Although she is not representing Greater Shepparton City Council as a member of the Hume Regional Advisory Committee, Ms Seema Abdullah’s experience as Victoria’s first female Muslim migrant councillor and mayor provides valuable insights into Australian multicultural experiences.
Greater Shepparton enjoys a good reputation as a leading example of regional Australia embracing multiculturalism, Ms Abdullah says, but there is significant work yet to be done.
“Whether it’s through food or music, we’re celebrating diversity,” she said.
“But complacency can be harmful.”
Ms Abdullah says celebrating Shepparton’s relative success while ignoring the way migrant communities are marginalised leads to the perpetuation of poor social and economic outcomes.
“My question is, are we willing to go beyond this, are we prepared to look deeper into some complex issues and barriers in integration that are faced by multicultural communities?” she said.
“And are we doing it with an open mind? Are we doing it with empathy?”
It is important to understand ‘the multicultural community’ is not a homogeneous group — it is made up of many communities, sub-groups and sub-communities with different lived experiences, ethnicities, migration experiences and cultures.
“A newly arrived skilled migrant will have different needs and challenges compared to a newly arrived unskilled migrant, or a third generation migrant, or a refugee or an asylum seeker,” she said.
“So you have to look at the whole spectrum … it would be naive to have a broad brush approach when we are formulating policies and strategies.“
It’s this perspective and forward-thinking Ms Abdullah will take to the VMC regional advisory council.
Although she is not representing Greater Shepparton City Council as a member of the Hume RAC, her experience as Victoria’s first female Muslim migrant councillor and mayor provides valuable insights into Australian multicultural experiences.
Ms Abdullah has an extensive career in project management and is keen to see better outcomes actualised during her two-year appointment to the RAC.
One example is the need for a greater variety in the delivery of English language programs.
“From what I’ve seen and heard (in Shepparton), migrants who come and attend local English language classes … even after four or five years spending time in that class-based setting, they’re not able to develop English proficiency,” she said.
The classroom isn’t a suitable learning space for some people, Ms Abdullah said, and she wants to see language courses available in less formal settings — similar to programs already available in metropolitan areas.
When it comes to services for childcare, healthcare, domestic and family violence, mental health and aged care, Ms Abdullah wants to see an ethno-specific lens applied, and she gave the example of services for women.
“When we talk about culturally appropriate services, we’re talking about social cohesion and health and wellbeing — are we looking into providing safe and culturally appropriate spaces for women when it comes to sports or recreation, or social events?” she said.
“All of that has to be taken into account.”
More than 200 people have been appointed to the VMC’s regional advisory council, including fellow Greater Shepparton residents Neha Samar and Zahra Haydar Big, who will join Ms Abdullah in representing Hume.
Ms Abdullah looks forward to adding her voice to the conversation, which will in turn influence Victorian Government policy decisions.
“Greater Shepparton has done a marvellous job of leading this model of multiculturalism,” Ms Abdullah said.
“But it’s just the start of the journey, a lot needs to be done.
“And for that, community leaders, community members, they have to be more aware and open to the complex needs and challenges.”