Indians and Africans should work together against racism: Dr Berhan Ahmed

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The African Think Tank chairman believes the two communities need to connect with each other to increase the opportunities available

Australia’s Indian and African communities should work together to tackle shared problems like racism and discrimination, according to African Think Tank chairman Dr Berhan Ahmed.

“We have got some commonalities between our communities and we need to stand together,” said Mr Ahmed, a well-known advocate for the African community in Australia. Dr Ahmed was born in Eritrea in the Horn of Africa and became a refugee at the age of 15 when he was forced to flee to Sudan. He managed to earn a degree in agricultural sciences from the University of Alexandria in Egypt after the UNDP provided funding for his high school education. Immigrating to Australia as a refugee, Dr Ahmed went on to complete a master’s in animal science from Latrobe University and earn a PhD in forest sciences from Melbourne University.

He worked for Australia’s eminent science body the CSIRO for a decade and established the Africa Think Tank in 2006 to support refugee and other immigrant communities.

Dr Ahmed, who has been actively trying to enter the political sphere since becoming the first African immigrant to run for parliament in 2004, fighting for a Senate seat, said both young African and Indian-Australians are affected by discrimination in the corporate world.

“If you don’t have that network (in the corporate world) you end up going nowhere,” said Dr Ahmed, who in 2012, ran for the position of Lord Mayor of Melbourne but lost out to Robert Doyle.

“The number of our Africans graduating from university is increasing and in proportion, out of ten, one or two get a job, but eight to nine people they don’t get a job,” he added.

“When you compare this to other people in the mainstream, six or seven people they get a job (after university). We’re not asking for privileges we’re asking for equal opportunity,” said Dr Ahmed.

Dr Ahmed added that the African community recently scored a win after revealing this issue to government and gaining support for a leadership program to build ties between Africans and the corporate sector.

Lobby together
Dr Ahmed said there was great potential for Indians and African-Australians to band together to advocate for shared concerns and lobby government.

“We need parliamentarians from our background to stand on our issues and our values,” he said.

“We talk about identities and pride of identity for our kids but what they see on the TV what they look at in the role models are different, so how can we? On the one hand we talk about multiculturalism and on the other hand we are not sharing everything together. So this should be our collective endeavour: to bring together people from different backgrounds that are not represented in (the mainstream),” he said.

He added that although the African community was small compared to the Indian community in Australia, it was known for raising its voice and had valuable experience pushing minority concerns into the mainstream.

Shared values
Dr Ahmed said Indians and Africans both had strong family values and cultures rich in dance, music and arts.

“We are a culture of dancing and music and that brings a lot to the arts now—it’s flourishing in Australia with African talents,” he said.

Dr Ahmed suggested one way to highlight the shared values and cultural richness of both communities would be to hold a joint festival.

“We have to take initiatives to bring our two peoples to work together in making something that brings everyone to see that we are not different, we are the same,” he said.

“We talk about multiculturalism as connecting with the mainstream. Why can’t we connect between each other? Instead of just looking vertically, look horizontal as well.  That way we can increase the opportunities available for our communities,” he added.

Negative stereotypes
Dr Ahmed said the African community in Victoria had suffered with negative stereotypes because of how they were portrayed in American cinema and a lack of understanding about their culture.

“Extended family is part of normal African lives. We come from big families, and our value for family is not limited to father, mother or uncle it goes beyond that,” he said.

“We’ve got a saying in Africa that it takes a village to bring up a child—that’s the communal spirit of the African values.

People sit, talk, walk together, it’s normal. But in this society when they see young people walking together they see them as ‘gangs’ and this is purely derived from African-Americans in American TV and movies,” he said. “That stereotype has created a big problem within our community,” he added.

Published in The Indian Sun (Indian Australian Magazine)

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