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They were just my friends

I was born in the late fifties in a small country town and then went to school in the Western suburbs of Sydney. My friends had surnames like Evripidou, Tsoukalis and Malouf. Perhaps they experienced discrimination and name-calling but I was not aware of it and it certainly never happened in our group. They were just my friends.

Their families came from various different countries and going home to their place was always a treat. I didn’t feel threatened by Anna’s grandmother who was dressed in all black including some sort of head gear. She couldn’t speak English but she always hugged us and had something delicious waiting for us to eat when we walked in. I learned to say kali mera and yasu.

Lebanese parties – 21sts, engagements, weddings and christenings – always left me with a groaning stomach as the aunties tried to fatten me up. Greek dancing was also fun.

I went to church with everyone – Christadelphians, Greek Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants. Had I known any Muslims I would have gone along there too – the Lebanese I knew were mostly Catholic.

I played netball with Maori girls and was welcomed into their community. They even made me sound good when I sang (though that may be an alcohol-influenced memory).

As a teacher, I met many more families from diverse backgrounds, including many Muslims – parent teacher night chatting with Mohammed Ali, Rashid’s dad.

My husband and I travelled before having children. Our attempts to speak the language in other countries led to great laughter all round and very kind people helping us out as we used charades and the few words we had in common to communicate.

When I had kids, they too brought home a multitude of different friends of every ethnic background imaginable. No-one seemed to mind giving a couple of the boys a lift to cricket because their father had to pray. He joined us later and was very knowledgeable about the game and always helped with scoring while mum helped in the canteen.

My family includes people from all over as do my children’s partners’ families.

But one thing I do remember with shame is the apartheid practiced in the small country town I came from where Aboriginal people lived in the mission on the outskirts of town. They had a special roped off section in the cinema right under the screen. They couldn’t come in to the pub my family owned but that didn’t stop us selling them alcohol out the back door.

I saw the damage done when people are marginalised and regarded/treated differently. We must never go back there.

I cannot for the life of me understand the fear shown by too many Australians for other Australians. We all share a connection to country in the place we inhabit and we have a shared responsibility to make it a safe, inclusive place for all who live here, helping them to be productive, happy members of the community.

Imagine if Peter Dutton had said we must support our Lebanese community whose children are being put at risk from evil people who seek to seduce them with lies rather than his clumsy dogwhistling.

If I wanted to get rid of anyone, it would be those who preach hatred and division, regardless of where they, or their grandparents, came from. Pauline Hanson and Peter Dutton would be top of my list.


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  1. Carol Taylor

    Very well said Kaye Lee. I likewise grew up with the excitement of being involved with children of many races and cultures. I remember the smiles when we welcomed a new child into the grade, which happened frequently. Where would they be from? In would walk a shy Mauritizia or Petro. My bestie in primary school was called Esther, she was Jewish and from Poland. In high school, my firm friend was Farida, a third generation Australian of Chinese/English descent whose father was Malaysian. Her big sister was hostess at QClub, so I got to meet all the popular rock stars of the day plus go to all the parties in Melbourne’s China Town. What! You don’t want to mix with anyone other than who is exactly like yourself? Oh the fun you’re missing out on.

    And yes, just imagine supporting people instead of pointing the finger at people at what their children or grandchildren may or may not have done.

  2. Australians aint the owners

    Ur right grammar australians aint got no right.

  3. Freethinker

    I cannot understand, by my experience in 3 countries, why was so much difference regarding multi culture and acceptance of races between Australia, Uruguay and Argentina.
    Why there is that racism embedded in some of our politicians? It is because how they have been brought up or education?
    Have they similar background to try to understand it ?
    Some times I just wonder if it is because Australia is a colony going by the way that many people act towards the Australian Aborigines.
    I do not know…….

  4. George Swalwell

    Lovely warm memories of a happy childhood surrounded by children from many countries. I am always eager to read any postings by Kaye Lee – now we know quite a bit more about her background and career. I was born in Melbourne and later lived with my parents in a small country town in Victoria. Like Kaye I found that there were segregated parts of the the movie theatre for aborigines (as we referred to them then) and was rather shocked. No interaction happened as none of them attended the local primary or secondary school. They lived across the river – maybe they had their own school?

