In Conversation with Trina Otero
In 2014 we are honouring Ambassadors for “The Decade of Lateral Love™ Around the World 2012 – 2022” with a special Interview Series
Lateral Love™ Ambassadors are talking about their life journey especially for you.Join us as Trina Otero shares some of her life journey with us.
Ambassador to Lateral Love, Trina Otero
Who are you? I am Trina Otero.
Where are you from? I was born March 11, 1987 in Landstuhl, Germany, and now I live in Indiana, United States…
“And from all the lands on earth we come”
What can bring together a Palestinian/Egyptian, a Lebanese/Australian, a Bangladeshi, an Iranian, an Indian/Kenyan, a Pakistani and others to discuss their formative years? That almost sounds like the first line of a host of particularly unfunny jokes along the lines of “An Irishman, An Indian etc etc…”!
It is not. What in fact brings them together is a narrative of significant cultural influences on their development. That narrative is a book called “Coming of Age” edited by Amra Pajalic and Demet Divaroren (Coming of Age – Allen and Unwin Published 2014 RRP $18.99). The title itself does not tell you the importance of this book. The sub-title tells us however that this book is about “Growing up Muslim in Australia”.
Coming of Age is a collection of twelve vignettes of people born into the Muslim faith who have grown up and developed their persona here in Australia. It has been a contention of mine that these young people growing up across cultures and importantly often with competing social and cultural mores are those who face the biggest challenges in an era of integration. This book confirms that view. However, it also dispels a number of misconceptions. In many ways when you read of the challenges faced by Tasneem Chopra or the “Mishmash Muslim” Sabrina Houssami you realise how much the cultures have in common rather than the differences. The issues that these young people dealt with on a daily basis are no different to that which my children (Aged 11 and 9) will deal with in years to come. But it is the overlay of a faith system that imposes its additional strictures and rules that make the challenges that much more interesting.
The Muslim community ranges across 70+ ethnicities in Australia. They have a very substantial and long history of contributing to this society. From the days of the early Cameleers who came to this country to the current crop of migrants from parts of Africa and the Middle East the contribution of this community is significant. Importantly the contributors to this volume of stories are all high achievers in their chosen fields. People such as Irfan Yusuf, Tanveer Ahmed and Randa Abdel Fatah are very much household names in the advocacy field and people whose work I am very familiar with. (I have sought the advice of Irfan Yusuf on many occasions in the past). Others such as Hazem El Masri are names well known to followers of Rugby League. (Hazem is listed in Wikipedia as “Possibly Australia’s greatest goal kicker of all time”).
This book is a welcome addition to the field of advocacy in this country. It raises a host of issues around the integration of cultures and religions. For those of us who are involved in the advocacy field this book is a reminder of some of the important issues that our new and emerging communities from this faith group need to deal with in achieving the integration that we all desire. For those from the Muslim community, this is a reminder that they are not alone and that there are these high achievers who have maintained their own cultural values and yet achieved great levels of success in the wider Australian community.
When reading Hazem El Masri’s account, I was reminded of an event that I spoke at a few years ago to celebrate Multicultural Week at University of WA. My co-speaker was Bachar Houli, the young (then Essendon now Richmond) AFL player. Bachar spoke from the heart and explained the circumstances that he found himself in. Being a practising Muslim, he undertook the fast for Ramadan. His dilemma that year was the fact that Ramadan fell in the midst of the football season. That was an issue for which he was seeking advice from his Imams. He also dealt with the issue of refusing to disrobe completely in the change rooms following a game. These are matters that do not often befall people who are born and brought up in the Anglo Celtic cultures.
All the vignettes provided in the book are beautifully narrated. People like Irfan Yusuf have always had a very clever turn of phrase and with the use of well placed humour he is able to educate us without the use of a sledge hammer. Randa Abdel Fatah’s book “Does my head look big in this?” still rates as one of the cleverest pieces of writing I have seen in this area. Her piece in this collection stands up to the standard of that book.
Coming of Age – Growing up Muslim in Australia is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the integration and growth of the Multicultural Australian society we live in.
