Inside Story

Pirates, terrorists or doctors of philosophy?

Backed by Lindsay Tanner, two initiatives in Melbourne are taking on the obstacles that face qualified Africans applying for professional jobs, reports Ralph Johnstone

Ralph Johnstone 10 May 2011 4158 words

Above: Public housing in the inner Melbourne suburb of Carlton, where many of the residents are African.
Photo: Krstnn Hrmnsn/ Flickr

“If African kids see highly qualified African-Australians routinely denied employment opportunities, they’ll draw a very simple conclusion: there’s no point staying in school.”

— Former finance minister, Lindsay Tanner, speaking at the State Library of Victoria on 30 July 2008

ABDULKADIR SHIRE and Ali-nur Duale are masters of disguise. The two Somali men, now in their fifties, have spent more than thirty years between them applying for jobs in Melbourne. Their tactics have ranged from the shrewd (omitting their nationality and native language on their CVs) to the downright devious (“de-Arabising” their first names by replacing them with initials). But their real skill is one that not many people would think of bringing to the job market: making themselves look unintelligent on paper.

They call it “downskilling”: cutting from their resumés any hint of a qualification or achievement that might make them appear too smart for the jobs they’re applying for. In Duale’s case, that means hiding a PhD in applied entomology and a distinguished career developing crop protection programs for farmers in Africa and India. In Shire’s case, it’s a Masters in petrochemical engineering and a diploma from Victoria University that don’t get mentioned.

But both men have given up that battle. Last October, after seventeen years and more than 300 failed job applications, Shire packed his bags and moved to Brisbane, where he is now helping his wife start a family daycare business. Duale is resigned to continue working as a casual interpreter for a refugee translation service.

“People say, ‘Why can’t you get a decent job, with all your qualifications and experience?’” says Duale, who is often described in his community as the most qualified Somali in Australia. “And I have to lie and tell them I just want to do something to help my own people. I’ve even told my children this untruth.”

No one has calculated the loss of allowing so many of our best and brightest residents to work as drivers, translators, cleaners or security guards. The “PhDs driving taxis” headlines have come and gone, but hundreds of experienced doctors and accountants and engineers are still driving cabs and doing menial part-time jobs on hourly wages to sustain their families and relatives overseas. Hundreds more have given up entirely, resigning themselves to a perpetual life in the slow lane.

Africans, the newest, most foreign group in our cultural melting pot, are invariably suffering the most. Some say it’s always been this way: the waves of Greeks, Italians, Lebanese, Vietnamese and other migrant groups who arrived between the 1950s and 80s all struggled just as hard to find sustainable jobs. But the evidence strongly suggests otherwise. As an Englishman who was offered his first professional job within two weeks of landing in Australia, the stories of Duale, Shire and dozens more Somalis I’ve met have forced me to reassess my opinion of Australia as a place where opportunity is guaranteed for new arrivals.

WHEN Lindsay Tanner, former finance minister and federal member for Melbourne, resigned last June, many members of Victoria’s African community felt they had lost one of their own. Not only was Tanner a critic of the hardening of Labor’s asylum seeker policies, he was also the most visible and vocal of the country’s pro-African “champions” – a regular guest at community events, and a loud advocate for greater training and job opportunities among the country’s least-employed migrant communities. Just a week before his resignation, Tanner launched a report by the Australian Human Rights Commission that found evidence of anti-African sentiment in virtually every sphere of Australian public life.

Of course, you don’t give up such convictions easily. Within weeks, Tanner was back to assisting two Melbourne-based projects he is particularly close to: the Corporate Leaders Network’s African-Australian Project, through which ten high-profile companies – including the National Australia Bank, IBM, Australia Post, BHP and Telstra – have committed to develop training and placement opportunities for African-Australian graduates; and the Horn-Afrik Employment, Training and Advocacy Project, a homespun initiative with 250 “Horn of Africans” – migrants from Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somalia – on its books.

