Muslims Down Under spoke with Kamaljit (Kam) Athwal, Community advisor, and Consultant. She facilitates various community-based educational initiatives and is an influential figure in addressing multicultural concerns, particularly those of the Sikh community, within State and Federal Governments. She is a visionary who works closely with Police services, Health departments, the Education Department, Queensland Human Rights Commission, and numerous faith communities and interfaith organisations creating and facilitating education programs. As a Sikh by faith, she is the coordinator of the Queensland branch of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji Academy, an ongoing project that has been teaching Sikh scriptures, readings and understanding, and Sikh history to Queensland students of all ages.
This is an abridged transcript from portions of this podcast.
Click below to listen to the full interview.
Sitara Jatt: Welcome back to another episode of the Muslims Down Under podcast. On our podcast, we discuss concepts around social justice, and on this episode, we will be discussing World Refugee Day. World Refugee Day is an International Day designated by the United Nations to honour refugees around the globe. It falls each year on June 20th and celebrates the strength and courage of people who have been forced to flee their home country to escape conflict or persecution.
Today, joining me for this conversation is Kam. So welcome to the Muslims Down Under podcast. Peace be upon you or Sat-Sri Akaal.
Kam Athwal: Thank you.
Sitara Jatt: I was reading your profile and what you do and everything and it was it’s outstanding really. So we’re really, really grateful to have you on this podcast and to have this conversation with you.
Kam Athwal: Well, thank you for having me.
Sitara Jatt: You’re very welcome. So we’ll jump right into some of the questions with World Refugee Day as that’s the main discussion we’re having today. So Kam, as you would know, the 18 to 24th of June is World Refugee Week and you’ve done a lot of work supporting migrants and refugees in Queensland.
And every person on this planet has a right to seek safety, whoever they might be, whenever they need it. And wherever they might be from or forced to flee from, they have the right to seek safety. It’s a basic human right. So, what’s your take on this day and why is this body of work so important to you?
Kam Athwal: I’ll actually start off by saying that I’m no expert on this subject at all. I have got knowledge of it from you know what I’ve read in the papers or heard on the radio or heard, people talk about, but I’ve never actually studied refugees and what their plights are. As I said, it’s just something that I’ve picked up as I’ve gone along.
And what does it mean to me, this day? I think for me it reminds me of the need to empower refugees. To build a better future for themselves and their families and friends. When refugees come away or they are still in the country that is persecuting them, families and friends are reliable on each other to get through that plight, and this empowerment, whether they’re here or whether they’re there, is so important. So, it doesn’t always mean getting people into Australia to empower them. This can be done in their own countries or in the camps that they’re stuck in. If I can expand on that, wherever the refugees are they need to be provided with the bare essentials to give them the equipment to stay in, in high spirits, to be able to support each other. This in turn, sort of gives them a purpose to keep going and take care of each other…So you know what I’ve heard? That they’re not always in a safe space. They’re put into camps. And, women are very, very vulnerable in these camps. Men are very vulnerable in this camp because it becomes a situation of survival. And when it becomes a situation of survival, things start going the way nobody wants them to go.
So, this is where I think it’s important that if those bare essentials are met and they feel they’re in a safe space when they then take their next step, whether it’s going to go back to their country or whether it’s going back to another country or whether or not even back to another country or they’re going to another country, they’ve been placed in. Their mindset is in the right place to make that move and do what they need to do because to be in the camps – they’ve already been traumatised, whether it’s persecution, whether it’s physical harm or mental harm, or losing their homes, they’ve already been through all that. And if they have now come into the camp, they need that safe space to process that. So they can then, when they have that opportunity, which can be sometimes years later to make that move, they’re in the right mindset to do that and grab what they’re being given.
So, that’s my take on the day. If I can talk about Khalsa Aid. It is a Sikh organisation and they are based in the UK, and Sikhs around the world support its work. Whether it’s through donations, both monetary and essential goods, or whether it’s through skilled volunteers. When they arrived in Ukraine, amid the increasing chaos, as families were fleeing from their homes towards the West, and this is in March 2022, they started providing langar, which is a vegetarian meal, and this meal is provided at every Sikh Gurdwara, which is a Sikh place of worship around the world, regardless of any one’s ethnicity.
