You, me and the refugees; getting to know each other through the arts, sport and culture



By Grant Hall.  Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share,
With courage let us all combine
To advance Australia fair.

– From Advance Australia Fair (The Australian National Anthem)

In Images of Black Resistance I wrote about how photographs have the power to change the world, and the heart breaking photo of little Aylan Kurdi is a powerful example of such images. Aylan, a refugee from Syria, was photographed as he lay dead in the sand on a Turkish beach after the boat in which he and his family were attempting to reach a Greek island capsized.

The world is facing what has been termed a “refugee crisis”, but “global leadership crisis” or “global compassion and morality crisis” would be more appropriate terms, as the crisis was not the fault of the refugees, but rather of our incompetent world leaders and our acceptance of their immoral and compassionless governance.

In the wake of Aylan’s death, and under pressure from the public, governments around the world have decided to do what they should have done long ago and accept more refugees into their countries.

We are experiencing the largest numbers of people seeking safe harbor since World War Two, and whilst few countries will be “swamped” with new arrivals, increased intakes of refugees into new countries will need to be carefully managed by the governments and the broader community. This shouldn’t be a military operation but rather a practical humanitarian and cultural one; the way my home country of Australia has militarised immigration is both appalling and unnecessary. New arrivals who gain or seek to gain asylum will need support; it’s not enough to simply open the gate and then tell them to survive on their own two feet in a new country. The already existing communities, let’s call them “us” or “we”, will also need to be supported to ensure that we have the capacities to appropriately adjust to the arrival of people from different backgrounds, let’s call them “our new friends” who might live a bit differently to most of us. In short, the welcoming of our new friends needs to be managed to ensure it is a smooth and peaceful process.

Something that needs to happen is that all of us (our new friends and us) need to get to know each other. This is important because some of us might feel threatened by some of the different ways our new friends might go about doing things in their daily lives, whilst our new friends would also obviously have some fears and anxieties about living in a new land, as anyone who has ever lived abroad would appreciate and empathise with. Getting to know each other will help us all to learn about each other and grow more comfortable living side-by-side. Once we’ve gotten to know each other, fear becomes less of an issue and the transitions become smoother for all of us.

One way we can all get to know each other is through finding common ground and doing things together. If I go to a party where I don’t know many people and need to start talking to strangers to avoid becoming a wall-flower, the conversations that I strike up will frequently be based on culture. Sport, the arts, books, cooking, travel and languages are common subjects likely to turn up areas of mutual interest.

There are few people in the world who don’t have some interest in the universal languages of sport, music or food and it’s easy to find areas of mutual interest with almost anyone around the world regardless of their background, nationality, religion or culture. So when our new friends come to town, there’s no reason why we can’t seek to find these areas of mutual interest and potentially build our own friendships, just as we would at a party or while travelling overseas.

Finding mutual interests is a good start, but it’s doing things together that we build the best relationships and this was something I learned when I managed the national youth orchestra of Northern Ireland (known as the Ulster Youth Orchestra). The divisions that affected the wider community in that troubled province didn’t affect the orchestra because its members were more focused on making outstanding music together rather than dwelling on their differences.

This is an approach that is backed up by research; in his influential book The Tipping PointMalcolm Gladwell cites a study by Carol Werner and Pat Parmelee (The Similarity of activity preferences: those who play together stay together) which demonstrates how doing things together builds good relationships:

Another study done on students at the University of Utah, found that if you ask someone why he is friendly with someone else, he’ll say it is because he and his friend share similar attitudes. But if you actually quiz the two of them on their attitudes, you’ll find out that what they actually share is similar activities. We’re friends with the people we do things with, as much as we are with the people we resemble.

When decisions are made by governments or the community about how to manage the arrival of our new friends, I urge these decision makers to ensure that opportunities are presented for us to participate with our new friends in sports, arts or cultural initiatives so that we can all get to know each other. Ensuring this will lead the way in welcoming our new friends into the community and pave the way for a smooth and peaceful transition.

This is an approach that has worked well for decades in my home state of South Australia. Some years ago I had a job at the wonderful Nexus Multicultural Arts Centre in Adelaide (the capital city of South Australia) where I had the opportunity to work with refugee groups presenting art exhibitions and performances. This was a great way for us to all get to know each other. I’ve previously written about how one can get to know a culture through its art, and the arts provides a brilliant environment for cross-cultural discussion and collaboration in a supportive environment where everyone is equal.  Established in 1985 at a time when Australian policies and attitudes towards asylum seekers were more compassionate, Nexus has helped thousands of new arrivals to Australia, many of whom had arrived by boat, find their feet in their new land through organising cultural activities in which they could get involved.

