As a social worker I spend my days with newly arrived migrants, and part of my job is to teach them all the Australian things they need to know. Despite being here since I was a child I am still learning Australian things (this morning on Twitter I learnt that some people say “a pigs eye” when they mean pie).
In these How To Live In Australia classes I pass around handouts outlining swimming between the flags, rip currents and shark safety. I put up overheads about Indigenous history and culture, I invite Aboriginal elders to speak of their own experiences. I explain driving on the left, take them to watch a footy match and I give out fact sheets on public holidays like Australia Day and Anzac Day. I talk about dawn services and the observation of silence across the country to honour Australia’s fallen heroes.
In a recent class, when I was explaining ANZAC Day, a sea of hands shot up, curious about this memorial day.
“Which war are you commemorating? Was it here in Australia? How many died? What’s with the poppies?”
One man raised his hand to let me know that he believes Australia must be the best country on earth, to have war so far in its history that it still honours it a hundred years later.
Everyone was very respectful but a little mystified. A hundred years ago? They do all this, for people that died a hundred years ago? Hushed whispers around the room.
One man raised his hand to let me know that he believes Australia must be the best country on earth, to have war so far in its history that it still honours it a hundred years later. Another quipped: “In my country there’s a war every week, we would never get anything done with all our memorials!”
Four years ago, I decided to host a morning tea on the week of Anzac Day for my class.
Before a table filled with baklava, galub jamun, Anzac biscuits, tea, chai and Turkish coffee, we observed silence then I read The Ode from for the Fallen by Laurence Binyon;
"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them."
We discussed what it meant to Australia, and to them as new Australians. I extended an invite to the local RSL and a local nursing home so community members can join us in our commemoration and conversation. Seeing elderly community members chatting with my newly arrived friends brought me so much joy. For many of the cultures represented in the room the elderly are cherished for their knowledge, and that respect is evident. For the elderly members they got to meet people of different faiths that sometimes they would never have spoken to such as Muslims, Sikhs and Maronite Catholics.
The joy they felt for the servicemen before them was the same as the joy they feel for having fled the conflict in their birth country.
The first time I hosted this event I was worried that our commemoration of wars that were so long ago would cause upset, as my clients had just arrived from conflict zones. I was very wrong. Much like my father, who has experienced war, newly arrived migrants and refugees want nothing more than to immerse themselves in Australian culture. They desperately want to belong.
At that Anzac Day memorial event, the man to my left who was holding a poppy had also held his dying wife in his arms having pulled her from the rubble of their bombed home.
The woman across from me with the sprig of rosemary tucked into her scarf had cradled her dying son after he was shot by a sniper. The couple to my right that raised the flag at our ceremony had lost everything. They were all here in Australia hoping to start over.
I believe for many of them it was an opportunity to reflect on their own experiences. When chatting to former servicemen especially there was one thing in common they often discussed and bonded over - survival. They had made it. The joy they felt for the servicemen before them was the same as the joy they feel for having fled the conflict in their birth country.
I’m filled with respect for my class of newly arrived migrants, their ability to still reverently honour what Australians call their heroes and survivors, whilst being survivors of war and horror themselves. I look around the room and hope that my fellow Australians will embrace these people and the beautiful traditions they have to share as much as they embrace ours.
Tomorrow I will host the morning tea again, with a new bunch of survivors, we will bow our heads together and we will remember those that came before.