Tag Archives: Immigration

Not Welcome

In my last post I wrote about Australia’s Welcome Wall, on which the names of everyone who has ever immigrated to Australia are inscribed.

There’s also a very mean side to Australia’s immigration policies, historical and present.  In the Maritime Museum there was a section about the White Australia program that handed out money to people—white people—from Britain to incentivize them to “settle” and “civilize” Australia.  It was specifically meant to exclude “hoards” of invading Asians, many of whom had been brought in as indentured laborers and then had the nerve to move to cities once their servitude in the outback was complete.

This program only ended in 1973.

Nowadays, Australia, like most countries, has a points-based system for immigration.  If you speak English and are a mining engineer or some other valued professional, you’re in!

If you’re a refugee, you are detained on Pacific islands like Nauru, an island so remote it obviously negates the need to build a wall.

One of my favorite news stories of late is of a Kurdish-Iranian journalist, Behrouz Boochani, who won the top prize at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for his book No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison.  Boochani has been detained on Manus, another Pacific island, since 2013.  He wrote the book on his cell phone and sent it in snippets to a translator via Whatsapp.

I’ve been thinking a lot about immigrants and refugees.  The issues are in the news a lot because of Donald Trump’s push to build a wall between the US and Mexico.  But I’ve also been hearing first-hand stories from immigrants that make me lose sleep at night.  I’ll relate three of them here.

One: A fellow employee and I were eating lunch in the break room at the YMCA.  I said his name—Vicente—and told him my son’s name was Vincent.  He stared at me incredulously and replied, “I’ve been in this country 18 years and no one has ever pronounced my name right.” Vicente told me he lived 45 minutes away from work. He left his apartment at 5:15am to get to his job as a custodian.  He was worried whether his car would start when he went outside after his shift because it was so cold and he thought he needed a new battery but he couldn’t afford it right now.

I asked if he liked his job and working at the Y.  He said yes, that in eight years there he had only had one bad experience.  He had been mopping the floor in the men’s locker room when a member screamed at him, “You got my socks wet!  I paid $60 for these socks—they’re high tech!

What an asshole. Vicente had responded that he was just doing his job.  Sort of to his credit, the man returned later and apologized.

Two: Vince works at a country club and his Mexican coworker, Angel, holds the same position as he does but has been there 10 years, as opposed to Vince’s two.  Vince noticed right away that when managers came in every morning, they greeted him (Vince) enthusiastically and made small talk but ignored Angel. Vince has brought it to the attention of HR several times but nothing has changed.

“The saddest part is,” said Vince, “I don’t think they’re dissing Angel.  I think they literally don’t see him—as a human being—he’s invisible.”

Three: At the Y again, one of my young coworkers showed a video on her phone of her car going up in flames.

“Someone doused it with gasoline, threw the gas can underneath, and set it on fire,” she explained. The fireball soared 25 feet into the air.

“But why!?” my other coworker and I were horrified.

“We don’t know,” she said carefully.  “There was this neighbor who was giving us dirty looks … my husband is white ….”

She is of Vietnamese ancestry. Could that be it—the neighbor wasn’t happy with a mixed-race couple?

“The police were useless.  We’d just had the baby, and we were so scared, so we moved out of our new house and we’re living with Matt’s parents.”

My.  God.

What are people so afraid of?

Welcome

I haven’t had time to blog much because I’ve had proposal deadlines galore.  As I wrote a while back, I left my full-time job but am still churning out funding proposals as a contractor.

As I write this, I am at my aunt’s house in small town Wisconsin, where it is snowing—again.  I just read 10 case studies of clients who had been tortured, which is always a sobering and gratitude-inducing experience.  I just submitted a proposal to the United Nations, and am emailing with colleagues in Addis Ababa, Johannesburg, Amman, and exotic south Minneapolis.  As someone who is old enough to remember when faxes and satellite phones were state-of-the-art technology, this is a marvel to me.

Back to Sydney.  I showed up at Auntie Margaret’s apartment to meet Heidi and spend two days with her before returning to reality.  Auntie Margaret was spending the two nights with her sister Jan, and had left a bottle of wine for us and a hand-written note for me in that spidery handwriting that I know mine will resemble one day.

She wrote how happy she was to have met me, if even briefly, and how she hoped I had enjoyed Australia and would return.  I hope so, too.

Heidi and I watched the news; Prince Harry made a good speech to open the Invictus Games.  We could actually see the games in the distance, across the harbor, and I think we had the best view of the fireworks of anyone watching that night.

