Kinda Haroun’s first impression of Australia was coloured by the symbolism of two flags masted side by side. The Australian flag’s imagery was explained to her as comprising three main components, the Commonwealth star, the Union Flag, and the Southern Cross, representing the states and territories. But it was the flag for Australia’s Indigenous communities that toucher her deeply. It was recognition and respect for the first people of its land that struck her as inclusive symbolism.
For Kinda, the symbolism was a warm invitation to foreign shores. It was especially meaningful because of its harsh contrast to her own cultural displacement, in her home country of Syria, where Assyrians, a minority Christian group and the people of the ancient civilisation, Assyria, were not afforded the same recognition, and had never been acknowledged in such a visible way.
“So I compared the Assyrian people with the indigenous Iraq & Syria people, and the difference in how they were treated and this resonated for me. I felt very positive with that. There [Syria] you do not have the freedom to be who you are and to have a voice. In Australia, you can take this for granted.”
Kinda and her family, Dad 61 year old Youkhanna and Mum Evlin 51, and her three sisters Klara 25, Carol 20 and 15-year-old Elsin arrived in Australia from Syria via Lebanon in April 2016. They were part of the Federal Government’s additional humanitarian intake in response to the Syrian war, which has ravaged the country since March 2011. Kinda was among the thousands of youth who had their lives lacerated by the trauma of war. War had disrupted her world, including her studies to become a civil engineer. The trauma remains palpable. “We were scared to identify ourselves as Assyrians sometimes… Youth were hid in the closet to act as society wishes and many of them don’t have the voice to be who they want to be in the community.”
The 23-year-old notes her experience of diversity here in Victoria is different. It may help to explain why newly arrived Assyrians settling into Australia have an urgent sense about preserving their culture, as they prepare to integrate into a new country. She says, “In Syria it’s more about respecting our particular cultural backgrounds and cultural traditions….where we have come from there is pressure to conform, and agree to others opinions in matters of culture and tradition. Youth are punished if you act differently, while here you are supported to be who you are”.
Kinda has become something of a spokeswoman for the newly arrived Assyrian community settling in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, and despite being a willing advocate for her community during community consultations, she puts her hand up to volunteer for several Multicultural service providers in the areas of settlement, mental health and family violence. She was recently selected by the Department of Premier and Cabinet to join the state’s Multicultural Youth Network (MYN) which informs the government on priority areas affecting multicultural youth. There is no doubt her star burns bright.
Wherever Kinda goes, her enthusiasm has a contagious effect, and her empathy and compassion is authenticated by her genuine exchanges and observations.
In her new home, she is a visible force for good and she is quickly amassing a constellation of fans around her.
Her likeness to soul songstress Amy Winehouse is a common observation. Of her volunteer work, she says it’s not a duty or obligation, but a privilege, noting her parents have also instilled the importance of community work throughout her young life. And there’s also gratitude for a new start, which has been largely untainted by the messy and deadly politics of the past, a grim battleground still faced by many of her own.
“I feel it’s something I have to do in order to say thank you to other Australians… and it’s important. Here diversity is supported.” She says the freedom to talk about the issues affecting her communities in a shared space, supported by the Victorian community, has been liberating.
While barriers such as acquiring a new language are present, the settlement journey for her has been about recognising that a cultural transition has to occur.
“There are many challenges to being part of a new culture, for example the language. But it’s more about understanding the English mentality.”
“Victoria has taught us to be ourselves, the freedom to be yourself, so we are encouraged to be ourselves. Compared to where we have come from, it’s a society where everyone is accepted. From a human rights perspective, my whole family feel more positive.”
Interviewer: Do you feel Assyrian and Australian now?
“Yes of course… I’m proud of both. “Victoria teaches us to be proud of our identity… our identity has been brought together with other cultures. I never want to be paid for my work with the community. I want to do more and work more because it’s a positive and our community really deserves that…”
“You love your home. And nothing can compare to your home, but Australia has got my heart.”
*This interview was first published in the Victorian Multicultural Commission’s Proud To Belong publication, released in Cultural Diversity Week 2018.