400 suicides of ATSI peoples in last three years
Image – http://www.nacchocommunique.com
Last year, I aggregated Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) hospital collated data on reported suicides of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – 996 suicides from 2001 to 2010. That is 1 in 24 of all deaths of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – by suicide. There is no ABS data available at time to determine whether the crisis has abated or got worse, but I have been record keeping reported suicides – whether through the media, community organisations or via other sources – for my own academic research on premature and unnatural deaths. I have found that from the beginning of 2011 to end 2013 there have been nearly 400 suicides – child, youth and adult – of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
My own research estimates that the 996 suicides recorded between 2001 to 2010 are an under reporting of the actual numbers, and instead of 1 in 24 deaths by suicide, I have estimated that the rate of suicide was between 1 in 12 to 1 in 16. The 2001 to 2010 suicides average to 99.96 suicides per year. In reflection it was 99 custodial deaths alone over a ten year period in the 1980s that led to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. How many suicides will it take before this nation’s most horrific tragedy is met head on with a Royal Commission?
My research compilations during the last three years of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides are at nearly 400, no less than 380. Where there had been an average 99 deaths by suicide from 2001 to 2010, according to my research the annual average for 2011 to 2013 has tragically increased to approximately 130 suicides per annum.
Last year, on October 23, the Chair of the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Council (IAC), Warren Mundine read my journalism and some of the research published predominately in TheNational Indigenous Times and by The National Indigenous Radio Service and in The Stringer and Mr Mundine responded with a never-before-seen commitment by a high profile Government official to urgently do something about the out-of-control crisis. He added the crisis to the IAC’s mandate – and he time-limited it to six months so that the crisis would not languish. But three months have passed and we have not heard anything from the Council despite several requests to them for information on any potential progress.
At the time, Mr Mundine expressed his shock at the extent of the crisis.
“The figures sit before your eyes and the scale of it you sort of go ‘oh my god, what the hell is going on?’ I admit that I was probably one of the problems, because we seem to handle mental illness and suicide and shunt it away, we never dealt with it as a society, but we have to deal with it, confront it, because we are losing too many of our people, too many of our young ones… It is about us understanding this and challenging ourselves, and as I said I am just as bad as anyone else out there who put this away and did not want to deal with mental health and the suicide rates, so we have to get over that,” said Mr Mundine.
“We are looking at putting (the suicide crisis) on the table for our first meeting, and looking at over the next three and six months at what’s the advice we will be looking at giving to the Government and the Prime Minister to deal with this issue.”
“My personal opinion, and there is no science in this, this is just my observation, is our self-esteem and culture, I think, plays a major part in these areas.”
“It is a problem and I congratulate The National Indigenous Times for putting it on the front page. We need to really start focusing on this a lot better and I’m not talking about the people who are in there already doing it because they’re the champions. I’m talking about myself and the rest of Australia, we need to get our act together.”
Since October 23 there have been two score suicides.
Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation CEO Robert Eggington said that in the last two weeks another spate of suicides has blighted both the south west and the north west of Western Australia.
“There have been suicides among our youth in recent weeks, another tragic spate. We met with the Premier last year and we are waiting for his promises to be kept to fund safe spaces and strategies for us to coordinate the helping of our people, but to date we have been kept waiting,” said Mr Eggington.
Chair of the Narrunga People, Tauto Sansbury said that he has been trying to arrange a meeting with Mr Mundine but despite three months of effort this has not occurred – Mr Mundine had promised to organise a meeting with Mr Sansbury following articles about the high rate of suicides among South Australia’s Aboriginal people.
“We have become used to broken promises by our State Government for a 24/7 crisis centre for our people and we hoped that Warren (Mundine) would represent the needs of our people, stand up for our most vulnerable, the at-risk, but to date he is yet to meet us let alone represent us,” said Mr Sansbury.
“Our young people and adults continue to fall victim to suicide.”
To the Northern Territory, where Aboriginal child suicides have increased by 500 per cent since the launching of the infamous “Intervention”, Arrente man and Bond University criminology student, Dennis Braun has reported the dark plight of one of the Territory’s communities – 33 deaths in five months. The community’s Elders have requested that the community is not publicly identified.
