As had boats brought my parents to Australia so too had they carried hundreds of Hazara men, women and children who sought asylum here. I had the good fortune to work with some of them, to produce a mixed media installation which has brought me back to my outer western Sydney homeland.
In 1976 Liverpool was home to both the aspirant Liverpool Green Valley Community Radio station and one of three video access centres in Sydney’s outer western suburbs. I had my curiosity piqued by both. Fortunately for me both were in the same building; above a milk-bar directly opposite Liverpool railway station.
I spent countless after school hours, weekends and school holidays there. I learnt how to edit video, to script a scene and frame a shot and when I mastered the radio broadcast console I grew confident with my own voice eventually hosting my own midnight to dawn program during test broadcasts. It seemed totally natural to work in both video and sound, from lugging porta-paks to spinning turntables, toggling between Umatic tape decks and threading Revox reel-to-reel recorders. What could be more normal to a 16 year old than holding a video camera in one hand and a microphone in the other?
It was the beginning of an independent media movement in Australia. Community media sought to use the airwaves to reach neighbourhoods with their own voices, their own stories, own languages and news that was locally and culturally relevant to them. Our audiences came from everywhere. And they still do, though there’s a whole lot more of everywhere than I knew then and the borders on the maps that intrigued me so as a child would inevitably change.
The outer west of my youth was largely populated by east and southern Europeans. It also included Lebanese and Turks, Syrians and a minority of families from English and Irish descent whose men and boys, not all but many, terrorised us foreigners. The Liverpool I remember was a frightening place. As was Cabramatta, Fairfield, Guildford, Merrylands, Granville and Auburn. I knew one indigenous family from infants and primary school. But that’s about it. It would be some years, into my early 20s before I would meet aborigines again.
Leap 37 years to 2013 and I find a very different Liverpool. In fact the outer west as I knew it is barely recognisable. Freeways, giant franchises, industrial sites and vast housing developments have consumed so many of the market gardens that had fed Sydney since the late 1940s. Where once people walked or rode bicycles to grocery stores cars now mule in tandem from street to street, penetrating deeper into suburbs flanked by bulky structures offering furniture, building supplies and flame grilled chicken. A seemingly endless fug of cars and trucks – tributaries of mobile commuters flowing from slip road to bypass – compete for space with Sydney’s expansive public transport system.
The Europeans have by and large moved on, replaced by middle eastern, north African, south and east Asian migrants and asylum seekers. It should not be forgotten why we came here regardless where we are now dispersed. We had all fled, sought sanctuary and the promise of a better, safer and prosperous life in this country. Ironic isn’t it? We come to a nation founded by gaolers and thugs with genocidal tendencies, and a fear of new arrivals, particularly those that chose the sea as the means by which to reach Australia, as if the boats that brought convicts to these shores still come.
When my parents arrived in 1950, on a two year working visa, my father was stateless, formally known as a ‘displaced person’ and my mother renounced her Austrian citizenship so as to enjoy the same benefits afforded her husband. They were cruelly treated by their hosts. Their boat docked in Pyrmont. The land of gold and honey my father had promised his wife saw them herded onto transports that took them to Villawood Hostel, now known more commonly, and aptly, as a detention centre. The men were separated from their women and children and offered to contractors who chose whom they wanted for what ever work was required. My father ended up cooking on a farm in Orange. My mother, along with every other woman off their ship, was strip naked and hosed down for lice. In front of their male guardians. She and her son were taken to another location until such time as she could be reunited with her husband. The gaolers had not yet been bred out from the land. It may take a while yet before they are.
The turn of the new century has seen these unsympathetic thugs harden their immigration policies. Asylum seekers are now the new “other”, the feared stranger, so desperate that they would cross vast and perilous oceans finding the heavy hand of a dispassionate government seeking to reap political fortune by turning their backs on the international conventions they had agreed to, conventions that ought ensure save passage for all whom flee violence and persecution. This is not a new Australia. For better or worse, we are still a product of our penal settlement origins.