MELBOURNE AUSTRALIA. A City That Many Cultures Can Call Home

For years immigrants were welcomed in Melbourne only when they assimilated. Now they populate a city that exemplifies Australia's inter-ethnic tolerance.

THEY are the world's headlines: the Los Angeles riots, war between Croats and the Serbs, Arab youths throwing stones at armed Israeli soldiers.

But they are not the headlines from Australia, where Serbs and Croats, Palestinians and Jews, Asians and Caucasians live without violence. "Considering the overseas situation, we have been spared any real tensions that would cause undue concern to law enforcement officials," says Ivan Kolarik, ethnic affairs adviser to the police in Victoria Province.

One reason for the peace, Austrialian officials say, is the country's policy of multiculturalism. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke defined multiculturalism as "the enemy of intolerance ... the right to a fair go, the idea of Jack being as good as his master - in other words, the very core of what it means to be an Australian."

Ethnic affairs officials also point to Australia's temperate climate and abundant food as contributing to lower tensions. There is also a very small underclass compared to cities in America and, unlike the "guest workers" in European countries, immigrants are given full rights.

Although the policy is nationwide, multiculturalism is especially noticeable in Melbourne, where officials estimate nearly 20 percent of the population hails from a non-English speaking country. Immigrants have settled here from 140 different nations.

In the core areas of the city, the proportion of people born in a non-English speaking country is as high as 36.7 percent. The government in Victoria Province estimates nearly half of the 19,062 Vietnamese in the city do not speak English very well or at all. The same is true of almost one-third of the Turkish and Chinese immigrants.

Alison Broinowski, author of "The Yellow Lady: Australian Impressions of Asia," recalls seeing a church's classified ad. The church was seeking a minister who could read the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New Testament in Greek, and communicate in Chinese. "All settlers in Australia are boat people; the date of arrival is the only difference," says Ms. Broinowski.

English is the official language here, but there is an interpreting and translating service for all Victorian provincial government departments. Immigrants are encouraged to learn English, but are not forced to give up their homeland language.

"Multiculturalism is especially helpful in helping those who arrive when they are in the middle or older age group," says the Rev. Cedomir Videkanic of the St. Stefan Serbian Orthodox Church in the suburb of Keysborough.

Multiculturalism also means tolerance of other religions. Thus, on a Sunday afternoon, Turkish boys are in the mosque learning the Koran. A few miles away, Greeks are gathering for an Orthodox wedding.

"There are no problems with anyone here," says Peter Giordammos, who came to Australia in 1967. No, he says, the Greeks and Turks who disagree over the division of Cyprus do not carry the feud to Australian shores.

On the same day, the Rev. John Baldock shepherds a group of 50 people to an Orthodox church, a Vietnamese Buddhist temple, a Turkish mosque, and a Jewish synagogue. "Half the bus was Muslim women and we ended up in a synagogue and they felt fine," says Rev. Baldock, who is secretary-general of the World Conference on Religion and Peace in Australia.

The church visits are not unusual. Study groups from all over the city meet with members of other faiths. "We discuss a religious understanding of human rights, the environment, and living in peace and building a peaceful society," Baldock says.

Admittedly there have been unpleasant incidents. Last year someone threw a Molotov cocktail at Father Cedomir's house.

Soon afterward Cedomir met with an interfaith group which included a priest from the Croatian Catholic Center. Both men agreed that it was not appropriate for members of either the Croatian or Serbian community to take any action in Australia with regards to the conflict in Yugoslavia. By the end of the meeting, the interfaith group agreed to send letters to both congregations offering their support and prayers.

The incident has not been repeated. Says Cedomir: "You can't blame multiculturalism for the violence of individuals."

There have been lesser incidents. Spectators were banned from a soccer match between Greek and Macedonian teams after crowd violence broke out at a prior match. At a Muslim art exhibit which opened in May, Kurdish people have protested the inclusion of some art they find offensive. The B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission reported 34 anti-Jewish incidents, ranging from graffiti to bomb threats, for the first nine months of 1990.

And ethnic minorities continue to report discrimination and racism. A 1986 survey of Victorian local government employees found 47 percent of the males of non-English speaking background reported incidents of mostly verbal racial harassment. A 1990 survey of 86 Melbourne residents of Asian descent found half reported they had been discriminated against at some time.

The Victorian Office of Ethnic Affairs has concluded that racial vilification was a problem for a substantial minority. In a report, however, the Office added, "Our impression is that most people experience very few if any incidents directed against them personally, or against people they know and that many of the incidents are relatively minor in effect (e.g. being subjected to words which are offensive but not threatening)."

Despite the glitches, multiculturalism is better than the past. In the 1950s and 60s, Australia operated under the doctrine of assimilation. People moving to Australia were encouraged to give up their culture and language. "It was a pretty arrogant country - born just yesterday - and telling people whose cultures go back two or three thousand years to just drop it and forget about it. Become an Australian overnight," says Sauro Antonelli, manager of the Victorian Office of Ethnic Affairs.

At the same time as the civil rights movement began making inroads in America, Australia started to change. "In the 1960s, we all began to realize the whole approach to migration and subsequent settlement which had dominated since 1947, the notion of assimilation, just wasn't working," says George Papadopoulos, former chairman of the Victorian Ethnic Affairs Commission, forerunner to the Office of Ethnic Affairs.

Then in 1972, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam started to open up the system to many of the ethnic groups.

"Those years were critical because ethnic groups became more politically involved, learned more about networking and formed structures," says Mr. Papadopoulos. By the end of the 1970s, ethnic groups had become more vocal, learning that governments react to squeaky wheels. Finally, by the early 1980s, the concept of multiculturalism began to evolve, culminating in the policy called "multiculturalism for all Australia."

The policy has helped to bring the ethnic groups into the mainstream, says Bob Birrell, a professor of sociology at Monash University in Melbourne. "It does make them feel more like they are participating," says Mr. Birrell. The ethnic groups, for example, are important parts of the immigration debate over how many new migrants to allow into the country each year.

With ethnic organizations in place, officials have been able to head off problems. During the Gulf war, as Arab children were harassed in school and graffiti was found on synagogues, the ethnic affairs office was "able to pull together some of the key players within the communities and the education system to develop some strategies in response," says manager Antonelli.

At school meetings the parents of Arab children were reassured. Prominent politicians deplored the incidents. Government officials kept the channels of communication open. "It was really community education kinds of things," recalls Mr. Antonelli.

Multiculturalism offers more than just the ability to head off potential flashpoints. Antonelli believes it could result in more trade. "Some of the markets in the Middle East opened up as a result of some of the communities we have here," he says.

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