The Sikh teachings tell us that regardless of someone’s belief, we are still children of that one Creator, and the Creator has placed us on our different paths. That’s in a way accepting the paths that people have been placed on, whether you’re a Hindu, or you’re a Christian or a Buddhist, or a Muslim, that he’s put you there and you’re on that path and that should be accepted. All human beings, as a species, are recognised as one and the same. So, when it comes to refugees across the world, Sikhs generally take the view that regardless of what path you are on, what faith you follow, or if you don’t follow a faith either, you’re still recognised as His child.
Sitara Jatt: What you said was very enlightening, and going back to what you said about vulnerabilities in camps, I feel like there’s this skewed view about how people think. OK, they’re in camps now. They’re there, safer than they were, but then it has its own challenges, and not many people realise. As you mentioned, women, children, even men, young men, they are vulnerable to so many other discriminations and injustices during that period, that sort of just adds to their trauma because their displacement began once they started feeling unsafe. They knew they’d have to move and then being in a position where they can’t choose what they get and what they should be doing and things like that, it’s really hard. And it sort of breaks my heart.
But, at the same time, even Islam says that you should not discriminate against people just because they’re a different religion or colour, and it is very clear on that. And it’s surprising how religions can coexist because there are so many similarities and some people just ignore that. I want to look past it and be like, no, we’re different, but I feel like this is very much what Islam and what the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) has always taught us as well – let’s come to refugees to give them extra aid and force the children’s talents, and you know the country hosting them should be able to provide that sort of support and those needs that align with them rather than them having to sort of always suffer to get a life again in a way. And that’s just really heartbreaking. It’s definitely easier said than done and it’s a long, long process to sort of let those things happen and put them into action. But, it just breaks my heart and it gives me the shakes because I was a refugee myself and we didn’t have to come on a boat or anything, but we had to flee the country simply because we were persecuted against our background, so you know how there are Sunni and Shia Muslims, we are Ahmadi Muslims, Muslims who are really target killed and there’s a lot of persecution there with people who openly practice it… And other people didn’t see it like that, they don’t want to educate themselves on the similarities. And I wish people stop doing that and we could coexist.
Kam Athwal: Look, as you would know, Sitara, it’s always the bad things that make the newspaper headlines, right?
Sitara Jatt: Absolutely, absolutely.
Kam Athwal: I’m part of the Toowoomba Interfaith Working Group, and we often have discussions, and we’ve even put some books together, writing 360 verses on every religion, that’s part of that group. And when you look at the bottom line. The message is not much different from my message from God, to the Muslim message, to the Christian message. It’s how people interpret and use it. And so when good work is being done, it never gets reported.
If there are any articles on refugees arriving or something’s happening in a country and there are refugees … anytime something, some sort of disaster happens, and the government steps up to help – people don’t read the full story, they just skip the important bits and just because we’ve already got their mind set on ‘God, here we go again, why are we spending our money? Why are we bringing them over here?’ They lose the whole reason why it’s being done. I mean, obviously, there’s, you know, agreements, charters, treaties or whatever the UN does, where we all say our countries are going to help in a situation like this, it’s not seen as that, any of that good deed that’s being done is lost because people are just too busy bickering about what’s going on if that’s the right word, and people don’t always understand that. You know, we are doing this because we feel for these people and it’s those minorities who don’t like it – they make the headlines, not the people who really want to do it, so here we go again, with the media.
Sitara Jatt: Even when the whole Afghanistan situation, which is still very bad, starts making the news enough anymore because when they first took over, that was the hype. But now that it’s consistent, it’s like nobody really cares. And when Australia had to take refugees, I remember we had promised a number or something along those lines, but had so many conversations where instead of sympathising with what was happening, people were like, ‘Oh, that’s just the religion.’ And, then some people are just like, why are we allowing them to come here? Aren’t we sending this money? Isn’t that good enough?, And now that’s not OK to say I was like instead of sympathising where you need to be humane and understand the conditions where people are living in aren’t just right, we should open our rooms to them, so that’s the take I had and it was just so heartbreaking because the news covered, as you said, the people who objected.
Kam Athwal: …and the trauma that people have been through … So there’s a lot of trauma, you know, you see your own loved ones being taken away from you or treated badly or injured. Your property is taken off you, and that freedom of living is lost. And is lost forever, right? And freedom is something you’ll desire from a very, very young age. You know, I remember I wanted to play and mum was saying no, it’s time to come inside and have your dinner or, you know, forget about playing, you need to do your homework – so that discipline had to be brought in so that I could find balance my life right. So, that freedom is something that we desire from a very young age. And when it is seized from a person, there are all sorts of trauma mentally.
