23 JULY 2001

Co-operation between community and government is about creating purpose for a discontented generation

Photo: Andrew Meares

Reaching minority youth in Australia

It is 5pm on a Friday and, in the Bankstown Police Citizens Youth Club, a clutch of teenagers throw themselves into the contorted gyrations of breakdancing to the bass beat of a ghetto-blaster. School holidays have boosted the turnout to 30, drawn from the diverse cultural backgrounds that make up multicultural suburban Australia. Yet only one, a trainee police officer, comes from Bankstown's largest ethnic group, the Arabic-speaking community.

The almost-empty Bankstown PCYC is illustrative of a region said to be short on resources for young people, dominated by an Arabic-speaking community which, in partnership with the State Government, plans to spend $2.2 million on major programs across Sydney to improve the behaviour of its youths.

The trainee policeman came to the centre to better understand how the clubs work. His mates who stayed away "must have been too busy". Teenage girls from an Arabic background almost never come. Getting kids to the club, admits youth project officer Melanie Conlon, is a constant battle.

But Nasser Roumieh, an executive with the Lebanese Muslim Association, says if the PCYC handed him control for a day he would fill the club. Arabic-speaking parents, he says, want to know more about the places their children - particularly their daughters - frequent.

The NSW Premier, Bob Carr, announcing a plan which he termed "practical crime prevention", was completing a three-year journey for his Government and the Arabic-speaking community. It began when the Lakemba police station was fired upon in November 1998 and the Premier, and his Police Commissioner, Peter Ryan, singled out a Lebanese gang. "People trying to destroy the Australian way of life simply will not succeed," Carr said.

The remarks worked like petrol on a fire with community leaders outraged that Lebanese, not even Lebanese Australians, had been singled out for blame by the Premier. However, the shooting, Carr's comments and the inflammatory debate which dominated talkback radio for the following week, ultimately helped bring the Government and the Arabic-speaking community closer together.

Before this shooting no-one wanted to listen, said Dr Jamal Rifi, a NSW Community Relations Commissioner. "Fires burn people who are close to them. The fire was among us, we could see it and feel it. We knew the problem was bad but we were trying to do something on our own. No-one wanted to recognise it.

"People who were in Macquarie Street, they couldn't feel the heat. Unfortunately, it had to take the Lakemba shooting to wake up government agencies and say 'Hold on, we have a problem here'. And this problem is not in Lebanon. It is an Australian problem in Lakemba."

But just what is the problem? Some of those charged for the police station shooting and the 1998 murder of 14-year-old Edward Lee in Punchbowl - another crime which received extensive media coverage - are youths from an Arabic-speaking background. But the Bankstown police chief, Superintendent Peter Parsons, denies any link between culture and crime.

"We have a sizable population of Arabic-speaking people. We have a lot of crime, probably the most crime of any command in the State but, proportionately, I would say that Arabic-speaking people don't commit any more crime than people of an Anglo-Saxon background." Mary Malak, manager of the Bankstown Multicultural Youth Service, looks askance when asked why Arabic-speaking youths should be - or even need to be - singled out for special treatment. Whatever problems they have, they have in common with other young people, she suggests. "I don't know why they're doing this in Bankstown and focusing on Arabic kids. I have no idea," she says.

The NSW Government-community partnership has three objectives: to reduce bullying and violent behaviour among teenagers; to encourage parents and the community to take responsibility for the actions of young people; and to provide children with learning and recreational opportunities.

Malak also looks puzzled about the details of the community plan. Although she heads the largest and most comprehensive youth services centre in Bankstown, no-one from the State Government or the community has sought her opinion or even bothered to tell her what's in the plan.  Street workers? "Great idea," she says, "and we're already doing it." Sport and recreation projects? Tick again. Five months ago, after years of lobbying, the multicultural youth centre finally managed to open a drop-in cafe in downtown Bankstown. Home Bass, the cafe, is built around the idea that the community needs to find ways of reconnecting with young people.