“He’s turned out okay, hasn’t he?” remarked Heidi.

“Yes, after a few wasted years—literally,” I replied.

It was nice to sleep in Auntie Margaret’s bed, where I slept my first two nights in Australia.  It felt comforting, almost like I was at my own aunt’s house.

Heidi and I got a late start the next day.  Around noon, we took the ferry across the bay to good old Luna Park, which as you may recall looks like this:

By now, Luna felt familiar since I had stopped there a dozen times going from one place to another on the commuter ferry.  This was the first time I actually walked through it, and I was excited to see that one of its attractions was an outdoor Olympic sized swimming pool.  I gazed at it longingly as we hoofed it up the hill to the base of Sydney Harbor Bridge.

Yes, today we were going to cross it on foot, but not as Harry and Meghan had done—not paying a “stupid amount of money”—as Heidi put it, to wear orange jumpsuits and get harnessed up and walk on the actual arches.

We just took the free-to-all footpath, which had spectacular views.

On the other side we loped down into The Rocks again, just in time for lunch.  Heidi knew that the Mercantile Hotel had great views from the first floor (what we would call the second floor in the US, and we ended up climbing a bonus flight of stairs to find an open table.  The view was great, but what caught my attention as I washed down my chicken piri piri sandwich with cider was the TV show over Heidi’s head.

This was two Australian guys talking about American politics and other embarrassing shenanigans in my homeland.

“That’s the whole show?” I asked Heidi.  “Is it news or comedy?”

“Oh it’s both, I’d say. You lot certainly provide plenty of good material.”

Breaking News scrolled across the bottom of the screen: Man shoots six people in Tampa McDonalds, tells police his Egg McMuffin wasn’t hot enough.

Was that a real headline?  It certainly could have been but it was impossible to know.

We walked to the train station.

And caught a train to Darling Harbor, home of the Maritime Museum, just as it was about to close. We ran through the museum in half an hour, then admired the tall ships outside.

We spent time reading names on the Welcome Wall, which lists everyone who has ever migrated to Australia—Polish, Italian, Indian, Jewish, Chinese, Irish.

It went on and on.

That’s the kind of immigrant wall I wish my county would build.

People with Points

As I waited for my flight, I reflected on how wonderful it is that people welcome me into their homes.  I knew Dean and Lisa from UK days, but we hadn’t been close.  I had never met Auntie Margaret.

Getting to know new people, and getting know acquaintances better, is such a huge attraction of travel for me.  Spending time with people I care for, like Heidi, is a luxury.

That said, I do like my alone time.  I’m an introvert who likes people, but I’m still a loner.  I can happily spend days in my house without hearing a human voice.  I’m never bored.  I get lost in household projects, a book, or long walks in the woods.

After 18 days of being crammed into planes and trains and cars with fellow human beings, I was ready to be alone.

As I boarded I was diverted from these lofty thoughts by a woman behind me asking the flight attendant for a seat belt extender.  This was my first knowledge that there was such a thing.  Australia doesn’t have quite as high a percentage of its population who are obese as the US (33%), but it’s up there, at 27%.

A flight attendant asked if I would like something to drink.  I replied yes, a Diet Coke please, which was when she informed it would cost $3.  Three dollars for a can of coke!  Way to nickel and dime, Virgin Australia!  I asked if I could have a cup of water, if it was free, and she gave me one, smirking like I was a cheapskate.

I read the thick weekend edition of a newspaper from front to back except for the sport section.  I compiled a list of new Aussie vocab to Google when I had wireless: squiz, spruiking, chook.

There was an article about young members of rich Aussie families who posted photos of themselves with products on Instagram.  They had millions of followers and made millions of dollars which they didn’t need.  They were beautiful, vapid, and dull eyed.

Another article was about an immigration scheme to make people settle in “regional areas,” meaning underpopulated areas that need workers.  To quote:

“Australia is in the self-inflicted paradox of having vast amounts of space but no room.

“Australia has pursued a big immigration intake for the entire post-war era for the very selfish reason that it’s in the national interest.  It boosts the economy.  It lowers the average age of the population.  This means that national aging is slowed.  As a result, the rising cost to the taxpayer of healthcare and aged care and welfare is slowed.  And it adds skills.  And cultural richness.”

The debate is: is it unconstitutional to dictate where people must live?  Is it impossible? Is it unconscionable?

