15. 06. 2016
A Question of Empathy
I recently started work on an artist-in-residence project in Bordertown, supported by Country Arts SA. I’m the first for three artists working this year on a multifaceted project called This is a Border(town). Primarily based in Melbourne, I’m journeying over to the Tatiara to research and develop work in a range of media, including video clips and multi-media stories for presentation on-line.
I’m looking at the stories of recent migrants in Bordertown and also the experience of Bordertown locals who are extending the hand of friendship in various practical ways to assist people newly arrived in town. I’m interested in what motivates people to volunteer teaching English, or to train people for their citizenship test, or to organise a soccer competition, or to give some driving lessons, or to assist as a translator helping to bridge the linguistic divide. I’m impressed by the people I meet who have made the effort to find a point of connection with newly arrived migrants who might otherwise be living a parallel, isolated existence. I’m much impressed too by the voluntary work of migrants with superior English language skills to assist and support others whose English is less well developed.
I think that all of the migrants I’ve met in Bordertown, and all of the people who are supporting them in various ways, share an inspired belief in the future. The act of migration is of course itself a leap of faith, and the efforts of those offering friendship and support is motivated by an empathy based in this same kind of faith.
My first visit to Bordertown in April coincided with the opening of the newly refurbished Migrant Resource Centre, the main source of information and support for the hundreds of new migrants living and working in town. There was a festive event staged for the opening, with music and dancing and speeches by various dignitaries. I listened to a warm-hearted speech by the local Federal MP, Tony Pasin, in which he told the migration story of his own Italian parents and linked that story to the hope and dreams of the many local migrants seeking to establish a new life in Bordertown.
Several weeks later, in the early stages of a federal election campaign, the Australian Minster for Immigration gave a well-publicised radio interview in which he suggested that most refugees are a long-term drain on the Australian economy and that, at best, they’re here to “take jobs from working Australians.” Like many people, I’m appalled by this rhetoric. I thought that, as a nation, we’d moved on from this kind of xenophobic fear mongering but apparently I’m wrong. In Bordertown I’ve witnessed hundreds of migrants working at jobs for which there is not actually an available or willing Australian workforce, and then seen the same migrants working after-hours to improve their English language skills. It’s clear to me that the Minister for Immigration is ignorant of this kind of reality in many regional towns. (I suspect that this is a wilful ignorance on the Minster’s part which, to me, makes it all the more inexcusable.) Given that Tony Pasin is from the same side of politics as the Minister for Immigration, I wonder how he reconciles the sentiments expressed in his speech at the MRC and the evident contribution of migrants in Bordertown with the views of his some of his high-profile colleagues. I’ve written to Mr Pasin to ask him this question, but I haven’t yet had a response.