  5. Miriam English

    Hear, hear, Kaye. I emphatically agree.

    I, too, was lucky to grow up in a tolerant family where people of all kinds were welcomed. I had friends from many backgrounds and never knew at the time that they were supposed to be different.

    Since then I’ve been very proud of things such as the time when a friend happened to mention her Dad was Chinese. When I expressed surprise, she gave a sweeping gesture to indicate herself and said, “Duh!” and I suddenly realised her Chinese heritage was obvious, but I’d never noticed it.

    I don’t give a damn what someone looks like. I only care how they treat other people. Even then I’ll put up with some racism (I have that luxury, being white) while I try to make them understand that people are more or less the same the world over.

    I would love for dipshits like Dutton and Hanson and Bernardi and Abbott to be afflicted with an incurable skin condition that turned their skin black. That would just be delicious.

  6. Kaye Lee

    7:30 report tonight had a story about the difficulties the Sudanese community are facing. A couple of mothers made a very important point. They come here to escape war but are not equipped to deal with the freedom. They do not know how to parent their children under this new freedom and some of them are going off the rails. They also showed other young Sudanese people who are doing great things and who do not want to be tarred with the brush of the few who do the wrong thing.

    We need special support for these people, both when they arrive, and ongoing, in how to deal with child protection and other strategies for helping the transition to a new culture. We cannot understand how difficult that must be. We need to help Sudanese community leaders, It is in everyone’s best interests to offer the support they need. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is the effect the program will have and I do wonder about its timing.

  7. Johny

    Couldn’t agree more Kaye, well said.

  8. wam

    Wow, a beautiful picture of Australian children from every continent but one!

    In the moir family’s eyes this is the Australian racism swept under the carpet of Africa and Islam and no different to your references to dutton or hanson.

    The “need special support’ for these people?
    Which people those who cope, join and succeed or?
    Have you been to centrelink and seen the squeaky gates get well treated and see those missing from your picture waiting patiently in the back?
    Have you seen muslim families with squealing kids get early appointments before leaving in their big 7 seater toyotas? Have you stood when an Aborigine asks a question and the answer is directed to the white man?
    Those of you who are out of work will know the troubles some Australians have at centrelink offices.
    Those retired go to a centrelink office about ten and observe.
    Those who have ‘I have worked all my life and one dole bludger is too many’ friends on facebook will know what they see when they go to centrelink to get medicare rebates.

  9. Kaye Lee

    There are many races not shown in the photo wam which was just chosen because it’s a nice pic of some kids. I was aware of the omission and perhaps should have looked longer. But the picture is surely not the important part and I did mention Aboriginal discrimination and disadvantage and the evils it causes in the article. It is an issue that requires much more than passing mention, I agree.

    I have had the privilege of knowing some inspirational Aboriginal women in my life. They have taught me many things. They are never omitted from my thoughts wam and I share your despair at their struggle and our loss as we fail our children.

  10. MichaelW

    Kaye Lee I also watched the 7.30 report, the Sudanese community are certainly facing difficulties as have many people from overseas over the years, let’s hope they overcome them.
    Halfway through the show I said to my wife Andrew nut Bolt will be wetting his pants watching this. Guess what one of his main “comment” pieces will be about tomorrow. Then again his comments are the same everyday, must be the most overpaid journalist(?) in Australia. Hopefully they will soon put him behind a paywall along with Akerman, Divine and the rest of the right wing nut jobs that pose as journalists(?) at the Telelaugh so I am not tempted to read and reply to some of the lunatics that post comments there.

    Bit off topic sorry about that.

  11. Kaye Lee

    Not off topic at all Michael. I visited Larry Pickering’s site a few times just to see what was being said. It was horrifying. I will never go back.

