Nyadol Nyuon has shared powerful first-hand accounts of racism and called for a “bold” and “revolutionary” multicultural vision for Australia in a speech at the National Press Club on Wednesday, 30 June 2021.
The chair of Harmony Alliance, a women’s advocacy group, made the remarks at the launch of a new survey of migrant and refugee women, which found one-third had experienced violence at the hands of their partners.
Ms Nyuon said Australia first felt like home to her when, after living in a refugee camp in Kenya and praying nightly with her mother to escape, she touched down at Tullamarine airport in Melbourne in 2005 holding her Australian passport. “I handed that passport to the immigration officer. She inspected it and returned it to me and said, ‘Welcome home’,” Ms Nyuon said.
“Welcome home – these were the words that marked for me the end of a search for a physical home, but the beginning of a sense of an emerging identity.”
She said while her new home had embraced her, “it has also rejected me”. My Nyuon said she and her family had been subjected to racist abuse and attacks, and she remembered her mother sitting on the floor of their living room and casually saying she had been called a “black dog”.
“Her tone was that of someone who has given up all hope of being treated with dignity. And so as if to sustain herself, she had to see the word ‘black dog’ as something as normal and as simple as ‘good morning’,” she said. Ms Nyuon said she herself had been called the “n-word” while walking down a Melbourne street on a summer’s day.
“A serving police officer wrote to me on Facebook and called me an ‘ignorant c***’, who should ‘f*** off back to the war-torn shithole country I came from’. I know that sounds like a rap number, so I’m gonna let the rest of you decode it,” she said. “After reading violent abuse directed at me online, I could no longer take my security for granted. Since then, I have never felt fully safe in that innocent way I felt when I first landed in Australia from Kakuma refugee camp.
“The truth is, I am afraid to even mention this incident, because many people expect that because of what Australia has given me, I should simply be grateful. Discussions about race, or racism, are seen as biting the hand that fed you.”
She said being the subject of hatred and prejudice “is not merely about being offended”, but described it as a visceral experience that can “brutally extinguish lives” – as in the case of an Australian terrorist who killed 51 Muslims while they worshipped in Christchurch.
She said Australia should aspire to be a country where racism was not tolerated, where women felt safe in the street, in their homes and in Parliament, and where visa status was not used as a form of coercive control.
Refugees hope they will be able to build a new life in Australia. Instead, many find themselves left in limbo.
“I want us to reimagine this country,” she said. “Multiculturalism is a grand and revolutionary concept. But I think its purpose is really simple. It is to live with each other without the fear of each other. “I know I sound a little bit aspirational, and maybe … there is little appetite or tradition in Australia for grand statements.
“But I stand here as a young refugee who once had big and impossible dreams, and who arrived here with no money, and who, with the generosity of this nation – when they were willing to – and a vision of multiculturalism created before she was born, made many of her impossible dreams seem real today.”