude. Even though I am sure it is not as simple as it sounds, perhaps it`s this hope and belief that you will do better, which consistently opens new perspectives and possibilities. Jenny did not resign herself to fate, but rather grabbed every opportunity to achieve the best outcome. Indeed, Jenny experienced rejection and racism, but in keeping with Jenny’s own pragmatic motto “if people don`t like you, stay away from them!”, she found her own way to respond to negative experiences and situations. It´s this idea of individual choice mixed with determination that makes the difference between struggling and contentment – at least in terms of individual life choices in our control. Seizing this idea, I remember a sentence she repeated several times: “Please study hard!”.
*By Alexa Briel
Alexa is an exchange student studying Educational Science in Vienna. Alexa is very interested in working with refugees and will pursue these interests when she returns to Vienna.
The Global Leadership Program Cultural Days are an opportunity to explore the multicultural hubs of Sydney that exist on our doorstep. On Monday 18th May the GLP is heading to Auburn with students. Check out our Twitter @GLP_MQ for live tweets throughout the day!