Fence mending high on Middle Eastern committee’s agenda

The  federal government’s Middle Eastern ministerial consultative committee had its inaugural meeting yesterday, with  perceptions of the ethnic community  high on the agenda.

Members of the new committee say they hope they can change perceptions, so incidents such as the recent violent protest by a Muslim group does not affect people’s understanding of migrants from the Middle East.

With large numbers of people from Arabic-speaking countries living in Parramatta and its surrounds, the committee’s agenda is closely linked to the city’s experiences.

Committee member Kaled Kheir, who is on the board of the Lebanese Muslim Association, said it was important to build a better understanding of the diverse Middle Eastern cultures.

‘‘A number of things like the Cronulla riots, the hijab debate and Muslim protest have affected people’s perceptions,’’ he said.

‘‘Better lines of communication with the government or police can bring to a head issues that can get out of control.

‘‘I hope to achieve a better cohesion between the Lebanese and other Middle Eastern communities and the wider community.’’

Omeima Sukkarieh, from the Auburn Community Development Network and other community organisations, is also on the committee.

She says it’s important that migrants from the Middle East are seen as fully integrated into Australian culture.

‘‘I don’t think it’s a question about what communities of Arabic speaking backgrounds, or who come from the Middle East, add to Australian culture,’’ she said.

‘‘Because no doubt they have made an incredible and invaluable contribution to building Australia as we know it today.

‘‘But it’s more that they are [recognised as] a part of the rich fabric of Australia.

‘‘It hasn’t always been a rosy relationship between the communities and government but the committee, I believe, is a positive step in the right direction.’’

Migrants from Middle Eastern countries are often frustrated that their diverse cultures are lumped under the one generic category.

The government’s committee is comprised of  representatives with Arabic ethnicity from Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq.

There are members  with Turkish and Assyrian ethnicity, and those representing diverse religious denominations including the Coptic and Maronite churches and several Islamic groups.

Federal Parramatta MP Julie Owens  chairs this and also the African ministerial consultative committee.

As the MP for a very diverse electorate, Ms Owens says she is often called on to act as a link between ethnic and religious groups and government authorities.

‘‘This is really just formalising that role,’’ she said.

Aside from working to create a better understanding of the migrant groups, Ms Owens said the committee had potential economic benefits. 

‘‘The Middle East is a really interesting area with a lot of opportunity.

‘‘[Middle Eastern] nations will follow Asian growth this century, and we have a lot of people in our community who speak the languages, and know the region and can stimulate trade.’’

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