South Australia (SA) has also benefitted greatly from both the Adelaide Festival Centre’s OzAsia Festival and the WOMADelaide Festival. According to its website, the OzAsia Festival is ‘Australia’s leading international arts festival entirely dedicated to engagement with Asia’. I had the privilege to work on the second OzAsia Festival in 2008, primarily with Korean artists and performers. Whilst performances and exhibitions are the core focus of the festival, OzAsia also incorporates many initiatives, such as youth workshops, that allow the public to interact and often collaborate with the visiting artists. This is cultural exchange at its purest; a two-way interaction from which both parties benefit. Since it was first held in 1992, WOMADelaide has brought hundreds of groups to Adelaide from all corners of the globe and always includes Indigenous Australian performers in its program. As a part of the WOMAD series of international festivals, WOMADelaide also provides many opportunities for off-stage cultural exchange. Before I had the opportunity to travel abroad, much of what I’d learned about the world outside of Australia was learned through arts festivals like these.

Sport works in the same way. I recently had the opportunity to spend time in India with some of the lads who manage the Darren Lehmann Cricket Academy which is also based in Adelaide. Unlike many sports academies, the Darren Lehmann Cricket Academy is far from being simply a production line designed to produce professional athletes and it was great to hear about many of their social and educational endeavours, many of which are centred on cultural engagement. Earlier this year they organised the T12 Cricket Nations Cup tournament that allowed people in South Australia to play for the country or region of their ancestry. Teams were formed from Afghanistan (the winners), Africa, Bangladesh, England, India, Pakistan, Aboriginal communities and included a World Eleven team that was made up of members of South Australia’s Islamic community. Many new arrivals to Australia played in the tournament which enabled them to make friends. The tournament also benefitted people already living in Australia by helping them to forge friendships with people from cultural groups of whom they would otherwise be unlikely to have the chance to even meet. Building understanding between cultures is vital to maintaining a peaceful and healthy society free from fear.

With organisations like Nexus, The Darren Lehmann Cricket Academy, and the OzAsia and WOMAD Festivals leading the way, is it any coincidence that of the Australian capital cities, Adelaide has less community anguish about multiculturalism, fewer incidences of race related violence and virtually zero publicly identified security threats related to terrorism? It’s no coincidence at all; the people of SA and the SA government have invested in the peace and security of the state by supporting activities where people can get to know each other by doing things together.

Scratch around a little and you can find people everywhere seeking to make their community a better place to live through culture, sport and the arts. Some years ago I was a founding member and player of the Pirates of the St. Lawrence, a Canadian cricket club based in Montreal which has gone on to become the most multicultural cricket club in the world. It was stirring to see how the Pirates made life easier for new arrivals in Montreal by inviting them to play, including many who had never played the game before. I remember some of the indoor social matches we played during the winter; three hours of cricket often followed by eight hours of boozing gave us all a great chance to get to know each other, and it’s through experiences like these that people grow to feel at ease socialising with people from different cultures.

We don’t need to rely on governments to set up initiatives which allow us to share in activities. The Pirates of the St. Lawrence cricket club was set up basically by one guy, Angus Bell, who started out with little more than a bat and a ball and a knack for inviting people out for a hit and badgering authorities into providing places to play. Governments should rightly support multicultural sport and arts initiatives for many reasons including building social cohesion and maintaining national security, and the better the support, the more peaceful our communities will be, but if they don’t, we just need to push on and do it ourselves.

If you are seeking advice on how you, your organisation or community can use the arts, sport or culture to welcome new arrivals please contact me, I would love to help!

Related posts:

Us and them, theirs and ours

Why I named my blog ‘where words fail’

Rolling with it: What Kevin Rudd, Matt and Brother Orange can teach us about international relations.

photo credit: A refugee girl moves under barbed wire via photopin (license)

2 Comments Add yours

  1. As always mate very good read. My current research in pedagogy looks at how we prepare musicians to play and interact with the wider world so your article really resonates with my advocacy for improvisational practice, multi-style collaborative learning and the like. Cheers


  2. Grant Hall says:

    Hi Anthony, I watched some of your youtube videos the other day – great stuff!

    If you get two or more musicians together from different cultures and musical disciplines and ask them to play together, what’s the first thing they do?


    I absolutely agree with your point!

    All the best,

    – Grant


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