“It is none of those things.  Australia already has such a program in place. It’s a category known as designated area migration agreements. There’s only in in effect, in the Northern Territory, but it exists in principal and in practice.”

In the proposed national scheme, people applying for Australian work visas will be given extra points if they indicate they are willing to live in Tasmania, for example.

Why can’t America have debates like this about immigration?  All we talk about is whether to build a wall or not.  A wall—such a 15th Century solution.

Australia has its version of a wall.  It’s the island of Nauru, where desperate migrants from Syria and Congo are penned like animals. But there seemed to be a lot of other ideas afloat.

It’s about control, right?  Any country justifiably wants to know who is entering and how they will contribute to the common good.  The US is one of few countries with a diversity lottery—most countries manage immigration based on merit, conferring extra points for engineering degrees, fluency in the native tongue, or big bank accounts.

As we approached Cairns, I looked down at the verdant scenery.  No wonder people want to come here.

I made a note to partake in the airport wine tasting ahead of my return flight.

My van driver was a British immigrant.

“Twenty years on, and me and the wife ain’t never been back.”

Deserving Immigrants

The next day I would go to Oxford for some meetings with Oxfam people and to hang out with Lynn and Possum.

I had to leave the house early but first I let in the cleaners into the flat.

People in the States have asked me what Brits thought about Donald Trump.  Typically, I would meet a new person and he or she would make small talk while looking down at the ground, then after 10 minutes broach The Topic.

“Sooo … what do you think of your new president?” They weren’t sure where I stood, so they posed an open-ended question.

When I expressed my opinion, they invariably let out a sigh of relief that I wasn’t one of “those Americans” who think he’s Terrific, and they would launch into a screed about him, usually looping in the themes of Brexit and nationalism.

“We think he’s a complete tosser!” was a typical comment.  Tosser, wanker, arsehole, mad as a bag of ferrets.  Just a few of the British endearments I heard about our president, not to mention the universal terms racist, sexist, nationalist, moron, jerk, sociopath, and narcissist.

Granted, I tend to hang out with very liberal people, but I went to a few parties where I wasn’t sure what was coming.  It was always the same.

So when the Polish couple who cleaned the flat once a month stated that they love America, I expected the same.  They were immigrants, after all.  Fortunately they didn’t ask my opinion first.

“And we love your President Donald Trump!” the husband exclaimed as the wife nodded heartily.  The husband waxed enthusiastic.  “He is strong man!  In Europe, we understand about the Muslims.  You Americans need a strong man to keep them out!”

There was a lot going through my head at that moment.  Normally I’m a fighter and I would have challenged them.  But here I was, alone in Eton.  No one knew I was here aside from Sam and my people back home. This guy was about 6’ 2” and burly, with blonde hair and blue eyes—an ideal Aryan.  He was yelling—not angrily but animatedly—and waving the five-foot-long wand of the Hoover around in the air.  This was not the time to mention I was a Jew, and how I empathized with Muslims and hated all of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies.

The wife stepped forward, excited to share her opinions.  “We live in UK 11 years.  We go home to Poland every year, town near German border, and see what the Muslims do.  They change the country.  They make crimes, they are dirty.  They rape German women!  No, no, we stay here.  We have two kids; the boy he 13, the girl she 11.  They English!  We want keep refugees out of England.”

Wow.  I couldn’t even begin to know how to tango with the illogic of her statement.  During the election, I had heard a Vietnamese immigrant to the US on National Public Radio lauding Donald Trump and stating she would vote for him.  I had figured she was an outlier.

But now I wondered.  Is it a thing?  “I made it to safety/prosperity so screw all of you in line behind me.”  Or did a Vietnamese immigrant really see herself as completely virtuous and deserving of being taken in, while no Muslim was?  It boggled the mind.

I couldn’t resist asking, “What will happen to you with Brexit?”

They beamed.  “We love Brexit!  Brexit will keep new immigrants out.  There are enough immigrants here now.”

I really wanted to ask if they were aware that many Brits think Poles are pond scum.  Google “British views of Poles” and 18 million results come up.  I thought one chat room comment summed it up well:

“Poles are the second-largest overseas-born community in the UK after Indians. This isn’t new (Polish Jews came in 19th century) but much of it has to do with Poland joining the EU in 2004 making migration easier.  So I’d imagine anti-Polish sentiment being the British equivalent of American dislike for Mexicans.”

But instead of diving into this conversation, I grabbed my bag, waved good-bye, and exited to catch the train to Oxford.