  12. Matters Not

    I too watched the 7:30 Report and paid some attention to the difficulties that some in the Sudanese community are facing. Sure many have difficulty with what they claimed was the ‘freedom’ bit, but, to be fair, who hasn’t faced such problems with their own adolescent offspring.

    But the important point that KL is making – that we have poor induction programs which inevitably lead to (foreseeable) problems down the track – is a valid one. For example, Sudanese have large families – six or more children tends to be the ‘cultural’ norm. To have that many is just ‘common sense’, so why be different. Not to be ‘different’ is part of the ‘human condition’ I suspect.

    I am sure that those who work with refugees know how difficult it is to fit in to what is a completely different ‘common sense’ but I know they are not afforded the required resources to ease that transition.

  13. Kaye Lee

    The number of children the women have tends to get less the longer they have been here and the more opportunity they have for education and work.

    I agree adolescence is a difficult time but when the kids (and parents) are transplanted from a culture of oppression and obedience to one of freedom and choice perhaps it is a lot to cope with, so many new temptations. Their old strategies don’t work. We don’t bring kids up in fear (well most of us don’t). We gradually give them responsibility and help train them to make the right choices. Whatever the case, we need strategies to address it rather than the blame I fear will be unleashed by this story as it feeds into the Hanson racism and Dutton dogwhistling.

  14. Bultaco Metralla

    I grew up in the fifties and sixties. Went to catholic schools with a population of Slavs, Italians, Poles and Maltese and every other kid whose mum and dad wanted something better than the local State School but couldn’t get into the WASP private schools. We fought among ourselves as all kids do but when we played Rugby against those WASP schools we were as one with the final growl from Brother Alfred ringing in our ears
    “Remember boys, they’re Protestants”
    The Duttons and Hansons of this world are still clinging to that ideal of white middle class privilege as though they are entitled to something better.

  15. Keitha Granville

    People need to stop for a minute and wonder what our society would look like with no Greeks, no Poles, no Italians, no Chinese, no Vietnamese, no anyone else from anywhere else. We’d have a poorer and less colourful nation, we’d have no ideas or interest in any other part of our world. All our migrants enrich our lives , no matter their origin. When I read complaints that Muslims ( a religion actually not a race) don’t assimilate into our way of life I think of the Chinatowns in our cities, the little Italys, where those migrants settled into our land near others who understood them and their culture. Do we condemn them now ? Of course not, they are a part of all of our lives, Race, religion, ethnicity, whether migrants or our own indigenous people should have NO place in modern Australia. We do our country’s name a disservice by engaging in these bigoted arguments.

  16. mark

    If you’re of pure breed and commenting,have a talk to yourself.mark

  17. Kaye Lee

    What is considered pure breed mark?

    I have been thinking about what George and wam said and it has brought home to me how complete that segregation was when I was growing up. I don’t remember any Aboriginal kids at school. Perhaps I am just like Miriam and didn’t notice but I also have no memory of playing with them when I would go back bush every school hols. At least that has changed. My kids had lots of Aboriginal friends at school and sport and Aboriginal teachers too. I know we still have a long way to go but the change is heartening. We are no longer kept apart.

  18. mark

    Someone who breeds with their own race,kaye lee.mark

  19. Kaye Lee

    What is my race? The human race? White people? Australians? What is an Australian?

  20. mark

    You win kaye lee,there is no such thing as race,just germans,brits,ities,greeks,chinese,indians,lebs,vietnamese,portugeuse,and so on.mark

  21. Kaye Lee

    Sorry mark. I didn’t mean to sound dismissive. I am not trying to “win”…just to ask questions because most of us are mongrels of some description.

  22. Anomander

    Race is a human construct. Remove the skin from any human being and you will notice we are all the same underneath.

    As a species we aren’t particularly diverse at all. Apart from a few modifications to height, skin, hair and eye colour/shape, we all fall within a very narrow framework that applies to all humans.

    Compare us to a species like dogs, which covers an enormously diverse range.

    The fact we continue to continue to divide ourselves into different colours or regional origins, is so some people can feel superior and create a power imbalance.

