It's hard to believe now, but a couple of weeks ago our suburb became a battlefield.  There were over 200 police, some in full riot gear, some on horseback, patrolling our streets.  All because a local councillor organised a rally called 'Moreland says NO to Racism'. It was designed to be a peaceful rally with speakers from different groups.  Bring the kids, share the love, everyone is welcome because that is what Moreland is all about.

The rally was gatecrashed by the far right 'patriots', waving aussie flags and wanting to stand in one of Melbourne's most multicultural suburbs and say this was wrong.  This also brought the far left to the streets to stand up against the far right.  Two things happened that day, but only one of them was mentioned on the media.  The far right and left chased each other through our streets, clashing with each other and the police.  The other thing that happened, which the news didn't bother to report on was that the planned rally of locals still went ahead.  Outside the local library, surrounded by police, a group of a few hundred locals stood in the rain listening respectfully to great speeches.

There were many very moving talks.  Abby Benham is from the Brunswick Uniting Church.  They have declared themselves a 'sanctuary' church and will offer space and support to asylum seekers.  They will test the legal powers to offer sanctuary in the face of a government determined to punish vulnerable refugees.

Naz Almasi is an asylum seeker.  He arrived just days before the law changed which meant he would be detained in Australia rather than offshore.  While in detention he learnt to read, write and speak english.  He now works in Swan Hill as a landscape gardener and (he pointed out) pays tax.  He spoke of being on a train in Melbourne.  A woman said to him "you have an aussie boys face, but I don't know what language you are speaking".  He replied that he spoke 4 languages, but this time he was speaking to friends from Afghanistan.  She ordered him to stop or she would call the police.  He thought it easier to move to another train carriage.

And then came a 5 foot spitfire - Nasrin Amin.  Her speech had me in tears and the crowd cheering.  She spoke of the racism she and other Muslim women encounter due to wearing a niqab or hijab.       "Stop daydreaming about liberating us.  You cannot liberate those who are already liberated.  We are free to choose what we wear.  I wear hijab and I am a free, intellectual and professional woman".  This highlights that all that many of us are shown in western media is how modest clothing is used to control or punish women.  This sentiment does not, of course, translate to the streets of Coburg.  Nasrin also highlighted how the hate speech and violent threats made by the the far right groups goes unchallenged by our political leaders and law enforcers.  She rightly pointed out that if it was a Muslim spouting a hate filled tirade they would have the police busting down their door.  But somehow white fascists spewing hate is seen as 'free speech'.  I have found both the text and video of Nasrin so you can enjoy her speech for yourselves.

The advertised rally took to the streets and we all walked to a local park, away from the violence happening in surrounding streets.  As we turned past Vasili's Garden  people stood out the front and clapped and cheered us.  I saw a woman with her young son.  He was wearing a sign 'one world. one people'.  This was what the day was all about.

In the days since the rally I've thought a lot about all the issues raised.  Nasrin really challenged me.  You see, I love self expression.  I love difference and seeing someone's personality expressed through clothing or hair styles.  I have often looked at women wearing the hijab and thought how their individuality was gone. But listening to Nasrin I realised that the hijab forces people to look past the exterior and focus on who this person actually is.  And the only way we can do this is by talking.  We also need to challenge our own preconceptions as all as what the media is telling us.

I've also been thinking about sanctuary.  Moreland, weirdly has also been my place of sanctuary.  When my previous long tern relationships ended, I moved and rented in west brunswick.  Twice!  It became a safe place where I rebuilt myself.  Peter and I now live in Coburg.  Walking down to the local shops the thing you notice is the diversity.  Every socio-economic group is represented, from people begging on the streets to the gentrification of pubs, shops, houses and apartments.  Moreland's demographics show how multicultural this community is.  What I felt when we moved here is that there was room for everyone.  No matter who you are, what you wear or what you look like these streets have room for you. I know this isn't always the case, but I think it's something we should all keep striving for.

The important thing is to keep an open mind and heart.  To talk.  To understand. To challenge ourselves rather than others.  To ensure our streets are a place of sanctuary.


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