Diwali is a special time for many in the Australian community. Though celebrated by Hindus and Sikhs across the world, it is not simply a festival for particular religions or groups of people. Not just an occasion of ritual; mothers wheel out delicious trays of snacks and sweets.
The Diwali message of light, goodness, healing and renewal is truly universal.
It’s in this same spirit that I choose to light Diyas this year for Shubham Garg, who survived a brutal assault and robbery in Sydney on October 9. Shubham is a talented student from Agra. He is completing a PhD in mechanical engineering at the University of NSW and is fresh off a Master’s degree from the top-ranked Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai.
Thankfully, the alleged culprit has been apprehended. Most miraculously, Shubham is now recovering in the hospital, no doubt comforted by fervent community prayers and well wishes. And grateful to interlocutors who helped his family obtain an emergency travel visa from the Australian Government, enabling his brother Rohit to keep devoted vigil by his bedside.
For me, the lights of Diwali beam not only on Shubham but what he represents.
Namely, the aspiration of 600,000 international students, currently in Australia from nations such as India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Bangladesh, to pursue betterment through education.
This month’s assault barely made a ripple in the mainstream media. However, what appears to have been a standard case of crime has been reported widely and often breathlessly in India. It’s crucial our leaders get on the front foot to condemn the rare acts of violence against international students.
However, let us emphasise the harmonious nature of Australian society, the good hearts of our people and the fact that visitors here are safe and welcome.
More fundamentally, Australia should truly acknowledge the light in our international student community.
“They are more than just a source of fleeting income propping up universities. People whom we allow to live in the shadows, then return home.”
International students are vital to our economy. Prior to pandemic border closures, they contributed an annual $11.4 billion to NSW, supporting more than 95,000 full-time jobs.
Today, as Australia and India look to a post-pandemic future, international students can be something even more – a true bridge and source of long-term connection between societies.
We should be harnessing their skills. We should be encouraging more of them to build families, become entrepreneurs, collaborate over innovations and deepen their research.
By staying in Australia, this highly educated group has the potential to become ambassadors between Australia and India.
Equipped with professional networks and knowledge of both markets, the diaspora can drive greater economic opportunities, trade and investment that benefit everyone.
This is a moment that demands imagination and reform. So I want to congratulate the think tank Committee for Sydney which released a report last week calling for all international graduates – not just those in areas of the skills shortage – to enjoy the right to four years of paid employment and a path to permanent residency.
Broadening the 485 post-study work visas, and educating employers on the true value of the international student talent pool, would help solve a terrible catch-22. Many graduates find they need permanent residency to get a job. Yet having a job in a relevant occupation is a key criteria for getting permanent residency.
It’s one reason why so many highly qualified Indians are underemployed or working outside their field in Australia, potentially moonlighting as security guards or delivery drivers.
The failure to harness their knowledge is a tragedy for these people. At a time of widespread skills shortages, it is also a missed opportunity for our entire society.
As the son of Indian migrants, the educational opportunities that I enjoyed in Australia from an early age have allowed me to give back. Why shouldn’t it be the same for the Indian engineers, technicians, software programmers and medical professionals currently training right here?
Nations such as the United States, United Kingdom and Canada experienced waves of skilled arrivals from India decades ago. The children of these migrants are now scaling the heights of politics, academia and business – including as heads of Microsoft, Starbucks, CitiGroup, Twitter and IBM. Here in Australia, where the influx from India only really accelerated since the mid-2000s, we can do a much better job of leveraging the Diaspora’s talents.
I think back to Shubham Garg and the hopes he had when he first decided to study in Australia. Thousands more young men and women are sitting at home in India contemplating the same decision right now.
They would be wondering if Australia will truly embrace them. Their path and destiny in our nation are yet to be written.
This Diwali, we have the chance to make it a future that shines bright.
Contributing Author: Alan Mascarenhas is a Parramatta-based journalist and communications specialist, MPP graduate of the University of Chicago and former NSW Labor advisor
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