More than 75 people, including Uniting Church minsters, Uniting Connections social workers, community organisation representatives and Muslim high school students attended the Resilient Women in Casey forum.
April Robinson from the synod’s Uniting through Faiths unit said the project started three year ago with a workshop in Footscray. Previous forums have been held in Hume, Dandenong and Darebin.
The events are funded from a $30,000 grant from the Victorian government’s Community Resilience unit.
“Through my work, I’ve had countless conversations with Muslim women who would be walking down the streets and have people yell at them, spit at them and rip their hijabs,” Ms Robinson said.
“I was having coffee with two university friends, both Muslims and women of colour. I relayed these stories and they looked at each other and said these stories happen all the time; it’s just a part of their lives.
“We started putting together these forums to invite community women to share their stories and have a platform so their voices are hopefully heard.”
One of the keynote speakers was schoolteacher Inaz Janif. She said some people in the community find it acceptable to attack Muslims, including children, in public.
“Just recently, I was driving and at the lights this man in his car next to me was swearing at me for being Muslim while my six-year-old daughter was in the back seat,” Ms Janif said.
“Even with our windows closed, we could still hear him. My daughter asked me, “momma, why is he so angry?’”
“These attacks don’t just begin out of nowhere – it starts with people normalising abuse.
“It might start with exclusion. When I finished high school, the first job I applied for was making coffee. I was told I could have the job if I stopped wearing a hijab.”
Ms Janif said she decided to speak out to inspire others to do likewise.
“It is by sharing those stories that we can have change; it’s when people feel confident and courageous enough to speak of their experiences. There are a lot of people who are afraid to speak,” she said.
“Let’s send a clear message to everyone that the abuse and exclusion of anybody is unacceptable here in Casey and beyond.”
“We were totally out of place in the new community in Brighton,” Ms Issa said.
“It was a very white, Anglo suburb and very affluent. We were very black and very poor, so we felt different in every way.”
Ms Issa traced her journey through three phases: from victimhood to anger and finally to empowerment. Her desire to break down barriers inspired her to create a community garden in her backyard where people from all cultural backgrounds can forge connections.
“I wanted to create trust. I wanted people to feel that we can do so much for each other. It’s all about sharing our stories as a community,” Ms Issa said.
“Within each and everyone of us is an incredible story. When we share these stories, we strengthen our communities. We create relations through our shared memories.”
Senior constable Maha Sukka explained how to report attacks to the police. Ms Sukka is the first Victoria Police officer to wear a hijab as part of her uniform. She urged participants to report incidents to the police so they can gather information and resources to combat Islamophobic attacks.
However, she recognised some community members are afraid to file a report because they come from countries where law enforcement authorities are viewed with fear and suspicion.
The day concluded with an interactive performance from the Melbourne Playback Theatre Company, facilitated by Uniting Church minister Rev Alex Sangster.
There was plenty of laughter, as well as some tears, as the performances re-enacted participants’ stories of migration and resilience.