“The majority of the deceased were under 44 years of age. The youngest was a 13 year old who committed suicide a couple of days just before Christmas.”
“There should be an inquiry, but there is not despite 33 deaths. If this happened in an urban community like Sydney there’d be an outcry even after three or four deaths, with (residents and the wider community) wanting to know why it is happening and where to go for help.”
This publication has prioritised the suicide crisis for quite some time, sustaining the coverage, and the stories of loss, the grieving families, and we have effectively campaigned to Government to rise to the occasion. We do not apologise for this. On October 23, Mr Mundine and the Indigenous Advisory made a commitment that they must keep.
On Thursday 23rd January I was a guest of Robert and Selina Eggington of the Dumbartung Corporation at a preview screening of the film “Utopia” by John Pilger. My thanks go to them and others at the screening for an evening of great understanding and learning.
Utopia is defined as a “community or society possessing highly desirable or perfect qualities”. If ever there was a place that was further than that definition, it is the place in Canberra where Pilger commences his review of Australia’s Aboriginal reconciliation policies. The most striking feature of the vignettes that he introduces us to is the contrast. The co-existence of wealth and abject poverty in a nation described as being one of the wealthiest in the world is the sledgehammer that strikes the viewer right between the eyes. As Pilger describes it
“The town of Wilcannia, in New South Wales, is twice distinguished. It is a winner of a national Tidy Town award and its indigenous people have one of the lowest recorded life expectancies. They are usually dead by the age of 35. The Cuban government runs a literacy programme for them, as they do among the poorest of Africa. According to the Credit Suisse Global Wealth report, Australia is the richest place on earth.
Politicians in Canberra are among the wealthiest citizens. Their self-endowment is legendary. Last year, the then minister for indigenous affairs, Jenny Macklin, refurbished her office at a cost to the taxpayer of $331,144.
Macklin recently claimed that, in government, she had made a “huge difference”. This is true. During her tenure, the number of Aboriginal people living in slums increased by almost a third, and more than half the money spent on indigenous housing was pocketed by white contractors and a bureaucracy for which she was largely responsible. A typical, dilapidated house in an outback indigenous community must accommodate as many as 25 people. Families, the elderly and the disabled wait years for sanitation that works.”
The film is confronting to White Australia. It examines the lies that the entire “Intervention” was predicated on by the Howard government and in particular the unsavoury actions of Mal Brough, the Minister responsible for Aboriginal policy. It looks at the role of the ABC’s Lateline program which interviewed an alleged whistleblower. The alleged whistleblower made some outrageous statements in regard to paedophilia in certain Aboriginal communities. As Pilger advises us, all the studies and reports at the time and subsequently have indicated that this was not true of those communities. This video of Chris Graham, former editor of the National Indigenous Times, analyses the background of the whistleblower and the allegations that were made. The whistleblower was subsequently found to have been a senior public servant reporting to Mal Brough. The allegations that he made were found to be completely baseless and predicated on a series of lies concerning his own knowledge of the issues and his experiences therein.
Utopia examines issues of malnutrition in some of the communities. The images of the living conditions and the rampant diseases proliferating in the communities are starkly disturbing. It is the constant reminder that these are conditions of poverty and disadvantage that exist in a rich country that make them confronting. The words of Janelle Trees, a General Practitioner, with an almost exclusively indigenous client base continue to ring in my mind. (Her client base lives within a few kilometres of an exclusive resort charging $1000 a night and servicing Uluru. Her clients live in poverty.)
“There is asbestos in Aboriginal homes, and when somebody gets a fibre of asbestos in their lungs and develops mesothelioma, [the government] doesn’t care. When the kids have chronic infections and end up adding to these incredible statistics of indigenous people dying of renal disease, and vulnerable to world record rates of rheumatic heart disease, nothing is done.
“I ask myself: why not? Malnutrition is common. I wanted to give a patient an anti-inflammatory for an infection that would have been preventable if living conditions were better, but I couldn’t treat her because she didn’t have enough food to eat and couldn’t ingest the tablets. I feel sometimes as if I’m dealing with similar conditions as the English working class at the beginning of the industrial revolution.”