The next year or two could be make-or-break for both projects. The Corporate Leaders Network has promised to “ramp up” its focus on African jobseekers, and after two job-training workshops in which black faces were notably absent it has reserved a third of the thirty-five places at its next workshop for Africans. The Horn-Afrik project, run by a Somali-Australian out of a dingy room in a tower block in Carlton, has secured federal funding for two more years; yet this project, the only African-run initiative linking the Victorian government and industry to support professional jobseekers, has found jobs for only seventeen people in the past three years – and ten of these have since returned to the taxi ranks.

As Australia grapples with increasingly polarised views about our multiracial future, such scoresheets challenge what Immigration Minister Chris Bowen recently called “the genius of Australian multiculturalism.” Conservative commentators continue to portray African communities – and particularly Somalis and Sudanese – as hotbeds of criminality and covert fundamentalism, while popular media outlets stir perceptions of their members as gang members and dole bludgers. But what few people have yet broached are the obvious links between fathers who struggle to find work and children for whom job satisfaction is a concept from another planet.

“If we’re losing the fathers, we will lose their sons,” warns Horn-Afrik’s project officer, Omar Farah. “They will drop out of school, live on the dole, and some will go into crime. If your husband is unemployed, your father is depressed, your parents are talking about going back to Africa – how can you expect that family to be striving to adopt ‘Australian values?’”

Spending a few days with Farah is an object lesson in conviction and its perpetual battle with its evil twin, despair. As the brains behind Horn-Afrik, and a regular adviser to the Victorian government and the Victoria Police, this genial fifty-one-year-old enjoys the unique perspective of being the only African-Australian formally employed to find professional jobs for his compatriots. But his raison d’être – that there are plenty of jobs out there, and colour-blind employers with them – has been tested virtually every day of the twenty-three years he’s called Australia home.

“When I walk down the street in Melbourne, I’m black, I’m probably involved in crime, I’m certainly un-Australian. When I’m out with my family, we’re seven refugees just arrived from Africa (even though all our kids were born here in Melbourne). Back in Somalia, I was the son of the respected Mohamed Farah Dhollawa and any adult in the community could discipline me, which led to a feeling of being protected and looked out for. But there’s none of that expectation, that comfort, here.”

Lindsay Tanner, who has become a close personal friend of Farah, also sees this lack of “familiarity” as the principal challenge – the ultimate fitting-in quality that only time will provide, just as it did for his own Greek forebears. “It won’t be long before the majority of Somalis in Australia are born here – maybe another ten years,” he says. “The real question will be, are those born here having the same opportunities and standard of living and capacity to be part of our society?”

Tanner believes – or hopes, at any rate – that they will. But a growing number of Australians who work closely with the country’s African communities are not so sure. Reverend John Evans has had a front-row seat in the inner Melbourne suburb of Carlton, where his Church of All Nations backs onto a sprawling housing estate where nearly half the 3000 residents are African. “Africans are still not welcome in Lygon Street, fifteen years after they first came here,” he says, referring to the gentrified shopping precinct a stone’s throw away. “They’re just so different from other ethnic groups here. It’s part of that fear of the unknown that defines our society. It’s not orchestrated, it’s not about hate groups or anything like that. It’s just this unfamiliarity…”

In the meantime, the one thing that nearly everyone in government, academia, industry and the community agrees will make a migrant family feel most at home – a decent full-time job – is being withheld by a conspiracy of personal prejudice, professional apathy and persistent media bias. Somalis consistently rank as the least employed of any race in Victoria, with anywhere between 32 per cent and 47 per cent out of work. The conspiracy has become a self-fulfilling cycle. While Asians and other “visibly different” migrants occupy ever more prominent positions in our hospitals, schools, courtrooms and police stations – places associated with legitimacy and trust – the almost total absence of black faces in such venues speaks volumes about our confidence in Africans’ values and abilities.

