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.”
What are people so afraid of?