An Interview With Dr. Berhan Ahmed

About 7700 miles away from his birthplace in Keren, Eritrea, Dr. Berhan Ahmed is now an established Australian politician and a social activist in Melbourne. The official website of “Voice for The West” introduces him as follows:

Berhan was born in Eritrea, studied agriculture at the University of Alexandria in Egypt, and came to Australia as a refugee at the age of 22. While working as a taxi driver and tram conductor, he completed a Masters Degree in Animal Science from LaTrobe University, and a Ph.D. in Forestry Science from the University of Melbourne. He is a Senior Research Fellow in Land and Ecosystems Science at the University of Melbourne.”

In 2009 Dr. Berhan Ahmed received the Victorian Australian of the Year award in recognition for his humanitarian work. He is the chairman of the Victoria-based Africa Think Tank.

Together with his colleagues, he lately founded the “Voice of The West Party” in Melbourne, Australia, and is currently campaigning for the upcoming Victorian State election on Saturday, November 29, 2014.

On Saturday Saleh Johar talked to Dr. Berhan over the phone to ask him about the upcoming elections in the Australian State of Victoria. The interview follows here:

1. In how many elections have you participated?

Three so far. I was originally a member of the Labor Party but in 2004 I ran for the Senate for the Green, which I soon left; in 2012, I ran for the Melbourne State by-election as an independent; in the same year I ran for the council of the City of Melbourne city “as a lord mayor”. This will be my fourth attempt.

2. But you didn’t win in any of the elections, why is that?

To me the learning benefit was far greater than winning. Unless you learn what is involved in getting elected for a public office, unless you establish good rapport with the electorate and identify their issues and problems, you can’t be a complete candidate. Election is not a ride to success but a process of sharpening the mind and learning through the challenges that come your way. If you have to run, first you have to learn and build your knowledge base, and that is what I have been doing all these years. Now I am confident with my new party, Voice of the West, will make a positive contribution to the state politics.

3. But do you think you gave it your best shot during the last election in which you participated, or were there other hurdles that stood against you?

That is part of what I described as a learning process. As an independent person I spend many years advocating for human rights, [raising awareness of] cultural rights, racism, etc. And of course I mainly worked with the African-Australian communities. That side of my resume unintentionally became my public image and the media, unconsciously pigeonholed me into “Advocate of Africa” and refugee advocacy, etc. But I am not complaining for being identified as an African leader, but I am an African Australian and that is the emphasis that I am not comfortable with. It is stereotyping.

4. How else would the media describe you then?

That image and position, the overriding image, hurt me but I had good chance if it hasn’t been for disadvantage in earlier elections. I want to break the stereotype. That had become my defining image and I had to work hard to communicate to the public that though I work with Africans, and I will continue to do so, I am an Australian and I am interested on broader Australian grassroots issues, like unemployment, education, health care and other issues that are important to our electorate.

5. Do you have employment and health care issues in Australia?

Of course we do. The West, whose issues our party is championing has been neglected: hospital buildings are neglected, patient and health care is poor. Education is bad and poor. And if you have bad education, you produce hapless uneducated youth and that is followed by higher unemployment, which presents crime as an enticing alternative. It is a cycle of bad things that happened to any community with bad education where the quality of life deteriorates. The West has the highest per-capita of unemployed youth, and that brings crimes. And that is what we want to improve…. these are my issues and the issues of my party and with involvement of social media-led election campaign, our party has a good chance to win a seat or two.

6. Is it limited to Victoria? Why is not national?

Voice for the West will focus on the West, for the time being … if we expand beyond one region, we will not be able to reach out to other regions since we have financial and social limitations and we do not prefer to spread into larger areas when we do not have the resources needed to do that. We utilize our resources effectively and we believe the West has so many problems we need to focus in it.

7. So, when do you envision expanding?

Good response from Sydney and other places and there are important personalities expressed their wish to join us. We will work to attract [people from] all background to create part that embraces the entire diversity of Australia. Thus, this will provide voters to exercise their democratic right apart of the two major political parties, which dominated the Australian political landscape for many years and they are both moving towards the right.

8. You mean the other parties do not embrace diversity?

Not at all, embracing diversity is not a project waiting to be implemented; it is an Australian goal and the State of Victoria has a brilliant record on that aspect. We just want to improve on it and expand it more while focusing on the quality of life to underprivileged communities, like the people living in the West, from recently arrived refugees and migrants.

9. Are you expecting a huge turnout for voting?

Of course. Voting is compulsory in Australia… and as the services are failing, people will not vote only because it is compulsory, they want to see change, “a better future for their children”, and they will be engaged. In the West, quality of education is poor and underfunded and therefore there is a huge number of school dropout which feeds into crime and other social ills. It will be a serious election for a better change or remain with status quo.