More than twenty years after Somalis started arriving in Australia in significant numbers, government policy is still geared towards humanitarian refugees, fresh from the refugee camps of northern Kenya, without the money, language or tools to begin their new life in the West. Through a concerted program of support – housing, schooling, healthcare and lots of English classes – these people have gradually found their feet in a new and unfamiliar world. It’s a program that Australians truly can be proud of. But for those Somalis who came under the skilled migration program, who gained their credentials in university halls and government offices, who speak excellent English – those who arguably have the most to offer their new home – one of the world’s most generous humanitarian hosts has little room left in its heart.

IN towns and villages across Somalia, the older men traditionally gather after prayers on a Friday to drink tea and swap wisdom on everything from the timing of the next harvest to the motives of their latest political leaders. It’s a far cry from the urban spill of Point Cook, on the western fringes of Melbourne, where the city’s fastest-growing conurbation is springing up on the seaweed-strewn shores of Port Phillip Bay. But on Sunday afternoons, at one of the little coffee shops in Point Cook’s Main Street, you’ll find at least one of Somalia’s traditions alive and well on the southern edge of Julia Gillard’s electorate.

Here, a dozen or more Somali men gather to discuss everything from plans for a new community centre to personal recipes for encouraging children to learn the Somali language or rebellious teenagers to show more respect for their teachers. The subject of their own employment is, of course, never far from the conversation. A couple of the men are part-time lecturers or have small businesses, but the majority here have never had a full-time job in Australia.

Abdirahman Kulmiye is a newcomer to the group, but his story is all too typical. A highly erudite and well-spoken marine scientist in his late forties, Kulmiye arrived in Australia in early 2007 with high hopes of landing a professional job. This is a man who should get a job in any country with a coastline – let alone one surrounded by sea. His resumé (undoctored, he’s at pains to point out) includes extensive work with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, management of the Fleet Department at Somalia’s largest seafood factory and, for three years, a posting as chief technical adviser to the country’s Ministry of Fisheries. Like Ali-nur Duale, Kulmiye is a PhD holder whose numerous academic papers – including several on the spiny lobster, a sister species of Australia’s sea crayfish – have been cited the world over.

But after dozens of applications for scientific and research postings, and not a single letter of reply, a dejected Kulmiye sent a note back to his old colleagues in Africa – and was immediately offered a job by the Swiss NGO Vétérinaires sans Frontières. Despondent and running low on money, he eventually acquiesced and took up a consultancy role with the organisation in Nairobi.

“The main reason I haven’t been able to get a job in Australia is the catch-22 situation that employers want to see local work experience before they’ll give you any themselves,” says Kulmiye. “I don’t really understand this endless focus on local experience, especially if you have worked for governments or managed international projects at the highest level. Why doesn’t anyone pay any attention to that?”

Berhan Ahmed, a University of Melbourne lecturer who runs the refugee advocacy organisation African Think Tank, has no doubt why. “It’s institutionalised racism, pure and simple,” he says. “Africans use Anglo-Saxon names to get called for interviews, and when they see they’re black they get sent home.”

While I was writing this article, several African job-hunters told me stories that beggar belief about the reception they’ve received from Australian employers. (In every case, they either requested I withhold their names, or called me afterwards to ask me to withdraw their stories; such is the residual fear of authority among even our permanent African residents.) Two experienced accountants told me separately of attending interviews for professional positions in Melbourne, only to be offered jobs as drivers. One articulate research scientist described flying to Queensland to meet a potential employer, who “was very surprised to see a small black man at the airport – so surprised that I knew right away I wouldn’t be getting that job.”

“You get used to hearing the same questions time after time from employers and recruitment agencies,” says Duale. “They ask, ‘Are you sure that African universities offer PhDs?’ or ‘Do you speak the African language?’ Even when I’m interpreting for the government, they’ll be processing a refugee from Southern Sudan and they’ll say, ‘Are you sure you can’t speak his language? Is that not an African language?’”