Pilger then brings the film, through the examination of the Mining industry and its impact on Aboriginal communities, back to us here in WA. The film had started with the words of Lang Hancock when he said “I would dope the water up so that they were sterile and would breed themselves out.” We then see the world through the eyes of Lang’s daughter Gina Rinehart and her opposition to the Mining tax. The role of mining in the broader context of Aboriginal culture is best explained by Robert Eggington and I paraphrasehim here. As he puts it -the mining of the land is predicated on a Non Australian Aboriginal view of the Earth and of life. When life is seen as finishing at the date of death, then there is no impediment to denuding the earth of its life sustaining properties. However, the Aboriginal view of the Earth is that of a mother. It must be nurtured and sustained for it to bear future children.
Philosophically this sets the cultural mores of the Australian Aboriginal people at conflict with the big mining operators. Our ability as a nation to achieve a peaceful coexistence of these competing demands will be a test of our leadership into the future.
The WA section in the film Utopia then takes us, through the eyes of Dr Noel Nannup and Marianne Mackay, to Rottnest Island. The brutal history of that Island is examined in some detail. The fact that the location of what was once the morgue on the island for the bodies of deceased men of Aboriginal descent, is now the kitchen of the resort facilities continues that incredible contrast that Pilger has effectively and in stark fashion reminded us of again. Much of what Nannup and Mackay take us through about Rottnest is not known to those of us who have not studied Aboriginal history. Pilger asks us to think through the issue of why Rottnest should not be considered a concentration camp of the nature seen in the history of other countries.
Pilger examines all of the issues that have received considerable media attention. The Editor of this publication, Gerry Georgatos, features in some of the discussion on air. However, much of the work he has done in exposing some of these issues that can be accessed in this publication is referenced in the movie.
The issue of child suicides as a disproportionate feature in Aboriginal communities is handled with sensitivity. Robert and Selina Eggington, themselves touched by the suicide of a son, concentrate on the delivery of healing journeys through their Dumbartung facility in Waterford. The death of Aboriginal elder Mr Ward in horrific circumstances is discussed with Margaret Quirk, the Minister for Justice at the time.
The film touches on the abuse of Aboriginal prisoners by police in various places in Australia. This is topical in WA, given the conviction of two WA Police officers on charges of tasering Kevin Spratt. The recurring thought that ran through my mind was to consider how these sorts of incidents would have been dealt with in the American context. Incidents such as that involving Rodney King et al come to mind to continue this juxtaposition of contrasts that Pilger strives to achieve.
The film Utopia is well made and continues the outstanding work of Pilger in this area. It is in many ways a retrospective in that we are taken back to issues that he has dealt with in other films. What is telling is that some of those films and incidents that he follows up are 20 and 30 years old. And yet nothing has been achieved in changing those issues.
It is a brilliant study of contrasts of good and bad, rich and poor, haves and have-nots and ultimately in the Australian context “White and Black”. It is confronting as it gets us to examine our own contribution in this land of contrasts. If there is a movie that I would recommend everyone sees once this year, it is Utopia. It will be screened on SBS sometime in April. Before then however, I understand that there will be a few screenings in WA. These will be organised by various community groups around the metropolitan area.
Leaving the film aside, an issue that I believe we need to work on, is understanding the audience that the film is targeted at. As indicated earlier, the film is confronting to white audiences. However, there is a large and growing CaLD (culturally and Linguistically Diverse) community that will not be confronted by the events disclosed in the film. The reason for the lack of confrontation is the view that they, nor their forebears perpetrated these acts of racism towards the Aboriginal community. However, the film serves a very useful purpose in teaching this community something of the history of persecution that has been experienced by the Aboriginal people in their own country. This awareness of the issues will create a level of empathy between the migrant and first nation communities. This will elevate the numbers of “interested” parties in the issue of reconciliation from just the Aboriginal community (~3% of the population) to the combined numbers of those born overseas (35%) and the first nation community.
Pilger is to be commended for reminding us of the pressing need, for us as a nation, to deal with these matters. Constant reminders of this nature allow us to keep reminding our leaders that we would like them to address the issues that are raised. This issue will be a litmus test of our leaders’ ability.