13 July 2010
To most people, news of a home invasion early this month in southwest Sydney was just another disturbing crime story. But those following the detail in some of the local papers might have picked up that the 19-year-old charged with the machete murder of one of the occupants bore a Fijian name.
Two weeks before the murder, islander community leaders had gathered at Parramatta in western Sydney to break their silence on what they regarded as a worsening crisis.
"Ten or fifteen years ago the offences that were being committed across the board were petty crime, driving while disqualified, shoplifting, break-and-enters, but now it's more violent," Kalisi Bese told Telinga Media. She coordinates programs for Pacific islanders at Parramatta jail and was an organiser of last month's Talanoa community forum convened to address youth crime in Pacific islander communities.
"We're talking about armed robbery with intent, murder, home invasion, so this is really hardcore. And the thing is, they're arming themselves and you can just see there's a lot of anger that's coming out from these young people," she says.
Young, armed and violent is not an image community elders want to acknowledge but they have been compelled to take this first step: "That was one of the hardest things - to plant the seed so people can actually start talking about it because this is all taboo issues that we're talking about here," Kalisi says about the Parramatta forum that has energised disparate organisations to revive programs that have long stagnated.
It turns out much useful research already exists, such as a three-and-a-half year study by Mission Australia which traced the source of tensions between young Pacific islanders and the criminal justice system. The study found that authorities such as police and teachers were misinterpreting behaviour derived from cultural difference as rebellious and anti-social.
Jioji Ravulo, a youth worker with Mission Australia, gives an example that traces the problem back to the family.
"Research found especially in marginalised Pacific families, a lack of emphasis placed on education within the family. Formal education is not necessarily emphasised in Pacific families," he told the Talanoa forum. This leads to non- participation at school and a perception by teachers that Pacific students are non-compliant and stereotypically disengaged from schooling. Similarly, the normal obligations of older siblings to devote time to caring for younger ones could feed this stereotype.
Pacific culture in the family and what is expected outside the family are often in conflict. Confusion is inevitable: "Growing up I was told one thing and as soon as I walked out the door, I have to do the opposite. But I wouldn't let my parents know," a young ex-offender told Telinga Media. "Fijian way is this way, but the Western society is this way, so when I close that door, I have to juggle both of them."
Mission Australia has run programs that attempt to address these points of confusion and conflict where they occur - in the family, at school and with police. Through its Pasifika Support Services, Jioji explained how teachers and police needed to learn how 'to understand what Pacific communities look like', and use that knowledge to interact with Pacific islanders in ways that don't further marginalise them. Likewise, the program seeks to employ Pacific islander case workers to reaffirm cultural values - like communal responsibilities - and work through attitudes to authority such that youth do not feel forever victimised and harassed by teachers and police.
These same case workers had the job of earning the trust of parents and counselling them on how best to support their kids' education. This could be as straightforward as assisting them with welfare entitlements, making funds available for school materials.
Although the program was discontinued at the end of last year, its ideas are being recycled. The divisions between family and formal education are being broken down - for example - by calling in elders to help run cultural programs at three schools in Parramatta, one of which has 300 Pacific islanders enrolled.
While Kalisi Bese acknowledges the rise in violent crime committed by Pacific islanders, she rejects the idea of an 'ethnic crime' problem in Pacific island communities. Rather young Pacific islanders are entering into criminal association with non-Pacific islanders who perpetrate increasingly violent gang-related crimes.
The buzz created at the Parramatta forum was about doing whatever it takes to minimise the risks of youth making those fateful choices. And that means islander communities stepping up and making it their business to understand how the legal system works for and against their kids. And there is plenty to learn from past mistakes.
Like many other speakers at the Talanoa forum, Maurice Kriss, a barrister with a law practice at Parramatta, supports cultural education both for rehabilitation and as a way of giving offenders a chance to avoid jail. He was involved in setting up a diversionary program in the Blue Mountains region outside Sydney. The Aboriginal participants were required to complete courses in anger management, drug & alcohol issues, culture & the arts and literacy as an alternative to jail time.
"Most cultures have certain aspects about them that they maintain. And I think maintaining a traditional language is important, learning about their culture and maintaining it," Maurice explained. "The whole idea is that the indigenous community are responsible for their own youth and they are there supervising the courses."
While the idea was sound, Maurice believes the project failed because elders were trying to exercise authority over the wrong people: "One of the problems that came with that aspect was that because the indigenous youth of Australia are attached to a land, they are attached to an area," he said. "So if you have indigenous elders from another area, they would not listen or didn't feel obliged to take notice of an elder from a different community."
Another problem with such attempts to steer youth away from imprisonment was the lack of work at the completion of courses. But Maurice believes programs employing Pacific elders as supervisors stand a better chance of success.
"Because Pacific Islanders have left their homeland and are now living in a foreign country, they're living together as a community to work as one," he said. "It is much easier where there is no demarcation lines in land. Whether you're living in Campbelltown or in Palm Beach, it doesn't matter, you're an islander and you have one common interest and that is the benefit and betterment of your own people."
Kalisi Bese believes the Talanoa initiative has generated alot of social capital that can now be expended on creative new programs and reviving some old ones.
"The [islander] community in itself is fragmented. There are so many different organisations in each of them. Everybody needs to link in together and actually help each other out," she says. In fact, since last month's meeting, island groups have been putting their hands up to cooperate.
With the prospect of losing their men at ever younger ages to lengthy prison sentences, one wonders why common cause was not forged sooner.
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