Abdulkadir Shire and Ali-nur Duale are masters of disguise. The two Somali men, now in their 50s, have spent more than 30 years between them applying for jobs in Melbourne. Their tactics have ranged from the shrewd (omitting their nationality and native language on CVs) to the downright devious (“de-Arabising” their first names by replacing them with initials). But their real skill is one that not many people would think of bringing to the job market: making themselves look unintelligent on paper.
They call it “downskilling”: cutting from their résumés any hint of a qualification or achievement that might make them appear too smart for the jobs they’re applying for. In Duale’s case, that means a PhD in applied entomology and a distinguished career developing crop protection programs across Africa and India. In Shire’s case, it’s a Masters in petrochemical engineering and a diploma from Victoria University.
But for both men, the game is officially now up.
Last October, after 17 years and more than 300 failed job applications, Shire packed his bags and moved to Brisbane, where he is helping his wife start a family daycare business. Dr Duale is resigned to continue working as a casual interpreter for a refugee translation service.
“People say ‘Why can’t you get a decent job, with all your qualifications?’” says Duale, who is often described in his community as “the most qualified Somali in Australia.” “And I have to lie and tell them I just want to do something to help my own people. I’ve even told my children this untruth.”
No one has yet done a study to measure the lost potential to Australia in terms of professional achievements or international standing in allowing so many of our best and brightest residents to work as drivers, translators or cleaners. The ‘PhDs driving taxis’ headlines have come and gone, but to this day, hundreds of experienced doctors, accountants and engineers are still driving cabs and doing menial part-time jobs to sustain their families and relatives overseas on fickle hourly wages. Hundreds more have given up entirely, resigning themselves to a perpetual life in the slow lane.
Africans, the newest, most foreign group in our cultural melting pot, are invariably suffering the most. Some say it’s always been this way: that the waves of Greeks, Italians, Lebanese and Vietnamese who arrived between the 1950s and ’80s all struggled just as hard to find sustainable jobs. But the evidence strongly suggests otherwise. For Somali-Australians, being black and Muslim and with the additional stigma of coming from the world’s most corrupt country, the chances of finding full-time work – let alone a respectable white-collar job – are arguably the lowest in the Western world. In a country that lays claim to having one of the most robust and egalitarian job markets anywhere, the words “fair go” remain a mockery for hundreds of eternally unemployed Somali professionals.
A lost pro-African campaigner
When Lindsay Tanner, former Finance Minister and Federal Member for Melbourne, resigned last June, many members of Victoria’s African community felt they had lost one of their own. Not only was Tanner the most high-profile critic of the hardening of Labour’s asylum seeker policies, he was also the most visible and vocal of the country’s pro-African ‘champions’ – a regular guest at community events, and loud advocate for greater training and job opportunities among the country’s least employed migrant communities. Just a week before his resignation, Tanner launched a report by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) that found evidence of anti-African sentiment in virtually every sphere of public life.
Of course, you don’t give up such conviction easily. Within weeks, Tanner was back to assisting two Melbourne-based projects he is particularly close to: the Corporate Leaders Network’s (CLN’s) African-Australian Project, through which 10 high-profile companies — including NAB, IBM, BHP and Telstra — have committed to develop training and placement opportunities for African-Australians; and the Horn-Afrik Employment, Training and Advocacy Project, a homespun initiative with 250 ‘Horn of Africans’ — migrants from Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia — on its books.
The next year or two could be make-or-break for both projects. The CLN has promised to “ramp up” its focus on African jobseekers, and after two job-training workshops in which black faces were notably absent, has reserved a third of the 35 places at its next workshop in May for Africans. The Horn-Afrik project, run by a Somali-Australian out of a dingy room in a tower block in Carlton, has just secured federal funding for two more years; yet this project, the only African-run initiative linking the State Government and industry to support professional jobseekers, has found jobs for only 17 people in the past three years – and 10 of these have since returned to the taxi-ranks.
As Australia grapples with increasingly polarised positions on our multiracial future, such scoresheets give the lie to what Immigration Minister Chris Bowen recently called “the genius of Australian multiculturalism.” Conservative commentators continue to portray African communities — particularly Somalis and Sudanese — as breeding grounds for gang members, dole bludgers and worse. But what few people have yet broached are the obvious links between fathers who struggle to find work and children for whom ‘job satisfaction’ is a concept from another planet.
“If we’re losing the fathers, we will lose their sons,” warns Horn-Afrik’s coordinator, Omar Farah. “They will drop out of school, live on the dole, and some will go into crime. If your husband is unemployed, your father is depressed, your parents are talking about going back to Africa — how can you expect that family to be striving to adopt Australian values?”
