What it really means to say ‘Welcome to Australia’
Words by Rachel Trevarthen
Mohammad Al-Khafaji came to Australia with his family in 2003 as a refugee from Iraq. His first and lasting impressions of Australia was a wonderful and warm experience of welcome. He says this formed his impressions of Australian people and culture and he wishes to spread this environment of genuine welcome to newly arrived asylum seekers and refugees through his role as CEO of Welcome to Australia.
Can you tell us about Welcome to Australia?
Welcome to Australia formed about five years ago when the founder Brad Chilcott saw a news article with a photo of a five year old child holding the sign ‘sink the boats’ in relation to the rise of people in detention centres.
He saw this as a worrying trend on many levels and that something needed to be done about conversations in our national psyche. Brad got together with some individuals and non-profit organisations and created spaces welcoming events for new migrants and refugees to share stories and enter the community.
Welcome to Australia now runs its Welcome Centres in Adelaide and Newcastle, with hopes to expand to other parts of the country. Here, asylum seekers and refugees can come and meet other people, gain access to material aid like furniture, find and join English classes and most importantly have a space where they belong.
What has been one of the most interesting or inspiring moments working with this organisation?
Working with Welcome to Australia has really opened up my mind and made me think about what it really means to truly say ‘welcome’ and be accepting of other people.
I think if you challenge yourself on what inclusion means and what you’ve done in your life in a practical way to welcome people from other cultures, 9 out of 10 times many of us haven’t really done anything much about it. It is easy for people to stay in their groups and not really go out of their way to welcome others and meet people from other countries.
Going on this journey of learning and living by the values of inclusion and welcome sits well with my values, our organisation’s values and that of my religion as well.
What inspires you?
People’s resilience inspires me. I see refugees and asylum seekers here at our Welcome Centre every day. It’s inspiring to see what they’ve left behind, what they’ve gone through, and that they’re taking advantage of every opportunity to make their lives better.
Having been through the process of resettling in a new country as a refugee, I’m now inspired by the opportunity to leave behind a legacy of welcome to others in the same boat. I’ve been in the corporate world and worked really hard to make other people more money, but at the end of the day I’ve asked myself, what am I achieving?
I think a good question to consider in all work we do is ‘what mark have I left on society and the community in which I live?’ and ‘how have I made my community better.’
In this role I can feel that I’m doing something each day to make our community better. This inspires me.
How can we continue to inspire positive views of multiculturalism in Australia?
It’s important to understand that refugees and asylum seekers are people too. They have similar stories to those who came to Australia in previous generations (e.g. Italians and Greeks in the 50’s) who at that time may have faced similar discrimination to what Middle Eastern refugees are now.
We need to educate people about the incredibly tough journeys people go through as refugees and add a human element to these issues. The media sensationalises stories to sell papers or create headlines and intolerance can form just by looking at different things online without having actually met any of the people being criticised in person.
Instead, we should be getting people together and have them listen to each other’s stories and truly understand that Australian values can and are shared by people of all cultural backgrounds.
Can you tell us about your signature event, the National Walk Together?
Each year Welcome to Australia runs the Walk Together. This is a peace march where people from all sides of politics and all walks of life can come together to celebrate what is great about Australia and Australia’s multiculturalism.
This year the Walk Together will be held on Saturday 31st October in cities all around the country. Its theme is saying ‘Welcome’ to newly arrived migrants, asylum seekers or refugees, especially in light of the ongoing crises unfolding in Syria and other parts of the Middle East.
What are the future plans for Welcome to Australia?
We would like to continue to build awareness of these issues and be a significant public voice on asylum seeking and refugees. We wish to continue to influence policy and opinion through genuine human understanding.
We want to grow more branches and open more Welcome Centres, which ultimately provide services to newly arrived asylum seekers, migrants and refugees to make them feel a sense of belonging to their new country, Australia.
The National Walk Together will be held Saturday 31st October around the country.
To find out more information or participate in this event click here.