By BELINDA SCOTT
A COFFS HARBOUR family conducting a social experiment on Coffs Coast attitudes to people of Middle Eastern appearance have been shocked by the results.
So shocked, in fact, that they have asked that their real names not be used in this article.
Followed by their mother and older sister, two teenage girls strolled through a Coffs Coast regional shopping centre dressed in the black, top-to-toe burkhas like those worn in public by Arab women in ultra-conservative Muslim societies.
In less than 30 minutes the walk had turned ugly and the two girls felt so threatened that they called off their experiment and got changed.
"People were making their fingers into guns and pointing them at the girls," their mother Susie (not her real name) said.
"People were pushing them, telling them they ought to be shot; they ought to go back to their own country; that they had no right to be here this time of year and that they were ruining Christmas.
"People were grabbing their children and pulling them out of the way ? you could cut the air with a knife.
"I didn't expect this reaction ? who would?
"Racism is alive and well in Coffs Harbour.
"The nicest and most tolerant person in the mall was Santa Claus.
The girls went and saw him and he said: "Welcome to Australia ? you are welcome. When some men bailed the girls up in front of a supermarket, Santa started to come to the rescue.
Susie, who has lived and worked in Yemen and also in Dubai, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, said as foreigners in those countries they had never experienced such a reaction to them from those countries' citizens.
She said her family had been talking at breakfast about the disturbances in Sydney, where rival gangs of boys and young men from European and Lebanese and Arab backgrounds are causing trouble, when they decided to conduct their experiment.
But Coffs Harbour's Mick McFarlane, a retired farmer from South Australia, who helps Sudanese migrants on the Coffs Coast learn to drive and practice their English language skills, says governments have to take some of the blame for an atmosphere of distrust.
Mr McFarlane said the Federal Government had inflamed the situation by introducing the anti-terrorism legislation and making people afraid that Middle Eastern people were terrorists in order to push it through Parliament.
"It was a real beat-up," he said.
Mr McFarlane thinks boredom is a big factor in the Sydney violence and he believes a year of national civil community service, organised by the Australian Army, but outside its role of training soldiers, would provide needed discipline and on outlet for the energy of bored young men of all cultural backgrounds.
Mr McFarlane said employment was a huge issue for local migrants.
"We see the same problem of boredom and lack of work and direction ? they can't see a way clear to the future," he said.
An alert Korora reader yesterday commented on the resemblance between this week's Sydney newspaper headlines and the front page of The Coffs Coast Advocate on October 18, 2000, headed 'Racist region'.
The article said a University of NSW study of the Mid North Coast had shown the region was less tolerant of other cultures than anywhere else in the State. A conservative region with an older population was suggested as a possible reason for this finding. The study was based on statewide surveys in 1994 and 1996, conducted while the One Nation political party, which campaigned on racial issues, was in the news.
"Nothing has changed," said the reader, who did not want to be named.
She believes that the events in Sydney are not in fact 'un-Australian' but in fact are "a true representation of what so-called white Australians feel about foreigners." She said there should be stronger laws to discourage people from inciting violence against other ethnic groups.