BY MAURIZIO PETTENA
In my many years as a migrant, and a migrant chaplain, I have heard migrants and more recently asylum seekers and refugees being labelled and treated with various degrees of suspicion and unease.
I could tell one or two stories about my own experience as well. Being a migrant for Christ and the Church has always provided me with a high degree of “comfort-ability” in the sense that though, at times, I might have been regarded as one who doesn’t quite belong, I know deep down that what, or I should say, who gives me the necessary Visa is Jesus, who in his providential way has called me to be a part of the Church in Australia. And of this wonderful nation Australia! Hence, I am very proud of my Australian citizenship!
Last week, Queensland MP Teresa Gambaro, like myself from an Italian background, spoke out controversially about the need for lessons on personal hygiene for newly arrived migrants. She also mentioned that migrants need to be taught how to wait in queues.
These comments were symbolic, hopefully not of the kinds of queues that exist of people languishing in wait of better lives in detention centres and refugee camps. Having considered quite deeply these comments and heard the views espoused on this issue, it is hard to see why an experienced politician may feel that such comments were appropriate.
They did, however, lead me to reflect much on how we welcome the other. Maybe, from now on, as one of my staff said about Teresa Gambaro’s latest remarks: on receiving citizenship, the presiding official might hand down, together with the certificate, a can of deodorant. What a good way to make one feel fully accepted!
Migrants and refugees are my vocation, my love and my passion. It is only natural, therefore, that I am interested in anything that has to do with their welfare. I am also attracted by what challenges or argues against ideas and attitudes such as welcome and hospitality.
In a nation developed and sustained by people “who have come across the seas”, is there still a place for fear of the unknown? No “unknown” is feared more than the “unknown neighbour”. So, to be more explicit: are our political leaders still espousing, even unconsciously, an environment for xenophobia to thrive?
Researchers ask questions about what incites xenophobia, how it can be disguised behind the façade of politically correct concerns and statements. One cannot stop but amaze at the fact that in a matter of hours or even less, we can be manipulated into fearing and/or discriminating against those who differ from ourselves by characteristics such as the shape and colour of their eyes, the form of their nose, what they wear, or the tone of their voice.
More so, people can be discriminated against for the way they look at life, values and religion; these can have deep xenophobic underpinnings. These days, we come to know that even body odours can contribute to worsen the xenophobia syndrome.
Australia prides itself on being a multicultural nation, but how we react to newcomers quite often contradicts the image we so much boost about in our international relationship.
My ministry takes me to attend often the conferring of citizenship on immigrants who have been contributing to the wellbeing of Australia. I can read a sense of pride and satisfaction, a sense of achievement and being safe.
I remember very well the day I became an Australian citizen. To mark that day, together with my certificate of citizenship, I was presented with a small flag and a small wattle-tree ready to be planted. This is now blossoming in the garden of my Italo-Australian adoptive family.
In her apology, which was encouraged by the public response, Teresa Gambaro did recognise that coming from a migrant background herself, that the contribution that generations of migrants have made has been exceptional”.
It now remains to be seen how her comments will make us look internationally, and what their impact will be on public attitudes.
Father Maurizio Pettena CS is the Director of the Australian Catholic Migrant and Refugee Office. Earlier this year he was appointed to the Pontifical Council for Migrants and Refugees.
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