As kids, we deal with it because we start to go to school and you say, ‘OK, well, Mom was right and I should stay and do my homework’ and all that. And I can only play for so long, and I’m going to come in. But, where there is this trauma which is a lot worse, not only do they have to deal with the brutalities that have been carried out around them, but their experience is cut very deep and they can’t see freedom at that time. There is no freedom that they can see, so they can become calm with that. And what happens sometimes is they arrive here, there’s nothing to tell them what the Australian culture is. Now this again, Sitara, is my take on this, OK. I don’t know what really happens when refugees arrive and what sort of processes they go through. But they suddenly find freedom, and you find that they get attracted to behaviours that are not socially acceptable. We talk about empowering them with education. That’s a good attraction, right? For example, when Mum and Dad are working all God-given hours to put food on the table, and a roof over their heads, they’re not being supervised. These youngsters that I’m talking about, there is that danger of that freedom going astray.
So I think that balance, it’s so important to get that balance.
And this is where again, sometimes when I see things going pear-shaped, I’ll just think of Almighty and pray that He does help everyone, like a guru Arjan Dev Gee, this is our fifth guru..he said in your mercy you care for all beings and creatures. So, this is where I put my faith in him and know that he’s gonna help all, not just me. It’s not just about me, it’s about helping others as well. He’s going to nurture them and leave it, it is in his hands to help those because Mum and Dad can’t be there all the time.
You know, we see domestic violence around us all the time. Family violence, all the time. And many times, that door is shut, and we don’t know what going on in that house, whether it’s with the children or with the mother, right? So I’m not saying this is refugee families, this is everywhere. Even families that have had everything that they wanted in their life, you’ll still find that there’s some sort of trauma that’s going on in their house. And there needs to be that balance where people understand ‘this is OK and this is not OK’. And when people arrive here, they don’t understand if somebody’s going past them and said, ‘Hey, how are you going?’ to them because of the environment they’ve come from, it’s going to be understood as, hey, this guy’s after something, why is he asking me that? And, I don’t think there’s any way of telling them what the culture in Australia is right and they need this sort of information when they set foot here and say that look, your life will be normal now, and this is what our culture is and this is what you can expect.
And, as I said, it can be good and bad, right? Like bad can be. You know, jobs are not just gonna be handed out to you. You’ve gotta work to get it. You can’t accumulate wealth at the drop of a hat. You need to do something. You need to start working and start accumulating that wealth. It doesn’t just drop off like we have a saying that it’s not like leaves off a tree. No, you got to work. So I think, these sorts of things are something that needs to be addressed when they first arrive and even make it known that the authorities here are accountable for their actions. All the authorities have policies and guidelines that are in place, that they’re expected to follow, unlike what they may have experienced where you know where they were. And by doing that you will see that there will be some sort of respect between the authorities and the people that are arriving because our process over here is different to what they had there and they might even trust them to reach out to them if there’s a problem.
Look, NGOs around Australia are doing a lot. They’re doing a lot and I did write down a few names that I know of that do a lot of work with young refugees when they first arrive here, like Access in Logan, they do a fantastic job. They also have got a Logan Youth Foyer and they provide lots of services. There’s the immigrant women support services and this is just to mention a few, right? But they’re available. And they need to work with them and to work with them, it’s not just that whoever runs around doing everything for you. You want to put that effort in there as well. You want to take a step to wait to two words, especially with youngsters. You can’t expect things to happen. You need to make that effort. It’s gotta come from within for it to work.
And I’ve heard stories where, you know, even in school, sometimes it’s difficult to get children to sit down and study because they’ve been through enough, they don’t want anymore. They don’t want anyone dictating to them anymore. But that mindset needs to change. This is for your benefit. Education is a basic right of humans, right? We all agree on that, and they’ve got that here. They may not have had it back home. They’ve got it here, guys. Let’s make the most of it.
Sitara Jatt: Even when they do receive that education. They don’t have to drive either for it, as you said, they’ve gone through so much already. They just want to do the bare minimum. That freedom, when it’s sudden they’ve migrated to a country and they’ve found safety. They’re not thinking about the long run. Do you know what I mean? They think here about today because their life just happened so suddenly. Where one day they were safe in their homes and suddenly they were in a camp and now they were in a foreign country. And I’ve noticed this attitude, in the sense that, they’ve gone through so much that they’re at a place where they’re like, I can’t think about five years down the lane because this is the life I’ve already lived. And, I don’t know if I’ll still be here, despite having that safety and that freedom. It’s still very new to them and they’re still learning the ways. But there is no future plan in that sense and it’s unfortunate.
