Challenging stereotypes

when michael met mina coverReview by TIM LAM


What happens when a teenager from an anti-immigration family meets a young Afghan refugee? That is the premise of Randa Abdel-Fattah’s latest young adult novel, When Michael Met Mina.

Michael is a high school student who wants to study design when he graduates. His parents are founders of a new political party called Aussie Values, which believes in ‘stopping the boats’ and fighting against the so-called ‘Islamisation of Australia’.

Mina is a feisty 16-year-old girl who grew up in Sydney’s western suburbs. As a child, she fled Afghanistan with her mum and sought asylum in Australia. She eventually receives a scholarship to enrol at an elite private school in the north shore of Sydney. It is there that Michael and Mina’s lives collide.

When Michael Met Mina is not your typical teenage love story. When the story opens, Michael and Mina are standing at opposite sides of a refugee rally. Michael’s family is campaigning to keep people like Mina from coming to Australia. His relatively privileged upbringing means he struggles to fully comprehend the realities of Mina’s refugee experience. Mina is not afraid to challenge racist behaviour and is often frustrated by Michael’s blind acceptance of his parents’ beliefs.

Told through the perspectives of both Mina and Michael, the narrative delves into the differences and shared experiences of two teenagers from seemingly contrasting backgrounds. Their rocky romance plays out against a backdrop of conflict and politics as they discover the courage to stand up for their convictions.

The story explores casual racism at schools and the challenges of finding a sense of belonging in a society that retains a predominately Anglo-Saxon narrative. Many Australians from ethnic backgrounds will relate to Mina’s experience of having to defend her ‘Australianness’ simply because of her Afghan origins. Even though she has spent most of her life in Australia, she is still considered a foreigner in her own country because she doesn’t subscribe to the mainstream image of a typical Australian private school student.

When Michael Met Mina was inspired by interviews author Abdel-Fattah conducted as part of her doctorate into Islamophobia and racism. Michael’s’ parents are not portrayed as extremists who exist on the fringe of society. They are friendly, middle-class citizens who are respected in their community. It is this type of everyday racism, which is more subtle and normalised into discourses about race and identity, which often goes unchallenged. By not reducing Michael’s’ parents into xenophobic caricatures, Abdel-Fattah is able to flesh out their motivations so readers can understand their racist logic, even if they vehemently disagree with them.

Despite the serious political themes that permeate the story, Mina and Michael are both teenagers navigating the confusing world of adolescence. Like any high school student, they are as concerned about first dates and passing school tests as they are about refugee rights.

This is an ideal book to introduce teenagers to the complexities of the refugee debate. The high school setting renders the story relatable and accessible for young adult readers. The story is infused with a healthy dose of humour without shying away from confronting the trauma many refugees have to overcome.

For parents, the character of Michael is a reminder that hate and fear of the ‘other’ is a learned behaviour. Growing up in a household where anti-refugee rhetoric is the norm, Michael’s worldview is shaped through a distinctly racist lens.

But When Michael Met Mina ultimately carries a message of hope – that change is possible, that racism can be unlearned. It is when we make the time to engage with those who are seemingly different to us that we can begin to discover our common humanity.

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