On Grand Final day 2004, I found myself amongst a crowd of almost 90,000 people. Most of them were battlers.
The place was Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, home to people who had been forced to flee their friends and family. Most were women and children whose husbands, fathers and brothers were either engaged in the war across the border, or had died in it.
The Kakuma refugee camp looks like the Australian outback – desolate, sparse and largely uninhabited. Twice daily a small funnel of sand whips through it. The mud huts are arranged around communal areas. There is limited space indoors, so most young people congregate in central places.
That day, I went on a mission to find a particular family. These were the remaining relatives of the first Sudanese family I had met, in Melbourne in 2000.
I found them among the mud huts. One diminutive young lady caught my attention. She appeared shy and vulnerable. Aged about 14, she had her baby cousin on her hip. I spoke with the family at length. She stood and watched in intrigued silence.
Like most of the residents of the Kakuma refugee camp that Grand Final day, she wanted to come to Australia. She hoped to go to school, to study and, one day, to have a good job. She wanted to join her family in Australia.
On Saturday this week in Melbourne, I saw the same young lady. She is now a member of the fastest growing ethnic community in Australia, courtesy of the Howard government.
Her English has improved but it is not strong. She told me that, as she left school last week, a group of young, non-Sudanese people had accosted her. They told her she was not welcome in Australia and to go back to Africa where she belonged. She was confused by this.
Her cousin, an Australian citizen, chimed in, “people don’t want us here any more”.
The comments of the Federal Immigration Minister may have been mere words to him. But to many, they were a release on the racist floodgate.