Denise Ryan May 16, 2012
Fear is stopping many from welcoming our city's newest migrants.
WALKING down a dimly lit street at night recently, I became increasingly anxious as a group of men approached. Only once they were metres away did I realise that it was my 20-year-old son and his friends, a group of young men who wouldn't harm a soul.
Terry Bracks, wife of the former premier and chairwoman of a scholarship program for disadvantaged youth, has had a similar experience with her young adult son. It's not unusual for women particularly to feel somewhat vulnerable when confronted by groups of much taller males.
Many people report to Victoria Police community liaison officers and youth workers that they feel intimidated by groups of young African Australian men waiting around public places. Those workers try to explain that these youth live in crowded commission flats or rental properties and so have nowhere to meet friends.
A lack of familiarity with young Africans, and the knowledge that some do commit crime, has made many people hesitate before greeting, let alone welcoming, our latest wave of migrants.
Yet the refugees and migrants that I have come to know share the same humour, interests and aspirations as every other young adult. They just don't get the same opportunities because of community reticence and a lack of contacts to help them find a part-time job or enrol in a course.
If you ask experts such as Bernie Geary, the child safety commissioner, or Brendan Murray, the head of Parkville College (the former youth justice facility), they will tell you that some young Africans will continue to become marginalised until we, as a community, step forward and give them more help to stay in school.
More funding for English as a Second Language programs would be beneficial, but there is a cheaper solution. Across Melbourne, schools and welfare agencies urgently need volunteers for homework and other programs that help keep young Africans in education.
While most build a successful life after a year attending an English language school, some young people quickly drop out from mainstream high schools. Often this is because they might be in year 10 with a grade 3 literacy level, a situation that is difficult for the teacher and demoralising for the student. Such students need intensive help.
Ethiopian Australian university student Daniel Haile-Michael volunteers in a homework program for 45 primary and secondary students at the Flemington commission towers. Haile-Michael wishes this excellent program, one of many run by Jesuit Social Services, had been available when he was growing up in the tower blocks. Instead he had drug dealers operating at the base of the buildings, leading some of his friends to addiction and prison. This program needs more volunteers.
Bracks, chairwoman of Western Chances, which helps disadvantaged youth undertake tertiary study, needs at least 12 companies to offer work experience, companies such as Jayco, which with Mission Australia places young Sudanese in Dandenong into jobs.
Also in Dandenong, there is an urgent need for volunteers to assist with homework clubs and other programs. But Anne Marmion of the Smith Family says it's difficult to find volunteers as they don't think they will be safe. Those who do so make life-changing friendships, and quickly realise why schools such as Dandenong High School have won so many awards.
The Centre for Multicultural Youth is seeking 200 volunteers to help migrants studying at an English language school in their first year in Melbourne. This Ucan2 program is preventive, and if more people signed up, there might be less need for CMY's other programs for seriously disengaged young Africans, many of whom are addicted to alcohol or drugs.
Journalists can mentor young Africans as part of a Melbourne University journalism program. The university's African Think Tank is also seeking people to help with its leadership program.
With so many baby boomers reducing their working hours (not always by choice) in coming years, many Melburnians could fill the gap. And to their own benefit.
Professor Martin Seligman, an international researcher on resilience and happiness who has been training Melbourne teachers recently, says helping others provides a longer-lasting sense of wellbeing than personal gratification. It simply requires being brave enough to step out of the comfort zone and volunteer in these vibrant, multicultural suburbs.
Holocaust survivor Halina Wagowska, 82, the Melbourne author of a new book, The Testimony, is not daunted by groups of lanky African or Anglo youth. She says she set up a house for homeless youths in Melbourne's eastern suburbs in her 70s, and with friends founded a trust that has raised almost $1 million to keep Aboriginal youth in education, because she believes we each have a responsibility to do more than look after our own backyard.
I believe this dynamic 82-year-old has much to teach us. Having survived Auschwitz and Stutthof concentration camps, she also has a message for young people of any nationality who feel disenfranchised: don't remain a victim.
Denise Ryan is a senior education writer.
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