Ahmed, a former Victorian Australian of the Year, says African Australians are victims of an enduring “anti-black” corporate culture, which – as in colonial times in Africa – generalises black people as lazy, arrogant and unreliable, and invariably winds up costing them jobs. He points to the starkly differing experiences of white South Africans, whose “connections” have carried them to the very top in major businesses.

It’s a situation Lindsay Tanner believes will only begin to be addressed when black Africans start getting “runs on the board” in corporate Australia. “I remember as a young lawyer, I felt I was surrounded by the children of judges and law firm partners, and all those people knew that world and understood its rhythms, even before they set foot in it,” says Tanner. “If you have only the formal academic learning but have had no access to the informal networks, you’re at a huge disadvantage. The idea of mentoring is supposed to break that down. Once you have a few Somali kids who prove stars at NAB, who are given full-time jobs, the knock-on effects should be significant.”

It’s an open secret that hundreds of African migrants have done bridging degrees or supplementary exams to bring their qualifications up to Australian-scratch – only to return to the dole queue or the taxi rank. “Politicians and academics across the country must be asking themselves: where are all these Africans that our unis and TAFEs have prepared?” says Abdulkadir Shire. “If fifty qualified people are applying continuously for two years and not one of them gets an interview, either their applications weren’t received or the employers are looking for another kind of people. There’s no proof it’s racism. It’s such a damaging word; but the reality is that employers are looking for something else.”

There’s nothing like the R-word to get researchers scribbling, politicians ducking and employers vigorously defending themselves. Yet numerous studies have conclusively shown that jobseekers with foreign names get nowhere near the same “go” as other applicants. A 2009 study by the Australian National University, which sent out 4000 fictitious job applications, showed that candidates with Chinese or Middle Eastern (Arabic) names had to send out 68 per cent more resumés than those with Anglo-Saxon names to get a response from a potential employer.

Farida Fozdar, who has spent much of the past decade studying discrimination against migrants at Murdoch University’s Centre for Social and Community Research, says the situation is far worse for African Muslims, who suffer the “double jeopardy” of being both racially and religiously different. Fozdar told me about meeting experienced African doctors who were literally begging hospitals to take them on as unpaid interns. “For these professional, accomplished people, there are huge issues of self-esteem and dignity among their families and their children – and they’re not even being allowed to do volunteer work!”

Fozdar’s latest study made much the same recommendations as those in last year’s Human Rights Commission report: a more streamlined system for approving overseas qualifications; subsidised bridging courses to bring them up to speed; greater jobseeking services, mentoring and work experience opportunities for skilled migrants; and more equitable employment legislation. Both reports also emphasised the need for specific education for employers on the benefits –for both workplaces and bottom lines – of employing senior staff from different cultural backgrounds.

National Australia Bank’s deputy CEO, Michael Ullmer, is one executive who no longer needs persuading. After attending a lecture by Lindsay Tanner at Melbourne’s State Library in July 2008 – a moment credited with waking up corporate Australia to the issues faced by professional Africans – Ullmer made it his mission to do something to help. The result was a “workplace development program” that has provided paid six-month placements to twenty-three Africans with business and accounting degrees – with another fourteen joining the company in March.

Ullmer says the program has been a boon for NAB: his department heads are reporting “overwhelmingly positive” responses to their new African staffers, who bring different approaches and problem-solving skills, not to mention a potentially profitable connection with their own communities. Of the twenty-three candidates to date, sixteen have stayed on at the bank after their placements. “There are many things that we as an organisation can learn from their commitment and drive,” says Ullmer. “We have a responsibility… to address this issue of underemployment among African Australians, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.”