"To me the problem is that people are scared of kids and that means they're not interacting with them," Malak says. "Kids go a bit crazy but what's important is that they have some really good networks around them to stop them going too crazy. They're there, but they've been worn down a bit. There are sections of the community which are scared of kids and particularly Arabic kids, so they'll make sure they're not around after school because their loud behaviour can be intimidating and scary."  Media portrayals of young people fuel the fear, Malak says. Rifi, a member of the Implementation group, goes further, blaming media stereotyping of Arabic-speaking youths for their cultural isolation.

"Most perpetrators of crime are Australian born, educated and bred but research has shown most of them identify themselves as Lebanese," he says. "We believe they have been made to view their 'Lebaneseness' as a badge of power, that they have been robbed of their identity and made to identify with a country most of them have never visited. They've been robbed of their Australian identity because of the negative portrayal of young people, inaccurate and sensational reporting."

Identity is crucial, a contested domain between Anglo and Arab, old and young. Fault lines run between cultures but also within them.

Roumieh, despite working for the Lebanese Muslims Association, hates labels and says many people he knows still haven't forgiven Carr for weighing into the debate. "There's no need to attach any labelling. Nobody has the right to tell me I'm Lebanese: I'm Australian. Did we really come to Australia to be labelled as Lebanese?

"What these kids look like, how they act, how they dress is nowhere like Lebanese. Adidas clothes, baseball caps on backwards and pony tails; this is not Lebanese."

But young men on the streets of Punchbowl have no delusions about where and how they fit in. They almost pulsate with the testosterone-fuelled confidence of teenage men, continually moving, shoving, skiting and stirring. In the multicultural melting pot of Sydney's south-west they are defined by their clothes - which sparkle with the brand names of US popular culture - their cars and their music. Although these may have no links to the Middle East, the country of their parents is vital to their sense of belonging.

"I count myself as Lebanese," says one. "Why should I think of myself as Australian if when I'm walking in the street they say 'you f---ing wog'?

"But there's a difference between Lebanese who are born here and Lebanese who were brought up in Lebanon - how they dress, what they eat, how they live. We're completely different here. It's like saying if you bring up an Australian here or you bring them up in Lebanon. They're not going to be the same."

Watch the thousands of men enter the Lakemba Mosque for Friday prayers and their age is apparent in far more than the colour of their hair. Fathers and uncles wear their Friday best. Beside them walk their sons and nephews who, in a generation, have swapped polished leather shoes for new runners, woollen jumpers and suits for slinky adidas tracksuits, Ralph Lauren tops and beanies pulled down snugly close to ears and eyes.

Despite the cultural transformations, the call of mosque and church remains potent among the young. One, who says his name is Charlie, says he attends the mosque about eight times a year. "Religion is something that will always set you straight in life. It doesn't matter whether you're Lebanese, Christian or Muslim. And it doesn't matter if you're not religious now, sooner or later it will kick in."

But Charlie says the older members of his community have little idea about young people's lives. He and his friends are clearly resentful of decisions being made on their behalf. "They don't hang out. They've got families and they don't know what's happening on the streets. They don't catch busses, they don't catch trains - they haven't the right to have an opinion."

These are the very youths the strategy is designed for. Its target is kids in classrooms rather than young men already in jail, explains another member of the Implementation group, John Choueifate, chief-of-staff for Channel 9 news and a former police reporter.

"You've got your hard-core group, a group of criminals involved in drugs, heroin distribution and gang activity in that area. It doesn't matter who you are or who you get to talk to those people, you will not convert any of those people. The only way to get to any of them is through the police, phone taps, intercepts, operations; you get them and you lock them up," he says.

"What we hope to do is try and reach the young people coming through the school system, try and give them some sort of encouragement through things like sporting facilities. You try and get them before they get involved in that harder activity."

Roumieh says the youth has a problem. "It's called unemployment - an Australian problem - and boredom. They've got nothing else to do so they spend time with kids they look up to and they turn them 360 degrees around."

While emphasising that he supports the plan, Superintendent Parsons is far from convinced more facilities will mean less crime. "You can't say that just because you have an abundance of youth facilities young people won't commit as much crime.

"Youths commit crime because of a number of problems. They commit crime because they come from broken homes, because their father or their mother might be victims or offenders in domestic violence, their mother might be bashed every night, the father might be on the grog or the parents might be out playing the poker machines instead of at home loving and caring for their children."

Andrew Stevenson, Sydney


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