July 19, 2013
By Suminda Gunaratne.
I migrated from my homeland of Sri Lanka three years ago and found a job as the Data and IT Systems officer at Reconciliation Australia. I knew little about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, their history or their culture. In early July I left my family in Canberra to join the Journey to Recognition. I travelled for nine days from Adelaide to Alice Springs via Port Augusta, Cooper Pedy and Uluru.
My eyes and my heart were opened by this experience; even after three years working with RA I didn’t really understand the realities of life for so many Aboriginal Australians and it was good to finally visit Aboriginal communities and experience the hospitality of Aboriginal people.
I share with other migrants to Australia a desire to find out more about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, to meet them and build friendships with them and the Journey allowed me to briefly experience the life and communities of Aboriginal people outside of the big cities.
I was surprised by the conditions people in the bush live under; the poor quality of the schools, the clinics and the homes and the huge living costs were all a surprise to me. I was dismayed by the often low expectations held by some of the Aboriginal people we met; even in a developing country like Sri Lanka the poorest people in the rural areas have high expectations for a better life for their children.
I was also surprised by the good will towards reconciliation and constitutional recognition expressed by nearly all the people we met. At Uluru the local café owner demanded we leave flyers for her customers and there was great sensitivity to what we were advocating and a hunger for information about reconciliation and recognition. I expected our job of convincing local people about recognition to be harder and to feel more opposition to what we are proposing.
As the only migrant on the journey I was welcomed and shown great hospitality by the Aboriginal people I met. The call of “Hi Brother” greeted me as I walked through communities and I was made to feel at home. I thought of the similarities between my Sri Lankan migrant people and Aboriginal people; similar emphasis on family and similar challenges to keep culture and language alive and relevant to our young people. Keeping culture and language for future generations is very important.
In Cooper Pedy I found a small but vibrant Sri Lankan community isolated from local Aboriginal people but keen to make contact and I thought once again that more effort needs to be made by both Reconciliation Australia and Recognise to engage with Australia’s large and highly diversified migrant communities.
Within Australia’s migrant communities there is an overwhelming desire for greater knowledge about Australia’s history and friendships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We need to engage better with these communities and tap into their goodwill in the lead up to the referendum for constitutional recognition.