Harmony Day: Our numbers in Australia tell a unique and compelling story

By · 17 March, 2015 · Features
Written by Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Almost half of us were born overseas or has a parent who was. We hail from 300 countries and speak as many languages.

Cultural diversity is a big part of who we are as a nation.

That’s why I’m jumping on board to help make this year’s Harmony Day celebrations on 21 March awesome – and I encourage you to think about what it means to live in such a multicultural country.

21 March also marks the United Nation’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

As a young, coloured Muslim woman, I have had some first-hand experience of racial stereotyping and honestly, that is not unusual. I was 10 at the time of the 9/11 attacks. I went from someone who was brown and wore slightly different clothing, to someone who represented something I didn’t even understand. For reasons beyond my control, some saw me as a representation of an ‘evil’ that they did not know how to deal with.

While that was difficult, over time I realised that it is more than okay to be different from your friends and neighbours and that there is nothing wrong with being from one culture, but identifying with many others – that’s what living in Australia is all about. It’s what binds us together.

When I was 16, a few friends and I started an organisation called Youth Without Borders. At the very heart of what I wanted to do was help young people work together to make positive change in their communities.

This is exactly what we should be thinking about, not only on 21 March this year, but each and every day.  We should ask ourselves: How can we live the message of unity?

Over the past 15 years we have come so far as a nation.  Our acceptance of race, religion and even dress codes has improved and we have worked to create an environment where everyone feels like they belong.

Research released recently by the Scanlon Foundation painted a picture of Australia as a highly cohesive society. It showed that we express a sense of belonging almost unanimously, that we feel strongly about maintaining the Australian way of life and that most of us believe that cultural diversity has been good for our country.

However, there is still more work to be done if we want to maintain and build on these high levels of engagement. It is alarming that the rates of reported discrimination are on the rise and 23 per cent of people hold negative attitudes to Muslims.  As a nation we need to continue to get on with getting along.

Our foundations for a cohesive Australia are solid, but we need to focus on making them even stronger. After all, our strength and resilience as a society is not measured by how we act in the good times but how we deal with the bad times and come together in the face of adversity.

So what can we do? Let’s have an open conversation with one another. Learn about each other without prejudice. Smile and say hi to someone who looks different on the street. Stand up to racism. Make a friend who has a different belief system and ask them about their way of life.

After all, as the young people of today we are the leaders of tomorrow. We have a chance to make a difference and help our communities rise above prejudice, ignorance and hatred based on ethnicity or religion. Our strength lies not just in our differences, but also in our unity.

I encourage you to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Harmony Day on 21 March, and to say thank you to everyone who has helped build the nation we know and love today. Get involved in an event in your community by visiting www.harmony.gov.au

Ms Abdel-Magied

UN Youth Board Director, 2015 Queensland Young Australian of the Year and founder of Youth Without Borders.

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