Celebrating multiculturism in Australia

Australia is celebrating Harmony Week (20 – 26 March) – “Everyone Belongs” – which recognises our country’s diversity and brings people together from all different backgrounds. Inclusiveness, respect and belonging for all people in Australia is what this week is about.

To mark this year’s Harmony Week, Sharokeen Yaco, a Community Services Consultant in The Benevolent Society’s National Support Centre, shares her Assyrian heritage with us, how her Middle Eastern background has helped her support our clients, and why Harmony Week is important to acknowledge and celebrate.

Sharokeen smiling

Sharokeen Yaco pictured above

Meet Sharokeen Yaco

What do you do for work?
As a Community Services Consultant, I’m the first point of contact for existing and potential clients of The Benevolent Society. My role is to assess, refer and direct our clients and potential clients to our services and programs within Disability, Ageing and Carer Services and Child, Youth & Family.

What’s your family’s heritage?

My family’s heritage is Assyrian. We’re the indigenous people of Assyria, which was in the northern part of Mesopotamia (which is now modern-day Iraq) and parts of Turkey, Iran, and Syria. My grandparents were originally from Iraq and Syria, my parents both grew up in Syria and eventually made Australia their home in the mid 1970’s. 

Why do you think it’s important to celebrate Harmony Week?

For Australia to embrace diversity, inclusion and respect for all cultures and religions, is one of the most beautiful things a country can do. It’s vital for others to have awareness of the different cultures, backgrounds, and beliefs but it also gives everyone a chance to hear the stories so many people have about their journey and why they now call Australia home. 

When someone can understand the situation people have been in and what they went through to make Australia their home – it enriches their understanding and inclusive spirit to all people from Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) backgrounds. 

For my family, the most difficult decision was leaving their home country which turned out to be the best decision my parents ever made. Not only do we live in a country that accepts and celebrates diversity, we can live a life free from fear and persecution and for this reason - we celebrate Harmony Week. 

How has your culture helped you to support some of our clients? 

Having a Middle Eastern background has helped me support a lot of our Middle Eastern clients and callers. In our Middle Eastern culture (and I’m sure in many other CALD communities), seeking assistance with caring for elderly parents/grandparents, assistance for any caring roles or needing help with a disability or mental health; is something we’re not familiar with. 

Some may feel ashamed and embarrassed to reach out for help; especially those seeking support from Ageing Services, as our culture holds high values with respecting and caring for our elderly. Once a client asks where my name is from, what was initially an enquiry, leads to them expressing their overwhelming feelings of guilt with having to receive supports for their parents or grandparents.

I’ve been able relate to callers from my own experience and have the ability to listen to their struggle, speak through their guilt and shame, highlighting their strength in their caring role and the benefits of receiving support that they’re entitled to.

This struggle I see way too often within the CALD communities. By me having a CALD background on the receiving end of the phone, makes it just a little easier for them. 

Are there any days in the year that you celebrate that are specific to your heritage?

Assyrian people celebrate Assyrian New Year which is called “Kha-b Nisin” on 1 April. Traditionally, this day is celebrated over a 12-day period - celebrating each month of the year. However, we now celebrate as a community on the weekend of 1 April. This year, we’ll be celebrating 6773 years. We celebrate by holding festivals, parades, picnics, and parties that involves Assyrian musicians, folk dancing in our traditional Assyrian clothing and poetry recitals by well-known poets. 

As an Indigenous people, we unfortunately don’t have our homeland anymore and can’t celebrate the many things about our culture together as our ancestors did. So, for us to be able to come together like this is something we hold very dear to our hearts to keep our culture alive. 

Are there any special traditions you and your family uphold? 

We uphold our Assyrian traditional weddings. Our weddings are traditionally a two-week event (yes, I know, we are a little extravagant). This usually involves the first week of preparation for the big day, which involves the food preparation, getting the groom ready and preparing him to become a groom, moving the bride’s belongings into her new house with her future husband and another celebration the day before the wedding. 

The second half of the wedding celebration is the big day which starts from the early morning until late at night. Then the after party, where we gather again the next day and celebrate by bringing the bride and groom into their new home after the wedding day and celebrating with them. These events all involve a lot of singing and dancing with our traditional flutes and drums which we call “Dowla O Zorna”.  

More interesting facts and figures

There are some fascinating statistics about Australia's diversity that can be good conversation-starters:

Since 1945, more than 7.5 million people have migrated to Australia
85 per cent of Australians agree multiculturalism has been good for Australia
Apart from English, the most common languages spoken in Australia are Mandarin, Arabic, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Italian, Greek, Tagalog/Filipino, Hindi, Spanish and Punjabi
More than 70 Indigenous languages are spoken in Australia

*Facts taken from ABS 2016 Census Data.