Speech given by Dr. Berhan Ahmed at the 13 February dinner to honour him for winning Victorian of the Year 2009. Because of the recent damage and widespread deaths from the Hellfire Day bushfires, this dinner was used to raise funds to be donated to bushfire victims.
(This speech has been lightly edited)
A) Introduction B) Thanks C) On the importance of volunteers and of working for integration D) The benefits of migration and how to maximise those benefits E) Volunteers during the bushfires F) We must all work to end racial, sexual, cultural and religious discrimination G) Conclusion: There is only one world.
Honourable Minister(s), distinguished guests, brother and sister Victorians;
Before starting today, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we stand, the Yalukit-willam, one of the five clans of the Bunurong people, the traditional owners of the Port Phillip land.
- I was profoundly moved to have been given this award, this very special honour, of Victorian Australian of the Year. I want to say that even though this year I was given this award, I could accept it only on behalf of those people who are maybe less visible but who devote their time and lives to the community. Every day I am humbled by those whose unacknowledged efforts help to make this country the land of opportunity and freedom that it truly is. When I went to Canberra as a nominee for Australian of the Year, I was proud and humbled to meet the other nominees. I have not done even ten percent of the work for humanity that those people have done.
- There are various people that I have to thank today. Firstly, my thanks go out to the wider community, to all those of whatever colour or creed make up this, our wonderful country. Twenty-one years ago I arrived in this land, from a refugee life in Sudan/Egypt, coming from a time and place of horror and little hope to a land of hope and opportunity. Those years that I spent in a refugee life are still with me as I work here every day. If in these years I have been able to better my own position and to make a place here for myself and my family, it is because of the acceptance, the assistance, the openness and the trust of the wider Australian community. That this community, this country, still thrives and continues to grow is because of that acceptance and openness. So my first thanks go to all Australians. Thank you.
- Secondly, I need to thank my nominators Ms. Barbara Chapman and Ms. Julie Edward, the members of the various African communities and especially the African Think Tank members and my colleague Mr. Haileluel Gebreselassie, and leaders of African communities. It is your support, especially the support of the African Think Tank members in Australia, who have allowed me to act as their chairman and to coordinate their efforts that allow me to stand here today. Thank you.
- Thirdly, I would like to thank the many volunteers and workers who continue to dedicate their lives every day to helping refugees and immigrants from Africa to become part of Australia. Our volunteers such as Yasseen Musa, Berhan Jaber and Anwar Sheikh who give their time so untiringly, and many others who I have not time to mention today. Our volunteers from the wider community, Ken Betts, community justice advocate in Footscray, and our worker Geoff Byng, also known as the poet and writer Thomas Kent. To everyone I have named and all those many others who have also contributed thank you all so much.
- One person I would like to especially mention is my mother Zahra Mohamed. Though she is unable to come due to old age, I owe everything to the support, the teaching, and the mentoring that she gave me from birth. And last but not least, I have to thank above all my dear wife, Zahra, my son Shifa, daughter Lina and Mona and my family, who provide the support and inspiration without which nothing that I do would be possible. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
C) On the importance of volunteers and of working for integration
- To the wider Australian community and their representatives, I need to say this. There are still many in terrible conditions in the world, in refugee camps in Sudan, in the terrible conflict in Congo and in other places. It has been said, and I have to acknowledge that it is true, that people from such horrific backgrounds have more difficulty adjusting to life in Australia. The distance to be traveled, the mental and emotional distance to put this turmoil behind them, is very great. But my own life is only one example among many thousands of examples I could give you that this distance can be traveled. All over Australia are tens of thousands of people who are using the chance to make new lives to become a part of the beautiful multicultural fabric of our land. Some of the children of these refugees and immigrants will be our future leaders in sports, in athletics, in science and medicine, even in literature and the arts. Any support that we give these people from such troubled parts of the world is not wasted. I have seen, myself, again and again, that it is returned tenfold. The best and safest path for Australia and the one with the most hope and benefit for our land is to do all we can to help newcomers integrate into our society. I hope you will allow me to present myself as an example of this.