Kam Athwal: It is very difficult because you see, the other thing when you were talking that made me think about was also that you know, within our own faiths or traditions or our culture, there’s also that you have one identity when you’re at home and you have another identity when you step out. And that’s a beautiful thing. I don’t see that as a negative. Because my dad said to me when we arrived in the UK, he said, come, you’ve got your faith, your religion, your culture on one hand, and you’ve got now the British society and how they live and do things, right? There are his words. Get the best out of both and that’s what my take is, to be for every especially the refugees to get the best out of it. Keep on to your identity which is so important. You can’t let go of your identity. You are what you are whether you came from Sudan or whether you came from Afghanistan or you came from Vietnam or you came from Greece. Wherever you came from home to your identity, that is you that gives you the strength to be yourself, and then that being torn apart will still be there. I’m not saying it won’t be there, but it won’t be as hard to deal with. So when you go back, you can relate to it because you know what your culture is.
And you’ve taken the good things out of it already. Everybody, every culture, and every tradition has things that you don’t want to be part of, but you end up being part of. It’s because you’re sitting under that umbrella. You want the best out of it. So hang on to the best.
And those are my dad’s words as I said, and I’ve always hung on to them. And I think, it’s important to do that because once your identity, you don’t lose that. You know, wherever you’ve come from and let your parents tell you about it, learn about it and be proud.
And then you got the Australian freedom. You know, you’ve got the education that you need. You’re empowered with that education. I mean, the UN refugee agency and I made a lot of this, their website states are 48% of refugee children remain out of school, right? And here we are in Australia. You’ve got that opportunity straight away from the minute you step into the country, right? Even not just the kids, but the parents as well, like even those English lessons and all that. So they can start integrating with the community. Nobody’s saying forget your language. I think it’s important you remember your language and this isn’t coming as an older person as well. Youth may not agree with this, but it is important, having lived in many countries myself and still, thanks to God, a practicing Sikh.
I think it’s very important that you hang on to your faith. You hang on to your language, you hang on to your traditions and I really like it if it’s a wedding or something and you do it the traditional way. It means so much. More especially when you see your elders around you joining in, doing all this traditional stuff or whatever you do at weddings, or if there’s a (special) date you go through the prayers or you go through the motions that help you accept what’s happening in life.
You know, and so hang on to your identity. Hang on to your faith, your traditions. But also grab Australia for what it is because there are lots of good things in Australia that we know we can make the best of.
I mean, I see a lot of 3rd, 4th, 5th generation people who came here as refugees, yourself included. You got an education. You’re making a career for yourself and you’re going to be somewhere today. I’ve seen others who’ve gone into industry, and their heads, CEOs of big companies in Australia. Because they embraced education, they embraced the culture. But they didn’t forget their identity. So it’s important to do that, to make a good life for yourself here.
Sitara Jatt: Yeah, I feel like that and that’s sort of the point of view that needs to be taught to the children coming in, because I feel like they need that extra attention for this reason and not because they’re different or they’re behind or whatever, but because for them, it’s like we don’t know where we want to be in five tears because we just got out of worrying about whether we’d even live or not, so it’s like you need to feel like that’s sort of within the education system. That should be something that happens, that should be done for refugee kids where they’re taught that they should recognise this as an opportunity. They’ll have their entire lives and they should start doing that rather than worrying about whether they have it tomorrow or not. They’re finally safe.
Kam Athwal: Grab it with open arms, right? These NGO’s are set up for a reason. It’s not because you’re second-class citizens. It’s not because you have had such a bad life and you are poor and you are looked down upon. It’s not that at all. They’re here to help you. This is your future. They want to give you this to make your future good, and then when you’re in a place to pay back, do it whichever means you have of doing it, whether you volunteer with them or whether you provide something for them. So it’s not a charity as such, it’s something that you need right now. And then you’re in a position to pay back, not physically in funds or something, but pay back in any which way.
Jump on board because I’ll tell you, refugees won’t stop. The world is what it is. You know, we had refugees here after World War One in Australia, and after World War Two. You know, Vietnam stuff happened there, other things happened in Africa, people ended up here, Europe, Asia. And they’ll keep on going on because humans are humans. And when people have power, their thinking gets very skewed. They are not thinking normally. That power is dictating what happens and that’s where all the atrocities and brutalities and all that come out.