10. How do you harmonize your multiple layers of identities: Eritrean, African, Australian and Muslim?

First, one has to be proud of his/her identities, and I cherish all of them. But there is an identity that supersedes all the others simply because it is not an identity that I inherited. It is the Australian identity that embraces all my other identities. I belong to all of them and they give me self-esteem and confidence and, in combination, create my personal identity, which is culturally and spiritually rich character. These three identities belong to me, no one has given me any of these identities, they are inherited, except the fourth, the Australian identity which is actually a paper, meaning a legal identity that I embraced on my free will while the others are not choice identities because I was born into them.

11. Can you expand on the paper or legal identity?

I do not need to prove my Eritrean or African or other inherited identities: even when I walk in the streets, some people can identify me as an Eritrean or an African by may facial features or by the language I speak and that cannot be refuted because they are in me. But the Australian identity is something on top of all the identities and it is beneficial to prove that I embrace the new identity. I need to build and enhance my Australian identity, which is an addition to what I already have. My Eritrean, Sudanese, Ethiopian or African identity doesn’t require me to show anything. And importantly, my Australian identity compliments my historical identities and gives me [a foundation] to equalize myself with other Australians who have diverse identities, it is my connection to bigger national identity and that is why I jealously embrace and respect it. It is a culture of pride and confidence.

12. So how are you different from the others? Don’t you need to distinguish yourself culturally?

I embrace everything that Australia embraces and that compliments my culture and heritage and I bring an element of that diversity to Australia. I am proud to be an African, and because an Eritrean is an African and different from an Asian, or Pacific Islander or a Chinese or from other background,  my identities are enriched by that diversity which Australians celebrate.

13. Did you embrace the Australian identity earlier in life?

It took me years to understand the Australian identity. I would hear a repeated question: are you Australian? There are certain values attached to an Australian identity and as long as I do not embrace them, that question would always be asked. But then there are perceptions, right or wrong, on what an Australian looks like…on that aspect, my facial features could be the reason why they ask. But in the deep cultural issues, it should be asked in relation to the degree one embraces Australian identity and internalizes them. The main features of Australian values are tolerance, respect and celebrating diversity.

14. Would some accuse you of being more Australian than Eritrean or African?

I see that, but as I said earlier, I live in Australia, nothing will take away my Eritrean identity. But if I have problems in embracing Australian identity, my children would have difficulty embracing it. And that would be a problem for them for a long time, maybe it will damage them for good. I encourage people to have a broad and holistic look into Australian issues as opposed to narrow remote identity background issues. My struggle within my own community is difficult, I face a lot of hurdles, people want to live within their inherited narrow identity circles, and I just don’t approve of that. Your given identity is something that is in your blood but the new identity is the main challenge you may need to embrace and learn more?

15. They would like you to be more interested in your community and probably feel betrayed?

That is wrong. For instance, my own community also sometimes asks about my identity, not my Eritrean identity, but a fraction of that, a subset of the Eritrean identity. I am proud and love my people but I have moved on to a wider complex identity and I embrace it fully. This election is not about my small Eritrean or African community, it [is of] concern but it is about Australian communities in general, which include my own communities and others.

16. How about your Muslim identity?

I am a proud Muslim, I accept that and I was born into, therefore I embrace it. We are born into a religion, whether a Muslim or a Christian or other faith. It is not a curse or a blessing, it is an inherited identity. Islam is my identity and I look at it for moral and ethical inspirations and I know that adherents of different religions have the same values that we all share, be inspired by religion. But I understand your question. If, for example, a Muslim person does something, the media picks his background and perpetuates it and that becomes, misses the main issue and focus on the background. But when others do something, their background is not mentioned. When individuals do something, their group identity should not be an issue or shortcomings. We should be blamed for our own mistakes, not guilty by association with a criminal on religion or ethnic background.

17. You do not recognize the environment created by a group? Doesn’t that implicate a group?

I recognize it, the Muslim community has a lot to do to protect the youth who are going astray, particularly with the recent phenomena of ISIS. In a similar way, the Australian attorney general argued… in a similar way. Over 60 youngsters from Australia have gone to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS, and a few others were prevented from going after they were exposed at airports. The attorney asked, “Aren’t they all Muslims?” True, I agree they are all Muslims and since none of the 60 is non-Muslim, it is only rational to implicate the community and we have to accept that. This is a Muslim problem; parents should protect the young and prevent them from being influenced by such tendencies from childhood. They have to be reared in an air of tolerance and respect of other cultures. Parents should know who their children are associating with because we can’t let someone brainwash our children from thousands of miles away through social media while we do nothing. It is all about recognizing there are different people and diverse cultures and beliefs. In my opinion, the main problem with our children’s attraction to the extremist ideology is not that the extremists are offering a better option but they are offering an alternative to hopelessness and powerless attitude of the parents demonstrating at home.

18. Dr. Berhan, thank you and good luck to you and your party.

Thank you

Further reading:
An article by Dr. Berhan Ahmed
Official website for “Voice For The West”


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