'Everyone belongs': Multiculturalism for all Australians
SINCE 1999, Harmony Day has been promoting cultural diversity throughout Australia each March 21, and spreading the message that "everyone belongs".
But Toowoomba Multicultural Society president Gitie House OAM, who spoke at last month's USQ Harmony Day celebrations, said that while celebrating other cultures, we must also remember to celebrate being Australian.
"Australia is so special with its indigenous cultures, the settlers, migrants and refugees," she said.
"I think it is very important to understand the freedoms Australia gives us - to appreciate that, to value and nurture it.
"People think multiculturalism is just about other cultures - those with colourful dresses or languages, but it's for everyone - and sometimes we are so focused on what we can improve that we forget the work and goodwill which has brought us to where we are."
Gitie came to Toowoomba in 1978, and said things had certainly changed for migrants to Australia over the decades.
At that stage, for instance, the University of Queensland refused to recognise her Bachelor of Science (Hons) and work towards a Masters in Physics despite the fact the curriculum she had completed in India matched Queensland's.
Many of those who had migrated before her, from Greece and Italy for example, had been made to feel ashamed of speaking their native language, their cultural dress, or in any way showcasing their differences, and had, sadly, lost some of those traditions as a result.
Today, she said, Toowoomba practiced and celebrated inclusion and diversity and had become "a rich kaleidoscope" of cultures, partially as a result of the university's attitude in opening its doors to international students and teachers.
"I have always found Toowoomba people are very embracing, very friendly and welcoming," Gitie said.
"I know some people have had some very frightening experiences even here - receiving rude comments because they dress differently, taxi drivers being abused for being from a different country and, of course, the mosque being burnt ...
"But Toowoomba is not a racist place; there are just a few misguided people, and there is not a place on the planet that doesn't have some of those.
"The majority of people are so nice, and there is so much community support that you can get past these things ... that is Toowoomba's strength."
Events like Harmony Day and the Languages and Cultures Festival (LCF) on August 12, she said, gave everyone a chance to celebrate and learn about different cultures, and build bonds.
She suggested that programs Seniors with a little extra time could get involved in included helping to teach English to migrants and refugees.
"Nothing helps you to learn a language faster and better than having someone chat to you about just the normal things of life, like what you are cooking today, what you have planned ...," she said.
Taking part in programs at neighbourhood centres, the Toowoomba Refugee and Migrant Service, Harmony Day celebrations and the LCF, brought people out of isolation, regardless of background, to share what was important to them, and gave them a sense of belonging to a rich global community, which was vital for understanding, peace and harmony.