This Harmony Day, do something to make someone new to Australia feel welcome

Katriina Tahka
Topics Inclusion

Australia will celebrate Harmony Day on 21 March. Harmony Day is also the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Race Discrimination. 

I feel that as a nation we need to be reminded of these messages more than ever. The recent incident where two young drunk women allegedly assaulted and racially abused an elderly man who was believed to be Indigenous on a public bus on the Gold Coast confirmed this.  How could anyone behave like that? Do incidences like these happen because some people think they are superior to others? Or is it because they are ignorant and cruel? All of these appear to be true.

Then I also read an article in the SMH about the family of Reza Barati, the Iranian asylum seeker who died on Manus Island in the February riots.  Reza was the eldest child of seven children and as the eldest it was his cultural duty to look after the family. As an architect student with limited future options in Iran, Reza thought he could best do this by risking his own life and trying to get to the ‘Lucky Country’.  He died in detention.  Reza’s family said that he had so much to offer Australia.

How can Australia have strayed so far?

In 1959 my father was welcomed to Australia on a ship called the Aurelia. My father and his family arrived as Unassisted Passengers.  Yes I understand he was not a refugee so the policies and procedures are different but the human side is not.

My father and his family left war ravaged Finland in the hope of finding work and a better life and future. It was devastating to leave their homeland, leave their grandparents, Aunties, Uncles everyone they had ever loved to go to a totally foreign country where didn’t speak the language and knew nobody.  These are not people who had travelled overseas previously for family holidays and had familiarised themselves with their prospective new home.  This was the biggest risk of their lives, only taken when weighed up, but it was a bigger risk to stay in their homeland.

My father’s boat was not a leaky wooden boat, but it was no P&O fun ship either.  These were poor, post-war traumatised people who had sold everything they owned to purchase a one way ticket to hope. On arrival in Australia they lived in a string of migrant hostels provided by the Government looking for work and eventually a new home.

Similarly my Father in Law and his family arrived in Australia after the end of WWII when they were declared ‘Displaced Persons’ by the International Refugee Organisation. Their settlement records show they were declared by an Australian Selection Officer from the Department of Immigration as ‘Eligible for Protection… Care and Maintenance’.   On arrival they did receive protection, care and maintenance from the Australian Government and have gone on to significantly contribute to Australia’s population and economic growth over the following decades.

How can it be so different now?

I cannot imagine how devastating and psychologically crushing it must be when you realise that you have sacrificed everything and risked everything – to find out there is no hope of a better life and you wonder why you left your homeland and loved ones. Having no road forward and usually no road back must be the hardest imaginable outcome.

So this year on Harmony Day I hope we all stop and reflect on own behaviour towards others and remember that line from our National Anthem, ‘For those who've come across the seas, we've boundless plains to share’. Do something to make someone who has recently arrived in Australia feel welcome, even if it’s just saying ‘hello’ for the first time.  And for heaven’s sake we need to make the people who have lived here the longest, our Indigenous population feel respected and valued, if not the most valued, then at least equally.

And don’t even get me started on why the impact and scope of the Race Discrimination Act must not be diluted in the foreseeable future!

Katriina Tahka
DCA's Cultural Diversity Director

DCA’s work on cultural diversity in 2014 will include:

  • The release of Cracking the Cultural Ceiling – Australia's first national survey of leaders and future leaders with an Asian cultural background. The results will be used to encourage Australian corporate leaders to better use the talents of people from Asian cultural backgrounds;
  • The launch of Australia’s first ever Building Cultural Capability Network for DCA members that explores best practice, latest research and thinking as well as provide a unique opportunity to discuss these issues with other professionals and practitioners; and
  • A new cultural awareness training program to focus on building the business case for cultural diversity in your organisation, along with practical guidance for increasing cultural capability developed from DCA’s research.

For more information on how you can take advantage of DCA's expertise in this area, please contact us on (02) 8014 4300 or

Join the conversation

* Required information