December 18 is International Migrants Day and Arabic Language Day
When politicians talk about immigration they usually bundle migrants together in a group and judge them by the economic benefits and costs they bring with them, the contribution to Australian society they make, and their fit with an imagined ‘Australian’ way of life. The conversation is always conducted from top down: people in the best seats of the stadium comment on the values and behavior of those packed in the standing room only section below.
What is usually lacking is the view from below. The proper starting point is to ask what it is like to come as a migrant to Australia or to any other nation. Most migrants would say that it is very difficult. If we were to describe migration through a medical image, it would be more like an organ transplant than a change of prescription. Migrants experience it as more than a move from one place to another. It is like being torn out of one place, having part of you amputated, and then gradually recovering the use of muscles, limbs, coordination and confidence.
The experience of migration reminds us that we are not simply individuals. We are defined by a network of relationships that link us to the people close to us, the groups to which we belong, to our staple food, to institutions like schools and churches, to sports, and to the flora, fauna, climate, cities and open country of our nation. If those relationships are interrupted we lose part of ourselves and we must slowly build new relationships.
In all the building and rebuilding of relationships language is like the blood that flows through and sustains the life of the body. The words we learn are given their colour and feel by our relationship to parents and siblings and to home and surroundings. They map the aspects of our world that call out tenderness or distaste, and enable us to explore our relationship to other people. They are the bridge to a shared understanding that does not need words, to a thankful and silent presence to our world.
When we migrate all those relationships are broken or put under strain. If we move outside our language zone we feel ourselves as children among adults, and we notice that people speak more loudly to us as if we were deaf or slow of mind. The words of the language we learn inevitably seem one dimensional and lacking in all the associations that evoke the relationships central in our lives.
As however we move into the new society and build new relationships to other people and to another country, our words both in our native and in the acquired language continue to be enriched. We in turn enrich the nation to which we have come by our difference.
This is why Arabic Language Day and Migrants Day fit so well together. Arabic is just of the many languages that has enriched Australia with the cultures, ways of relating, courtesy, religious depth and generosity of the people who speak it. For us at Jesuit Social Services many of the vulnerable young people whom we meet speak English as a second language. Accompanying them asks of us sensitivity to all the associations and relationships embodied in their native language.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.