Spending a few days with Farah is an object lesson in conviction, and its perpetual battle with its insistent evil twin, despair. As the brains behind Horn-Afrik, and a regular advisor to the Victorian Government and the Victoria Police, this genial 51-year-old enjoys the unique perspective of being the only African-Australian formally employed to find professional jobs for his compatriots. But his raison d’être — that there are plenty of jobs out there, and colour-blind employers with them — has been tested virtually every day of the 23 years he’s called Australia home.
“When I walk down the street in Melbourne, I’m black, I’m probably involved in crime, I’m certainly un-Australian. When I’m out with my family, we’re seven refugees just arrived from Africa (even though all our kids were born in Melbourne)… Back in Somalia, any adult in the community could discipline me, which led to a feeling of being protected and looked out for. But there’s none of that expectation, that comfort, here.”
Lindsay Tanner, who has become a close personal friend of Omar’s, also sees this lack of “familiarity” as the principal challenge – the ultimate fitting-in quality that only time will provide, just as it did for his own Greek forebears.
“It won’t be long before the majority of Somalis in Australia are born here, maybe another 10 years,” says Tanner. “The real question will be, are those born here having the same opportunities and standard of living and capacity to be part of our society?”
Tanner believes – hopes, at any rate – that they will. But a growing number of Australians who work closely with the country’s African communities are not so sure. Reverend John Evans has had a front row seat for the socially divided theatre of Carlton, where his Church of All Nations backs onto a sprawling housing estate where nearly half the 3,000 residents are African. “Africans are still not welcome in Lygon Street, 15 years after they first came here,” he says, referring to the gentrified shopping precinct a stone’s throw away. “They’re just so different from other ethnic groups here. It’s part of that fear of the unknown that defines our society. It’s not orchestrated, it’s not about hate groups or anything like that. It’s just this unfamiliarity…”
Fear of the unknown has been a recurring theme in dozens of research reports and policy papers produced by academics, lawyers and parliamentary committees on issues of discrimination and social exclusion facing Australia’s 120,000 black Africans. Yet the one thing that nearly everyone in government, academia and the community agrees will make a migrant family feel most at home – a decent full-time job – continues to be withheld by a conspiracy of personal prejudice and professional and political apathy.
Somalis consistently rank as the least employed of any race in Victoria, with statistics placing between 32 per cent and 47 per cent out of work. While Asians and other “visibly different” migrants occupy ever more prominent positions in our hospitals, schools, courtrooms and police stations – places associated with legitimacy and trust – the almost total absence of black faces in such venues speaks volumes about our confidence in Africans’ values and abilities, and perpetuates the myth that they cannot be trusted with such critical roles; that they cannot be trusted to be good Australians.
Last June, the AHRC’s three-year study established “solid evidence” of discrimination against African-Australians in every sphere of public life in every state. Two months later, Australia was publicly rapped over the knuckles by the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which said it had largely not moved on the UN’s calls five years earlier to tackle “entrenched discrimination” towards indigenous Australians, asylum-seekers and minority communities (including “over-policing” and “pervasive employment discrimination” against African-Australians).
In February, the University of Western Sydney released the results of a 12-year study on attitudes towards minority groups, which reported that 48% of Australians harbour negative feelings towards Muslims, while Africans topped the mistrusted migrants list at 27%. Although 87% of the 12,500 respondents said they support cultural diversity, study leader Professor Kevin Dunn says he has no doubt that skin colour remains a powerful deterrent to employers – and the divisive remarks of some politicians only fan the flames.
“Integration is a two-way street,” says Dunn.
“You have to want to integrate and there has to be a feeling of welcome. In Australia, there’s been far too much debate on whether immigrants are integrating and want to integrate, and not nearly enough on the welcome we’re giving them.”
More than 20 years after Somalis started arriving here in significant numbers, that welcome is still geared towards humanitarian refugees, fresh from Kenya’s refugee camps, without the money, language or tools to begin their new life. Through a concerted program of housing, education and language support, these people have gradually found their feet in a new and unfamiliar world. It’s a program Australians truly can be proud of. But for those Somalis who came under the skilled migration program, who gained their credentials in university halls and government offices, who speak perfect English – those who arguably have the most to offer their new home – Australia has little room left in its heart.
In towns and villages across Somalia, the older men traditionally gather after prayers on a Friday to drink tea and swap stories on everything from the next harvest to their latest political leaders. It’s a far cry from the urban spill of Point Cook, where Melbourne’s fastest growing conurbation is springing up on the shores of Port Phillip Bay. But on Sunday afternoons, at one of the coffee shops in Point Cook’s Main Street, you’ll find at least one of Somalia’s traditions alive and well on the edge of Julia Gillard’s electorate.