    Given the very same education and opportunities, all humans pretty much perform at the same level, regardless of race. A prime example of this is ‘genius’, which is proportionally represented across the entire population (approximated as 1 in 400). This means in Australia there are around 2,500 people with an IQ above 145, whereas in China that would equate to around 3.5 million – almost the population of Melbourne. In Africa there would be around 3 million geniuses – the big difference is the lack of education, health care and opportunities.

    We should be seeking to work together, as a species, to ensure our survival, not opposing each other because of our racial background, because fundamentally – we are all the same.

  23. mark

    I’m Italian,British.and imagine Lee is English.mark

  24. Anomander

    @MN You are right about the Sudanese. Most who come here are not given a grounding in the societal norms and rules, we all know intrinsically. I’ve heard several great examples over the years.

    One was from a small enclave in Coffs Harbour – the Sudanese kids kept riding around without helmets and the cops kept pulling them over and issuing fines, which the kids didn’t understand. They were also so fearful of the police, they would not tell their parents, so the fines eventually became arrest warrants. It wasn’t until many months later, one of the cops realised nobody ever told the parents their kids need to wear bike helmets. Once someone spoke to the parents and informed them, they immediately raced out and brought helmets for this kids.

    Another was a Sudanese bloke who was housed in a suburb 15km out of town. Scoring a job to earn some money, he would dutifully walk to work every day until, after almost 12 months, he made enough money to buy an old clunker car. Of course with zero training and knowledge of the road rules, he soon came under notice of the police, who locked him up several times for being unlicensed. They also never told him about the court process so he was eventually issued arrest warrants. It wasn’t until he fronted court and that they realised nobody ever told him how to apply for a drivers license or that there were people who could teach him how to drive. The charges were dismissed, he learnt to drive and got a license and is now a productive member of the community. He now works with new immigrants, explaining all the rules, so they don’t make the same mistakes.

  25. Michael Taylor

    “Race is a human construct”.

    So true. At uni I was told the obvious: Aboriginality didn’t exist until the English applied the label. Imagine that? For 60,000 years Aborigines didn’t know they were Aborigines until the English told them they were.

  26. Kaye Lee

    All of my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were born in Australia. Three of my great-great-grandparents were born here, the first in 1818. His parents arrived in 1808. Lee is Irish as are pretty much all of my ancestors with a few English thrown in (skin cancer here I come). There are five transported convicts among them.

  27. Paul

    Sorry, but I was born in 1955, and in the 60’s discrimination was rife. Italian, Maltese and Greek kids were called wogs and dagoes, garlic eaters, etc. It was not sweetness and light. My surname is Germanic, kids called me a Nazi. There were no Aboriginal, Asian or African kids at any of my schools.

  28. Kaye Lee

    Children have to learn that behaviour Paul. I know it went on, but my parents would never have tolerated it. They met teaching at Villawood primary school. My father taught migrants to speak English at night. Occasionally mum would have some of his adult students around to our place. I never thought to think of them as different and if I had called anyone a name I would have been smacked.

  29. Ella

    Kay Lee, your pice brought back many memories . As a refugee in the late fifties , I remember the taunts in Western suburbs high school.

    I also felt very sad listening to Sudanese youth.

    Our family came from a rural backward area with its prejudices.I suffered as a young adult because the values reflected to me in the community did not match those in the family.My good parents were trying to hang on to their values and could not understand why I became such a horrible rebellious teenager.Their values were a part of their very being and so they found it hard to change.

    I could not understand why my garlic loaded salami sandwich should cause me such pain and ridicule.
    I could not understand why I had to wear black for 12 months when my grandmother died.Today it would have been hip in the Western suburbs but in those days it was a reason for ridicule. I could not understand why I needed a chaperone to attend a girlfriend’s birthday party.
    My parents could not understand how young girls would be allowed to go out without one. As a result I stopped accepting invitations because they were only a source of conflict.So I became socially isolated.

    It is this isolation and conflict of values cause such grief for youth and parents alike.