- To the migrants from Africa and other refugees I want to say this. You will at times face setbacks and prejudice. It can be very hard to adjust to a new culture and a new land. Never think that the society is against you. All over this country, the people are silently willing and hoping that you will succeed. You can succeed. Whatever your circumstances, it is possible to overcome them. Never be afraid to acknowledge difficulties that you are having. Never be scared to admit them. Never be shy to ask for help because help is there for the asking. This country wants you to succeed and it is possible to succeed, in some cases, beyond your wildest dreams.
- To the volunteers and workers I want to say this. There are only a very few people who have the motivation and the time and opportunity to give their lives and skills for the benefit of the community. Often in times of struggle and weariness we can feel that our efforts are in vain. To you and volunteers everywhere I want to say: your efforts are never in vain. Even the smallest action has its effects. Even this year, we have been able to help make an enormous difference. Our publicising the plight of refugees in Ethiopia contributed greatly to new homes being given to thousands of those refugees. All of us can at times feel undervalued and under appreciated: that is the burden that we are asked to bear as volunteers, or as underpaid workers. But in truth those efforts are more valued and appreciated and have more effect than we will ever know.
D) The benefits of migration and how to maximise those benefits
- We are entering difficult economic times, and there will be some who question the benefit of immigration. So let me remind you that almost all of us in this great and proud land are migrants or the children or grandchildren of migrants, people who came here with the hope of finding a new future for themselves and their children. Migrants are the greatest resource for Australia’s future prosperity. They are a pool of people who understand the cultures and languages of other nations. This is a treasure-trove we can draw on for future trade and economic contacts.
- But in order to achieve this, we need to make sure that the children who grow up here are educated in this culture, and in the culture of their parents. We can undervalue the cultures that we come from. We must all realise that these cultures gave us the strength and belief that we needed to come here. To be educated in this way gives young people roots, identity, a feeling of belonging. That is what multiculturalism really means. It means biculturalism. So today, let us reaffirm and embrace and rejoice in the multicolored and rich tapestry that is our country. Let us rejoice in this diverse past and look forward joyfully to a rich and diverse future.
E) Volunteers during the bushfires
- This has been a dark week. It has been the week of the worst tragedy Australia has ever experienced. Over a hundred dead; hundreds made homeless, injured, losing property. The only reason it was not much, much worse – the reason we have light and power in Melbourne, the reason the fire is not licking at our doors – is the work of volunteers. Volunteer givers, volunteer carers, volunteers at aid stations, at call centres: above all, volunteer fireman. Almost all of those fighting fires all over this state are not paid. They give all they can and risk injury and exhaustion to save others. This week there was a story in the paper about one fireman who watched his own home burn down while he fought to save another’s. That is what being a volunteer can mean. That is what it really means.
F) We must all work to end racial, sexual, cultural and religious discimination
- If I am in any way worthy of this honour which has been given to me, it is because of this. I have never played favorites. I have never put this or that people above another. I have never been sectarian or divisive. I have tried to work in my own very small way for everybody, without asking myself what sex or what race or what colour or what culture or what religion they were. If I am worthy of any recognition today it is because of this.
G) Conclusion: There is only one world.
- And it is only because of this that I feel I can ask you to let me remind you of the truth of our world today. The whole world is now connected. It is tied together in ways that are complex and subtle and multifarious. Ways that we can scarcely even comprehend, ways that we are only just beginning to understand. Today, more than any other time in history, we must realise and believe and live daily in the knowledge that we live on just one small planet. We cannot forget about problems in places far away. There are no places far away. They are our problems too, today and tomorrow. There is only this one small, fragile planet and we are all involved in its care. The future is in all our hands and we must abandon all divisiveness and work together for the benefit of our world. We must put away all arguments and petty disputes and work together for the benefit of all. That is what the example of this week shows. Our strength lies in unity and only in unity.
So if I can leave you with just one thought today, let it be this. There is only one world and we must all work together to save it. We must all work together. There is only one world. We must all work together. There is only one world.