Dressed in a white silk uniform and displaying impressive flexibility, 76 year old Mao Watson guides his class of very new Australians through Tai Chi positions on the lush lawn of Kelly Park, between Werribee station and the Princes Highway. While the diverse group slowly moves through poses, George Yengi and Pooja Bhola sit with the class’s bags on a nearby park bench, watching on and chatting about their stories of migrating to Australia, and how they have maintained a connection to their culture since leaving.
Pooja teaches English to many of the new migrants at the Wyndham Community and Education Centre (WCEC). Most have only been in Australia for about six months. Her students are laughing at their inability to keep their balance, as they attempt a pose with a particularly wide stance. Every now and then one succumbs and topples over, and even Mao smiles. George and Pooja are delighted; they explain that the activity’s purpose is to bring these people together, building friendships and introducing them to a community that understands the challenges that many new migrants face and can support them.
Eleven years ago Pooja came to Australia from India where she had worked as a school teacher. “Being a migrant myself, I understand the issues faced by people when they come to Australia and I am passionate about helping them integrate into Australian society,” she says. She was in her late twenties when she left, so she still feels a strong connection to her Punjabi culture. She is very conscious of ensuring that her daughter does not entirely abandon the language and traditions that have been in their family for generations.
George identifies with a similar trend in the Sudanese community. “It’s important to keep our culture alive,” he says, explaining that some of the young men in the Sudanese community have abandoned their culture and language, as they feel it alienates them from the rest of the community.
He came to Australia from with his sister and five cousins in 1999 when he was 13, after nine years in a refugee camp in Uganda. He did not know any English when he arrived in Adelaide, and even when he was able to speak to people he still felt like an outsider. It wasn’t until he began playing sport that he felt accepted, which inspired him to organise programs such as the Tai Chi class for the migrant community in Melbourne’s West. George is a sports coordinator for Reclink Australia, a not for profit that helps people experiencing disadvantage participate in sport and the arts, to enhance their lives and build community engagement.
According to Wyndham City Council’s deputy mayor Walter Villagonzalo, introducing more local employment opportunities and upgrading infrastructure will go a long way to help migrants, and improve integration. “If they are travelling two hours a day to get to their job, that’s time that they are not able to spend with their family, and because of that we have other issues like domestic violence and children behaving badly, which affects the whole community…the lack of employment is aggravating the problems we already have. I’m not saying that they (jobs) will solve everything but it is important for mitigating the issues we are facing.”
Many Karen people were forced to flee their villages in Myanmar to refugee camps on the northern Thai border, where some lived for decades before being granted refugee visas. One of the important cultural traditions they were able to retain was weaving and basket making. Ay Myaung was well known as one of the best weavers in the refugee camp and did not want to abandon the practice when he arrived in Australia. With the help of some other Karen elders and the Wyndham Community and Education Centre he built a loom about 2 metres wide by 3 metres long, made from pieces of timber, parts of a bicycle and some other unidentifiable repurposed materials. Once it was finished the group got to work making traditional clothes, scarves, and bags, which they sell at WCEC to cover the cost of materials. WCEC helps the weavers find jobs and housing, as well as improving their English.
Walter wants to encourage this type of social enterprise program. He is driven to serve the migrant community due to his own experience migrating to Australia from the Philippines in 1986 with his wife and young children. He is proud that community service was his full time job for 20 years, before moving into local government.
The migrant community has much to offer, says Walter. All that is needed is support and acceptance for them to be able to make a positive contribution back into the area. “We are a multicultural community here, there’s lots of people from all over the world who came here as skilled migrants with a business background, and connections all over the world. We need to look at what we can do to capitalise on this resource.
“I see it as an advantage, I want to help facilitate trade and business between Wyndham and other cities, other countries. There is an opportunity for us to make use of this resource, if people are able to start businesses and create jobs for themselves then that goes a long way and we can start solving a lot of our own problems.”
Video link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b6ZWmm2J3Hw