Community and resilience - Emelda Davis

  • Written by(Waskam) Emelda Davis
  • DateFri, 22 Jan 2021

“We as human beings and descendants of Blackbirding are resilient and used to adversity.”

 (Waskam) Emelda Davis is the President and co-founder of Australian South Sea Islanders – Port Jackson (ASSI-PJ) and a descendent of the Australian blackbirding trade. Since joining MoAD for the Yumi Olgeta craftivism workshop in 2019, Davis has found new ways to support her community through COVID-19; organising a virtual ASSI Recognition Day and a socially-distanced Sugar Fest (26 Jan 2021).

She spoke with us about the challenges and ‘energetic and spiritual shift’ of 2020.

The 'energetic and spiritual shift' of 2020

2020 marked 10 years since Australian South Sea Islanders (ASSI) Port Jackson  was formed with the continued assistance from the City of Sydney Council.

 COVID-19, coupled with the new Government directive for social distancing has affected our global community and the environment in ways we never envisaged. The energetic and spiritual shift experienced by human existence has required our ability to manage and console with daily mourning for unknown global families and loved ones in the thousands who have lost lives due to the pandemic.

 More recently I have had to negotiate on behalf of extremely vulnerable community members that fall through the cracks of government support, such as seasonal workers from Vanuatu on temporary visas and support for a homeless African international student sleeping on the streets of Pyrmont.

 The impacts of COVID-19 are devastating and distressing for many of our community members who see themselves stuck in Australia due to border closures to their countries, isolated with no government support, needing to continue risking their health and families’ wellbeing by working.

 We should be grateful that this continued work is also necessary for supplying Australia’s food chain in fresh foods etc. Pastoral care and local churches have had to continue work in extending services putting themselves at risk as do these workers.

 The ASSI community exercise caution around hygiene and social distancing. Our remote and some regional First Nations communities seem to be completely untouched, seeing the borders to those communities closed in not allowing service providers or tourists to enter their safe havens.

 People are exercising their social media access in adopting free platforms to stay connected and host interactive online forums.

 Post-COVID practice has already seen the Australian South Sea Islander-Port Jackson (ASSI-PJ) group discuss social distancing and variation of funding applications to meet new guidelines. Most definitely the global mindfulness around cleanliness and personal space will assist our well-being as we re-engage strategically with the community in years to come.

 Life as we knew it is no more but will improve for the better. I can’t help thinking that climate change, environmental nurturing will take a turn for the better given Mother Earth has been given a chance to breathe under difficult circumstances.

 We as human beings and descendants of Blackbirding are resilient and used to adversity. 

 As we move through these drastic changes, women especially - as the first responders within our communities - intrinsically begin to regroup, reassess and rebuild our societies within the frameworks of new government policy.  This is an evolution for our societies in taking on board that COVID or disease doesn’t discriminate and we are all part of the same global community. The high level of unemployment seeing people on dole queues is a reality check that we need to think differently and be kinder to each other, having experienced a fall from grace for some and a hand up in support of others.

 Zoom has made our lives so much more scheduled and, in some cases, more productive and connected for businesses. However, our marginalised communities are isolated with the lack of hardware, data and resources allowing them to stay connected - with interstate families especially and incarcerated loved ones.

The Australian South Sea Islander community: History and recognition

 Australian South Sea Islander Recognition Day is officially listed as part of our nation’s cultural calendar for the 25th August.  This day commemorates and calls on the commitment of the 1994 Commonwealth legislation that enshrines our Blackbirded descendants  in government documents recognised as ‘a distinct cultural group’ in Australia who value our islands of origin and heritage.

 Some 60,000 Melanesian labourers were tricked, coerced and kidnapped from over eighty islands of Vanuatu and the Solomons to work as slaves in establishing cane farms, pastoral, maritime, cotton and railway industries New South Wales and Queensland in particular, building a strong economy as one of the largest sugar providers in the world.

 This is the basis we call for our Government’s accountability, our leaders of parliament to action what was promised and agreed upon to address the marginalisation of ASSI communities as we suffer the same disadvantage as our First Nations families / peoples.

 This day for me represents a continuum of my grandparents’, great-grandparents’, and family struggle for social justice. A story of displacement and the yearning for our island homes and families left behind. They deserved so much more, which makes the work ASSIs do in the space of cultural maintenance so important in educating the broader community of a shared Australian narrative.

 This year is 20 years since the Queensland Government recognised our ASSI community in 2000. It is important to remember the struggles of our people and rich history of resilience dating back some 117 years, since the first Pacific Island Association was formed in Mackay, Queensland in 1903 to argue the mass deportation of our families under the 'White Australia Policy'.

 The continued lobbying by the community and supporters over the following 69 years saw the establishment of the Australian South Sea Islanders United Council (ASSIUC) in 1972 through the leadership of defiant descendants such as Robert and Phyllis Corowa, Allan and Margaret Togo, based on Tweed Heads in northern New South Wales. 

 By 1974 there were some 14 ASSIUC branches across New South Wales and Queensland. The first national ASSIUC conference was held in Mackay in May and an ASSIUC delegation in August 1975 prompted the Commonwealth Government to establish an Interdepartmental Committee (IDC) to investigate ASSI claims of disadvantage.

 During these COVID times and new ways of thinking around meaningful connectedness and access for our families, we thank you for the opportunity and your generosity to enable our visions for greater inclusion.

 ASSI-PJ express gratitude to our Commonwealth, State and government agencies, community development organisations, leaders, universities, academics, artists and schools for embracing the need for self-determination and the truth-telling process. 

Community engagement during COVID-19

Through the support of the City of Sydney,  ASSI-PJ’s Sugar Fest Oceanic Culture History & Music festival has been funded as a national festival for the next three years and will endeavour to build a sustainable, annual event both online and on location at Pirrama Park, Pyrmont Sydney as part of the Darling Harbour precinct.

 2020 also marked our homelands of the Republic of Vanuatu’s 40th year of Independence, namely Yumi 40th  (1980-2020). Due to border restrictions, the Vanuatu Napen Napen  women who attended our anniversary last year are working remotely with the wonderful Helen Fraser and other ASSI communities to piece together the final stages of our embroidered memorial quilt started in 2019 and to be gifted and hung in the MoAD exhibition space.

 Today, we pay homage to Australian South Sea Islanders (Port Jackson)’s  founding elders who are well known for their politics and activism across our communities: Ms Shireen Malamoo my mum Ms Nellie Enares, Ms Carriette Togo, Mr Graham Mooney, Dr Bonita Mabo, Mrs Avis Dugarra and Mr Victor Corowa who all had undivided faith and passion to see Australian South Sea Islanders (ASSIs) included across government service and programs. We also recognise our First Nations families and community that continue to support our plight for justice and in particular the Sydney Metropolitan Aboriginal Land Council.