Here, a dozen Somali men gather to discuss everything from plans for a new community centre to entertaining ways of teaching the Somali language to children. The subject of their own employment is never far from the conversation. A couple of the men are part-time lecturers or run small businesses; but the majority here have never had a full-time job in Australia.
Dr Abdirahman Kulmiye is a newcomer to the group, but his story is all too typical. A highly erudite marine scientist in his late 40s, Kulmiye arrived in Australia in early 2007 with high hopes of landing a professional job. This is a man who should get a job in any country with a coastline – let alone one surrounded by sea. His CV (undoctored, he stresses) includes long periods with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and three years as Chief Technical Adviser at Somalia’s Ministry of Fisheries.
But after dozens of applications for scientific and research postings, and not one letter of reply, a dejected Kulmiye sent a note back to his old colleagues in Africa – and was immediately offered a job by Vétérinaires sans Frontières. Despondent and running low on money, he eventually took up a consultancy with the Swiss NGO.
“The main reason I haven’t been able to get a job in Australia is that employers want to see local work experience before they’ll give you any themselves,” says Kulmiye.
“I don’t really understand this endless focus on local experience, especially if you’ve managed international projects at the highest level. Why doesn’t anyone pay any attention to that?”
Dr Berhan Ahmed, a University of Melbourne lecturer who runs the refugee advocacy organisation, African Think Tank, has no doubt why.
“It’s institutionalised racism, pure and simple,” he says.
“Africans use Anglo Saxon names to get called for interviews, and when they see they’re black they get sent home.”
Dr Ahmed, a former Victoria Australian of Year, says African-Australians are victims of an “anti-black” corporate culture, which stereotypes them as arrogant and unreliable, and invariably winds up costing them jobs. He points to the starkly differing experiences of white South Africans, whose “connections” have carried them to the very top of companies like BHP, Westpac and Deloitte.
Professor Farida Fozdar, who has spent much of the past decade studying discrimination at Murdoch University’s Centre for Social and Community Research, says when it comes to jobs, African Muslims face the “double jeopardy” of being both racially and religiously different. Fozdar describes meeting experienced African doctors who have literally begged hospitals to take them on as unpaid interns. “For these professional, accomplished people, there are huge issues of self-esteem and dignity among their families – and they can’t even get volunteer work! Honestly, the media keeps perpetuating this myth that refugees are here to bludge from the government, but it’s so patently untrue.”
As well as a more streamlined system for approving overseas qualifications, Fozdar advocates greater jobseeking services, mentoring and work experience for skilled migrants, and education programs for employers on the benefits of employing multicultural professional staff.
Dr Ahmed, whose clipped vowels helped defuse a fragile situation when five Somali and Lebanese men were arrested in Melbourne for alleged terrorism offences in 2009, jettisons all diplomacy when it comes to professional jobseekers.
“We’ve had four years of talk, talk, talk, while most people have just figured they’re unemployable and gone into the taxi industry. How many years can you stay unemployed and attending meetings? People are getting training for a month, three months, and then going back to being unemployed. Do you realise what this does to a person’s confidence? The whole training and mentoring thing has become a self-serving industry that doesn’t produce any results in terms of jobs.”
There are, of course, dozens of vital training programs, internships and vocational courses run by the State-funded Adult Multicultural Education Services, charitable organisations like the Jesuit Social Services and the Brotherhood of St Laurence, and numerous conscientious city councils, many of which are making a real difference to the lives – and work chances – of ‘new Australians’. But like the research and funding on which they are predicated, most of these schemes focus on younger migrants or refugee communities in regional areas.
In Melbourne, not a single Somali is employed either by the Government of Victoria – host of at least 60% of the estimated 10-12,000 Somalis in Australia – or by Melbourne City Council. Although the State Government does run some basic jobseeking and mentoring programs, these are largely limited to vocational training for less skilled migrants or regional refugees. Unlike Canada and New Zealand, our Federal Government has not entered into any partnerships with industry to offer large-scale mentoring or sponsorships for skilled migrants.
“The Government should take a look at places like Canada and see what they can emulate to get Africans into professional positions,” says Omar Farah.
“They spend millions of dollars on community projects and festivals – things that make people feel good for a short time, but have no impact in terms of sustainable skills and incomes. They could even consider paying companies half the salaries of new recruits. All we need is to give long-term employment to 100 Africans, and they will change Australian attitudes towards our community. They will create thousands of Australian Africans.”