    When I had children of my own, the conflict of cultures continued . I found myself again fighting my parents for the right for my children (both girls) to grow up without this cultural conflict.

    On a more positive note my few friends who came to our house loved my parents because to them they were giving loving and funny.
    Nobody left our home without a feed and care packages of very yummy food. My friends could not see the struggle and conflict.

    Now years later , I look back on my brave ,proud, protective parents with love and respect and wish they were still here to have a good discussion about cultural conflict, and politics…these were hot topics at the dinner table.

  30. Kaye Lee

    Ella and Paul, you make me ashamed that perhaps I did not recognise the struggle my friends were going through. As I said, to me they were just my friends.

  31. Ella

    Kaye Lee, there us nothing to feel ashamed about. A person has to “walk a mile in another’s shoe” to truly understand . It is obvious that our out of touch government has not done the above ……

  32. Pilot

    Racism is a learned skill not genetic. Every racist taunt is taught to children by their parents or their peers. I was born in the country and moved to the coast as a child. We were brought up in what would now be classed as a racist household, my parents were level headed and fair but still used the various names to refer to those from different countries.

    The funny thing is though, at school, all us “white kids” would line up to trade our sandwiches (sammiches) with most especially, the Italian kids. Our parents wouldn’t make our lunch with Salami or finely slice garlic or….. blah blah blah. We stood by our “imports”, all our group, through years of schooling. When we entered High school and met students from the other feeding schools it appeared that all was exactly the same in those other schools, the majority accepted their imported students exactly the same as we did, but there were small groups of morons who couldn’t leave the name calling alone.

    In those days we really didn’t know what racism was all about…… I got ridiculed and mocked about my size but my imported mates defended me, not that I needed defending, but they were there for me, the same as I was there for them. I was (initially) treated with suspicion by their parents when I visited their homes, as were many of my friends, but it didn’t last.

    We have Muslim neighbours as well as Australian neighbours, and no one complains about anyone.

    We live in a World created by ourselves, we can cocoon ourselves or we can soar like eagles, the choice is within us to live our lives either in fear of others or to embrace them.

    Ella, I stand with you, beside you. I will defend you if necessary, I will protect you and anyone who feels they are being unfairly treated, as will my family. I will stand against bigots, racists and screamers. They are a disgrace to this country.

  33. Ella

    Kay Lee, just one more thing , my daughters now have children of their own , who are happy well adjusted Australian children.They play the usual sports and are part of their community.
    They are proud of their grandmother’s heritage, funny customs, and they love the yummy food parcels that arrive seasonally .
    I guess this is multiculturalism in action.

  34. Ella

    Pilot, thank you . What you said is the true Australian spirit that I learned to love , respect and engender in my children and grandchildren.

  35. Kaye Lee

    Beautifully said Pilot. The standards we walk past are the standards we accept. My family also stands with you.

  36. Pilot

    My grandfather had a general store in Bexley for many years. In the late 50’s an Italian family leased the shop next door and sold many Italian goods. They were truly great friends, through the haze of time since passed, they were brilliant people. Anyway, one day, Pop and “Gerry” (Giovani) were out the front of their shops and Pop went in and grabbed the white wash. He painted on his window, “Shop here before the day goes.” Now this really sounds racist, but it brought howls of laughter from Gerry who brought his wife out to view it, they laughed…. Pop scrubbed off “day” and changed it to “Sun” and added “down”, much to “Gerry’s” disdain.

    We can be cheeky, but it must be done with empathy and in good grace. The sign was remove before the Sun went down.

    “Gerry” told us of this stunt (in laughter) when we visited Pop from the country, they were regular guests when we’d visit the Big Smoke.

  37. abbienoiraude

    Wonderful post Kaye.
    Wonderful comments.

    I was brought up in the 1950’s.
    I came from a loving, caring family but dad was racist. He used terms mentioned by others and believed the “British superiority”.
    He was in Greece, Crete, Syria and Egypt during WW11 and had a best mate who was Greek-Australian who helped him survive running across Crete.

