Welcome To Australia
“Sisters and brothers, welcome to the Great Southern Land, welcome to Australia,” so proclaim The Wiggles, just some of Welcome to Australia's group of high-profile ambassadors.
Refugees and asylum seekers have surely got to be right up there with Johnny Depp and Amber Heard as the most contentious arrivals to Australia, at least since the days of the Tampa crisis in 2001. After a decade of division and angst about how to manage growing numbers of asylum seekers, mostly from the Middle East, Welcome to Australia formed as a national movement aiming to engage everyday Australians in cultivating a culture of welcome for refugees and other migrants.
On Saturday October 22, the organisation's fifth annual Walk Together event will take place right across Australia, celebrating the many cultures of Australia. “We're hoping that this will be the biggest and most exciting Walk Together we have created yet,” says Chief Executive Officer Mohammad Al-Khafaji. “We'll have more than 25 cities and regional centres around Australia participating in the walk. It's all organised by volunteers, it's a social movement led by the community which is fantastic.”
And it's a pretty big one. Volunteers have even organised events in Anchorage, Alaska, and the Turkish city of Izmir on the Aegean cost. “We were in Anchorage in April visiting our partner organisation taking a look at their refugee program. We've maintained those relationships and since Anchorage is the sister city with Darwin, they're going to do it together this year,” Al-Khafaji says. It's all part of the multicultural flavour of the event.
While Al-Khafaji can't guarantee that attendees at the Melbourne event will actually meet a Wiggle, Australian Greens Leader, Senator Richard Di Natale will be speaking. “We always make an effort to ask the Greens, Labor and the Liberals along to the events. This is not a protest, it's a celebration of diversity. It's a celebration for families and children, it's different from those protests that happen almost on a weekly basis, especially in Melbourne.
“We're trying to create change,” says Al-Khafaji. “We ask our ambassadors to use their voices to try and change attitudes, rather than facts and figures. We’re a relentless positive movement that engages Australians who have been disengaged, to show them the positive contributions that refugees and asylum seekers make to our community.”
The issue is intensely personal for Al-Khafaji, who was born in Iraq and spent his childhood exiled from his country of birth due to his father's opposition to the regime of Saddam Hussein. The family spent ten years in Iran and four more in Syria before finally being accepted as refugees through the UNHCR program, but not before losing no less than 12 family members to the violence of the Hussein regime.
“We're a country of immigrants, post-World War II, the Italians, the Greeks, the Vietnamese. We want to celebrate all the cultures of Australia. We need to open up our culture and learn from each other, Italians learning from Afghanis, Sudanese learning from Vietnamese.
“We share our future. This is a call to all Australians to recognise that as a diverse, multicultural society including people of all faiths and cultures, it’s our responsibility to build the best future we can together.”
By Josh Fergeus
Walk Together will commence at 11am on Saturday October 22, starting at Parliament House on Spring Street and finishing at the State Library.