Speech delivered at
Australian Citizenship Ceremony,
Waverley Council area,
Sydney, New South Wales
31st October 2015
by Alex Ryvchin,
Public Affairs Director,
Executive Council of Australian Jewry
Firstly, I’d like to convey my sincere gratitude to Mayor Sally Betts for inviting me to speak today. I am deeply honoured and humbled to play some small part in today’s proceedings. I’d also like to acknowledge the passionate and tireless Waverley councillors and staff who do such an outstanding job for the local community. But I am most thrilled to be in the presence of our newest Australians.
Twenty five years ago, I sat where you sit now. My family, it was the six of us, had arrived as refugees from the Soviet Union in January 1988 and we settled in this area.
We arrived to a land that was entirely strange and unfamiliar to us, where we had no friends or relations, no English language skills, no money, no possessions of any value. Just a few suitcases of clothing and some photo albums to remind us of long-dead relatives and the lives we left behind. We came with little more than the hope of a better life and asking to be given a fair go. Two years later, we became Australians in this very room.
I was only a boy of seven that day, so I can’t tell you what I felt or what it meant to me at the time. Probably, not very much. And for my parents and grandparents, whose paramount concern was with working whatever odd jobs they could find to scrape together enough money to send my brother and me to school each day, clothed and fed, it probably didn’t mean that much either. Life’s urgent needs took precedence.
But when I reflect on that day, I know with absolute certainty and conviction that that occasion was one of the greatest blessings I have experienced. And to this day, being an Australian fills me with a sense of pride and fortune that I never take for granted.
You will have come to Australia from diverse lands and have sought a life here for a variety of reasons. For us, we sought refuge here. We came from a place where we were denied basic freedoms – the freedom to practise our religion, the freedom to enter certain professions and study at certain universities because of our ethnicity, and perhaps the cruellest injustice of all, for a long time, we were denied the freedom even to leave that country and seek a new life in a land where we could live with dignity and be free from persecution.
We found these freedoms in Australia. My brother and I were blessed with something that our ancestors could only have dreamed of – to be raised in a society where we were judged on what we said and what we did, on what we achieved, on the substance of our characters, rather than to be prejudged based on the ethnicity which was stamped into our identity papers.
While many of the freedoms that we found in this country are a feature of western liberal democracies generally, there are qualities to this society that are uniquely its own, that are uniquely Australian.
And there is no more Australian concept than the idea of a fair go.
If you come to this land and are willing to work hard and contribute to its welfare and its prosperity, you will be given a fair go. Skin colour, ethnic origins, country of birth, religious beliefs, none of these things will be a barrier to your success. You will be given a fair go. And the extent of your success will be determined only by how hard you’re willing to work, the fortune that befalls you and the talents that you choose to develop. Do not underestimate the significance of being given a fair go. It is a priceless gift, and now it is yours.
Equally, by becoming Australians, we accept the duty to uphold the freedoms granted to us and to protect the values underpinning our society – values such as democracy, tolerance, mutual respect. And that wonderfully and uniquely Australian value, “mateship” – which captures the essence of the relationship between Australians. It denotes camaraderie, friendship, and most importantly, equality. Former Prime Minister John Howard said it holds a “hallowed place in the Australian language,” while the historian, Nick Dyrenfurth calls it “our de facto religion.”
My fellow Australians, my new mates, I offer my sincerest congratulations on this beautiful occasion. Just as its significance did not immediately dawn on me, perhaps it will pass you by today as well. But I hope that, as time goes on and you establish new lives in this great land of ours, you will cherish all that this nation has to offer, that you will seek to enhance it through your efforts, that you will discover and be mesmerised by its natural beauty and the beauty of its people and that you will feel the same pride and love for Australia that I do.
Thank you and good luck.