Immigration minister Peter Dutton’s comments on Tuesday that many of the refugees coming to Australia were illiterate and taking Australian jobs, or ending up unemployed, created a huge backlash.
Dutton’s observations, like much political rhetoric, contained some fact, but were seen by many as the antithesis of what it means to be Australian, a nation of immigrants who’ve carved success out of an often hostile landscape.
While some saw Dutton’s comments as dogwhistle politics, an uplifting response opposing his views has come from a surprising range of people who’ve told moving stories of families who’ve escaped harrowing situations for a new way of life in Australia, building something for subsequent generations.
One of the most powerful and moving smackdowns came from Today Show host Karl Stefanovic, who delivered a stinging monologue, accusing the minister of being “un-Australian” and cherry picking statistics to suit his cause. He recounted his own family story of grandparents who spend a year in an immigration camp.
Here’s how Stefanovic began:
There is something about Peter Dutton’s comments yesterday that didn’t sit well with many Australians, including myself and Tim Gilbert.
Timmy’s mother, came here as a little girl from Lebanon with her parents just before the second world war. Her family came with little English and money. They got busy working as hawkers, graduating to their own business, and quickly picking up the lingo.
My grandparents were the same. They spent a year in an immigration camp in Wollongong. He got a job working the coal for BHP, stayed there for 30 years. They built a house with their own hands in Bellambi and built a life for their grandchildren to enjoy.
My best mate Al’s parents came here in the ’60s from Croatia and just about they all knew for 15 years was swear words. They would have been considered illiterate. You know how it goes, ending a sentence with a swear word.
But this country is built on so many pillars, including those that come from faraway lands not much more than hope and the drive for a better life for their family. They have made this a better place. They helped make modern Australia.
Stefanovic pointed to this 2011 report by Dutton’s own department, which says, in part:
The larger picture of humanitarian entrants is one of considerable achievement and contribution. Humanitarian entrants help meet labour shortages.
They display strong entrepreneurial qualities compared with other migrant groups, with a higher than average proportion engaging in small and medium business enterprise.
Stefanovic concludes that Dutton needs to apologise.
“Not only for those arriving now, but for those who have come and gone, giving their blood sweat and tears, and handed down their values to the next generations, who are many of our leaders today,” he said.
You can watch what he had to say here:
The Channel 9 journalist was far from alone in sharing extraordinary stories.
Buzzfeed political journalist Mark Di Stefano shared his own family story of illiterate migrant relatives, grandparents who fled Italy during WWII. It inspired many more people to tell their stories, which Di Stefano compiled here.
— Will Paul (@WillPaul2) May 19, 2016
You don’t have to look far to see refugees who’ve made Australia a better place.
Business Insider recently covered the story of Aliir Aliir, who made his debut for the Sydney Swans last month and was born in a Kenyan refugee camp in 1994 after his Sudanese parents had fled the civil war ripping apart their country.
Another Sudanese refugee, Thon Maker, grew up in Australia and is now heading for the NBA draft.
Meanwhile, Deng Adut’s remarkable life story, from 6-year-old child soldier for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, to refugee and now Sydney lawyer was turned into a powerful recruitment ad for Western Sydney University.
Then there’s this remarkable tale, about Iraqi refugee Sam Eisho, who walked into the Centrelink office in 2009 and tried to repay $18,000 in welfare he’d received from Australian taxpayers after fleeing Saddam Hussein’s regime. Since arriving here in 1999, Eisho has built a successful construction company.
Plenty of others came forward on social media and the hashtag #soilliterate began to trend.
Former Australian soldier and veterans advocate Ray Martin pointed to the Iraqi surgeon Dr Munjed al-Muderis, a boatperson, aged 27, in the class of ’99.
His work with amputees is both inspiring and transformative.
One of those illiterate innumerate boat people
Arrived by boat 99
— Ray Martin (@Raymartin55) May 17, 2016
Asylum Seeker Resource Centre CEO Kon Karapanagiotidis shared his family story:
My "uneducated" parents who didn't have chance to finish primary school & raised 2 kids who are a barrister & lawyer pic.twitter.com/yKEpG8mq73
— Kon Karapanagiotidis (@Kon__K) May 18, 2016
And also took a pot shot at the minister with a reminder of a distinguished alumni.
— Kon Karapanagiotidis (@Kon__K) May 17, 2016
Sir Gustav Nossal, the 1999 Australian of the year, immunologist and medical researcher arrived in Australia in 1938 with his Austrian family as a refugee from Nazism.
Hieu Van Le, now governor of South Australia, was a 1977 Vietnamese boatperson.
Huy Truong was seven when he too arrived by boat in 1978, while Tan Lee, who appeared alongside him on the cover of BRW in 2013, landed three years later. Truong’s gift website wishlist.com.au sold to Qantas in 2012. Le became the 1998 Young Australian of the Year, and is co-founder of Emotiv.
Meanwhile, Sabina Husic reminded nation her Bosnian family has gone from illiterate migrants to the federal parliament’s first Muslim MP, Ed Husic, in a generation.
my mum was an illiterate migrant who taught herself english then went on to have an MP son and a daughter who is a phenomenal twitter celeb
— Sabina Husic (@sabinahusic) May 18, 2016
Their stories are a reminder that while you may arrive in Australia an illiterate refugee, it’s what you do with that opportunity next that counts.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.