Former IBM Managing Director Glen Boreham also helped to initiate a workplace training scheme that provided paid placements to three African graduates in 2009 – one of whom stayed with the organisation. But other business leaders have been slower to rally to Tanner’s call. The Corporate Leaders Network, which links socially conscious companies with migrant service providers, established its African-Australian Project early in 2009, specifically to help professional Africans into work. But despite some early gains – for example, getting companies to review web recruitment channels that automatically bar those with no Australian experience – convener Leigh Purnell says that in a tough economic climate companies have found it harder to create room for new employees.

“Here in Melbourne, there’s very active CSR [corporate social responsibility] among the big corporates, but there are limits,” says Purnell, a former Australian Industry Group director who also served as an adviser to former immigration minister Chris Evans. “One thing employers cannot compromise on – and we do not want them to compromise on – is the technical requirements of their jobs.” Purnell is putting great store in the Corporate Leaders Network’s third training workshop in May, which will, however, be limited to candidates who have graduated over the past two years

There are, of course, dozens of vital training programs, internships and mentoring schemes, and vocational courses run by the state-funded Adult Multicultural Education Services, charitable organisations like Jesuit Social Services and the Brotherhood of St Laurence, and numerous conscientious city councils, many of which are making a real difference to the lives – and work chances – of thousands of “new Australians.” But like the research and funding on which they are predicated, most of these schemes focus on younger migrants or refugee communities in regional areas.

Meanwhile, the Horn-Afrik project, the Corporate Leaders Network’s African-Australian Project and a few other pioneering initiatives continue to campaign for more formal mentoring, internships and training opportunities for African graduates and professionals. Omar Farah’s project is now also targeting professional African women – traditionally even further down the ladder than their male counterparts – and reports more African women undertaking “care” qualifications such as nursing and aged care, and an encouraging number starting up their own childcare businesses.

But clearly much remains to be done. “Australians are a very welcoming, open society when you take your wife to maternity or your child to school, but Somalis coming here still cannot compete on an equal footing in the job market,” says Ahmed Warsame, a Somali community leader who lectures part-time at Victoria University. “There’s an enduring lack of policies and formal assistance for new arrivals, particularly for young people and women.”

Abdirahim Abikar, an experienced social scientist and RMIT Masters graduate, has been forced to return to Africa nearly every one of the twenty-three years he has lived in Melbourne. He called me from Juba, Southern Sudan, where he’s currently providing training to the world’s newest human rights commission. “I consider myself Australian, but there are just no chances for me there. I have five kids, aged between six and seventeen; you can imagine how badly they need me. But a man needs to support his family. It has been awful to leave them behind so often.”

Abikar says that however many times he returns to Australia, he always feels like a refugee, a misfit; more so, when he picks up a newspaper. “The media consistently portrays us Africans as poor, illiterate and unprofessional, and basically suggests that every Somali in Australia has links with pirates or terrorists.”

WHEN I read the story of the Australian doctors using a hacksaw and a knife to amputate the legs of a man trapped in the Christchurch earthquake, I was reminded of two doctors I once met in a small hospital in the town of Eldere in southern Somalia. The only doctors for hundreds of miles, these young men were operating each day on everything from broken bones to complex obstetric fistulas, in a bare theatre, with ancient instruments and – all too often – inadequate or out-of-date anaesthetics. Watching them work was inspiring beyond words.

On six visits to Somalia over the past fifteen years, I have been struck time and again by the courage, resourcefulness and staggering dedication of the professionals working there. As well as doctors undertaking near-miraculous operations, I met teachers instructing large groups of pupils under trees without a single pen, and journalists writing reports on corruption they knew could get them assassinated. Fearless and single-minded to a fault, these were some of the biggest heroes I will ever meet.

Yet bring them to Australia, and the courage and commitment of people like this slowly but surely die: eroded by year after year of rejection, discouragement and official silence. It’s little wonder the older professionals here – many once proud captains of their industries – wind up sliding into an uneasy retirement, “fitting in” as interpreters or drivers, and trying not to look back at what might have been, had they not given up their old lives for their children. •