    He worked in the Ag Dept of NSW Govt and we had an Indian guest several times who came to him learning what dad could share to take back to India.

    Whenever dad met some ‘Other’ he changed his tune re racism. “Greeks were wonderful. Indians were British and hardworking.”

    My first remembered learning to be racist was when I was 3. I was taken to the local pool in a little country town to learn to swim.
    I was on the grassed area doing my arm practises ( Freestyle) and looked up to see these faces watching through the wire fencing. I asked dad on the way home why couldn’t those kids play with us.
    He answered that they were dirty and carried diseases like hookworm so couldn’t swim with us.

    By the time I was 15 I started to doubt what I was being taught. My friends backgrounds were usually from Lebanon or Italy at highschool but dad could barely tolerate their religion…’Catholic!’ ( The divide between Poddies and Catholics was still there in 1960’s small towns).

    By 19 I was thinking differently to my father.
    By 30 I found a photo in my mum’s collection of a little girl standing with a black man. I took it to mum and asked who was these people.
    The little blonde girl ( around 4) was her and the man was her great grandfather. She was so ashamed.

    By my early 40’s I was starting to trace my ancestry trying to work out who this man was.
    During Reconciliation I sat at the feet of women Elders and learned their stories and heard the patience in the male Elders who answered my questions with honesty and humour.

    All family members still insist that my gr gr grandfather was either an Afghan, a Jamaican, an Indian…anything but an Aboriginal.

    We will probably never know…too much cover up, too many relatives who knew now dead…Too late.

    My mum died and I looked after dad for a while. I remember going to her grave with him ( he went every Sunday give her flowers as he did every day when she was alive as he cared for her dealing with MS) and he was glancing around the other headstones and saw one with an Aboriginal flag on it. “Oh look. One of YOUR mob.”
    He didn’t know …he was just reverting back to his racist upbringing.

    Now my children are grown and flown. Our son lives and works and is married to a South Korean girl. Our daughters have dated Australians of differing backgrounds and I am relieved to declare that;
    Racism stopped with me…
    After generations of being ‘carefully taught’.

    Dutton, Morrison, Abbott et al will go down in history as the thorn in the backside of our beloved Nation. Hope their god damns them as well.

  38. townsvilleblog

    Kaye, I am from English/Irish background and born mid 50s and was always taught to judge people on the personality they presented, regardless of race, colour or creed. That attitude has served me well for 61 years, and I don’t plan on changing now.

  39. Pilot

    KUDOS abbienoiraude!!!!!!!! Great words!!!! Please keep working on tracing your roots mate.

    In the end, we are all: “One of us”.

    There are some things that stick in our throats like a fish bone, racism and bigotry are my fish bones.

  40. Ella

    Kay Lee, what a wonderful post. What wonderful conversation, which reveals that we are all just as Pilot so aptly put it
    “in the end we are all one of us” and as you started “just friends”.
    Hoping to read more from you .

  41. abbienoiraude

    Thank you Pilot!
    I heartily agree.

    I am keenly aware of how carefully I was taught so am aware every day that those lessons learned at my ( darling, dear, loving) father’s knee must be expunged forever. He was taught so carefully in the 1920’s/30’s that ‘Eugenics was the key’.

    Great description, Pilot; ‘racism and bigotry are my fish bones’.

  42. jimhaz

    I cannot recall of any children of recent immigrants at my catholic school (400km from Sydney, ended school in 1975). Non-English names were rare. I have a feeling everyone I knew at school was born here.

    I do have a vague recollection one of my transient friends having something to do with Israel or Lebanon – I recall seeing some bad scars on his mum (single) when I visited his flat one time (and no one lived in flats back then). I was told she ran into a glass window.

    The only foreigners I can recall are a few Chinese, who grew melons and other veges down by the river, or ran the Chinese restaurants (and to whom we were not kind to).

    In my year 11 Public school, there would have been a small number of southern Europeans – the only one I can recall at all was very hot and leggy Greek girl with a scary strict father.

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