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GLP Cultural Series April 2015: Cabramatta’s Story

Helen is in her third year of her Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws degree at MQ.

Our day began on the 24th April 2015 at Canley Vale train station where a sleepy group of GLP students embarked on an exploration of Fairfield’s migrant communities for GLP’s Cultural Series. It proved the perfect location to experience local Vietnamese culture in particular, which exists on our doorsteps but was as yet unexplored by much of the group. I did not know quite what to expect after reading the preparation articles we were given on Fairfield’s history. Most of the articles and documentaries were distressingly poignant, some even tragic. But the day started auspiciously at Tien Hau Temple with fortune telling and a discussion about its namesake, a heroic sea goddess appreciated all across Asia.

Dismissed, we walked to the Whitlam library in Fairfield. Here we learnt about the transition of the area from an economy of land cultivation during the 1700s to the establishment of schools, commercial industry and the current socio-economic circumstances of the community. Settling in Australia in 1990, guest speaker Jenny Tew, People of Australia Ambassador and local Cambodian businesswoman, told us of her experiences labouring in the rice fields under the Khmer Rouge regime. During these years Jenny hid her English speaking abilities to disguise her level of education and temporarily completely lost the ability to speak English. Currently she is fluent in six languages. Sadly Jenny told of experiences of racism in Sydney, both towards herself and Cambodian locals and how racism occurs in unexpected ways and continuously around Australia towards migrant communities. Next Dr Eman Sharobeem, a tireless advocate of immigrant women’s rights in Australia, briefed us about the unique issues facing these women in Australia.

Over our Vietnamese lunch, which included favourites such as rice paper rolls and pho at Thanh Binh on John St, students discussed their own backgrounds and experiences of coming to Australia. In our small group students from Germany, China, Korea, Bangladesh and many more gathered to experience a taste of Vietnamese culture. Refreshed and energised we strolled the streets of Cabramatta in a leisurely walking tour where we learnt about local business, the significance of the decorations on the commanding Friendship Arch and the varying statues of Freedom Plaza. Wandering the sidewalks of Cabramatta it is not hard to see that local shopping areas are different to most parts of Sydney. Lucrative local businesses include fabric shops with at least one store on every street, and a multitude of fruit juice bars. There are at least five different types of vinegar and chili available from most convenience stores and markets. Fish was displayed whole and not in slices for customers and all parts of an animal are bought and sold out of respect, with all parts on display for customers’ scrutiny, including stomachs, brains and feet – not for the faint hearted!

The day closed in a frenzy as teams competed in an amazing race involving drawing, playing detective and eating custard puffs, a local pick-me-up and favoured treat with an soft airy pastry exterior and a gooey sweet custard centre. At dusk, in front of the Cabra-Vale Park Vietnamese War Memorial we discussed our newfound understandings of leadership. Issues raised included the importance of leaders in showing resilience, persistence and creativity when encountering economic, political and social obstacles, and the solidarity of the Vietnamese community and culture in the face of adversity.

From my perspective, the talk delivered by Dr Sharobeem at the Immigrant Women’s Health Service (IWHS) was particularly topical and profound. The IWHS was established in 1987 to address the unique needs of immigrant women, girls and their families. It tackles all seemingly insurmountable aspects of daily life for migrant communities, offering bilingual and bicultural services; support groups; English classes as well as nutrition and exercise classes. Dr Sharobeem – strong willed, determined and a role model for women internationally – was also incredibly honest and sincere and at times not particularly positive about how much progress is being made for migrant women and children. She explained how bureaucracy has proven to be a disappointment in terms of organisational support at times, but also mentioned how the Australian Police are one of the most useful bodies to the IWHS in protecting clients. Dr Sharobeem spoke about many heart-wrenching encounters she has had with clients and this coupled with the desperate need for continued support for IWHS prompted at least three members of the group to express interest in volunteering with the organisation.

Our day in Cabramatta offered a short and sweet glimpse into the lives of Vietnamese locals and the rich cultures that enliven the city of Fairfield. It’s an experience I think many students would benefit from, if only to burst your geographic bubble and familiarise yourself with a thriving area of Sydney unlike any other.

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