Sitara Jatt: Now this actually brings me around to the second question that I had, so back to World Refugee Day, as a reminder of the importance of respecting the human rights of refugees all around the world. Why do you think it’s important to empower and educate the youth, the children of refugees, and those who are having to flee disastrous circumstances? What would you have to say to them as to why it is important to empower them for education purposes?
Kam Athwal: Look, education is, I think, for refugee children, it’s very, very important because that’s what’s going to empower them with the knowledge and skills that they need to have those independent lives, right? When I say independent, I’m saying independent from their parents, in their communities, and I’m talking about independence from what they have been through. So if that education is there and they’re learning skills, it doesn’t have to be like I’ve got a degree in this, it could just be a certificate in carpentry or something like that, they’ve got that skill. They’ve got that knowledge to then stand on their own feet and provide for themselves and their immediate family or whatever it is that they need to do right because with us, we have extended families. I’m sure it’s the same for your community and you look out for your elderly, you look out for your parents, you look out for your nephews, nieces, and cousins. It doesn’t physically mean putting your hand in your pocket all the time, but you’re there for them if you have a skill and knowledge, and you land a job where you are looked up to by these youngsters around you. You’re then empowering them.
So, I think that that’s where education comes in. And it comes hand in hand, not just for the parents to be pushing, it’s also for the other organisations to help. To get the kids on the right track, like what we talked about, kids will come here – and one teacher actually mentioned this to a friend of mine a while back when they come into the classroom, they don’t want to have anything to do with education because they’ve had enough already. Yeah, I’m here now, but it’s not that life is still going on and you’re still improving. You’ve just taken a huge step after working a long time. In some cases, in horrible situations, you’ve taken this huge step. Now let’s start looking at the next few steps you’re going to take to make your life what you want it to be.
Having independent lives is a goal that every refugee wants for themselves and their children. They want that independent life where they can provide things in a safe place and they can do it. They can live the way they want to live, they can improve their lifestyles, and they can progress in the community, not just their own community, but the overall Australian community.
And they’ve adopted this. They’ve come here. Maybe sometimes not what they wanted or not the country they wanted, but they’ve come here. They need to adopt it. But that doesn’t mean that they have to give up their own identity, their own beliefs. They can have both side by side. And kids will have the opportunity to get their education, to achieve the goals that they want. And my experience has shown me, children from refugee families embrace education and are more committed to improving their knowledge and skills, than our normal Australian children, because normal Australian kids when we’ve got it, we’ve had it all our lives. But for someone who hasn’t had it, to them it’s a lot more like it’s like anything.
Sitara Jatt: The next question I would say would be that refugees, it takes a really long time to resettle when they have been relocated into a particular country, and sometimes finding their homes can take years and they don’t really get a say in the bureaucratic process as well. So, in the meantime, what are some practical actions we can take to assist, especially the youth with self-determination once they arrive in Australia?
Kam Athwal: Yeah, it is true that they end up in the countries that they will want to be in because of the process that they have to go for. Unfortunately, that is very true, and sometimes they’ve been waiting for years to be processed with very little hope, right? And that plays on their mind. And when it happens, it’s such a relief and their expectations can sometimes just go out of scope. Well, I’m out of here. This is gonna happen. This is gonna happen. The expectations are not. Expectations are not always what they expected. Because they’ve been in limbo. Hearing about this, that, and the other and this country does this and that country does all the good stuff. Because you know, it’s human nature to block out the negative stories. You only hear the positives and you hang on to them because that’s gonna be your story.
But stories and realities are different. So I think the opportunities are here. When they arrive, it may not be the country that they wanted, but if you ask me, I think they landed in the best country in the world. That’s the way I feel. I’ve lived. As I said, I’ve lived in many countries and we came here. Because my husband decided we were going to go to Australia and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, we’ve got everything we’ve got over here.’ Why are we going to Australia I love the country and I was fighting it, but since I arrived here I’ve never looked back because it’s such a beautiful country and there are so many opportunities here, so many things we can do.
Sitara Jatt: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like we as people can accommodate refugees as well in the sense that, you know, we’ve had our lived experiences and we’re well put now when people do come into our countries, I think we just simply have to be their friend, have them over for dinner, open our homes to them, show them around the neighbourhood. Things that help them, integrate into society that make them feel welcome because once again, they’ve gone through so much trauma. Thank you so much. I’ll wrap this up now. Do you have any last messages for our audiences for our listeners?
Kam Athwal: Just a big thank you for inviting me to be on this podcast. Look, I really enjoyed being on the podcast, I’m so glad I did come and talk to you and I hope somebody gets something out of it.