The Wall of Friendship
In the middle of Hobart, capital of Tasmania, there is a small sunken garden underneath the office block that used to house the Commonwealth Government Centre. Here you will find the International Wall of Friendship.
Walls are usually built to divide us; the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, the Berlin Wall and now there is a new wall separating the Israelis and the Palestinians. However, in 1966, two Tasmanians, Basil Rait and Karle Underwood conceived the idea of a wall that would bring the members of the diverse migrant communities of Tasmania together: they would build a memorial structure out of stones from the countries they had come from. It would celebrate their roots while demonstrating their commitment to a new life in peace and friendship.
The rules were clear: only one stone from each country and the stone had to bear the inscription, “Donated in the spirit of goodwill and friendship by the people of …..”. The idea of one stone for each country was to say to people, ‘bury any old differences that were between you in your home country, you are in Australia now’. No religious or political groups were to be allowed to have a stone.
The first stone was presented by the Chinese community and it ended up being stored in a basement for 18 years until finally in 1992 a site was found to house the wall. Today there are about 160 communities in Tasmania and so far there are 54 plaques.
At the beginning, the idea seemed straightforward enough, but the project has come up against various problems, not least the practicality of using stone from the home country. Erik Madsen, a Danish immigrant to Tasmania who was on the management committee for several years explained,
“The first Danish stone was donated by Mr Kris Lund-Jensen, the Danish Ambassador to Australia in 1997. The stone was from his property in Denmark but unfortunately it got damaged in transit and had to be replaced with one locally produced. However, the local engraver was not up to the job and there were lots of spelling mistakes on it; it was an embarrassment. So in 1999 I, together with another compatriot, named Svend Madsen, paid for a replacement”.
When I visited the wall I was surprised at some of the groups which had presented a stone on behalf of their countrymen. I asked Erik about the Israeli plaque that was inscribed with Jewish religious symbols and thus seemed to me to exclude Arab Israelis. He explained,
“There is an active Israeli (Jewish) community in Hobart who call themselves the Hebrew Community of Tasmania, and at the time that they applied to present a stone, they represented the Israeli community in Tasmania”.
Another stone is "Presented by the people of Torbay in Devon, England" which made me wonder again who has the right to claim to represent the people of a particular country. Erik explained,
“The English stone must have been presented by a community of people from Torbay living in Tasmania at the time of presentation. The rules state that ‘any organisation (whether incorporated or not) which represents a significant proportion of a national or ethnic group in Tasmania is eligible to apply to become a member of the IWF Association”.
It is the Board that determines whether an applicant may become a member. The IWF works hard to be inclusive, but cultural differences are often hard to put aside and it is necessary to recognize that the process of learning to respect differences and celebrate communality takes time. When a group applies to be a member, the Board investigates their claim to represent the community and accepts it if there are no objections. Where there are issues, the IWF Board tries to mediate.
For instance, in Tasmania there are two Ethiopian community organisations, one applied to present a stone while the second didn’t want to be involved. The IWF tried to get the two communities to work together, but with no success. In the end the application from the first group was accepted at which point the second group decided that it did want to be included after all and asked that the inscription be changed. It costs AUD 1000 (DKK 5,400) for a stone mason to prepare a stone and so far the Ethiopian stone has not been changed.
The wording on several of the plaques does not strictly adhere to the rules. It appears that the IWF Board has responded with tolerance. Erik explained,
“There are several plaques which do not strictly comply with the prescribed wording, for instance, the Greek plaque has the wording "Long Live Greece", but this is in Greek so not many people notice. Have a look at the Danish stone, it says "Presented by the people of Denmark, as a symbol of goodwill and friendship”, when what it should say is that it is presented by the Danish people through their ambassador on behalf of the Danish community in Tasmania.
Another thing that puzzled me was an apparent confusion about the concept of country. For instance, the United Kingdom is one country, but England, Wales, Scotland and the Isle of Man all have their own stones. Another deviation from original rule of one country, one stone is the Board’s acceptance of the Hmong community, whose homeland is in the mountainous regions of southern China (especially Guizhou).
Australia has always been a country of immigration, but the reasons people come and the countries they come from varies, often reflecting social, economic and political changes. The present government has a clear vision of a multicultural society where everyone belongs and its integration policy involves supporting newcomers in their communities. The IWF has also moved with the times. The Board has changed the membership rules at least twice in recent years so that now the stated aim of the IWF is to have all the 150 CaLD (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse) communities living in Tasmania represented at the wall.
In 1992, on the occasion of the opening of the wall, Vikki Miteff, a member of the only Bulgarian family in Tasmania, was inspired to write a poem about what the monument meant to her. This is one verse from that poem:
We are strong enough to hold the chain
The bond that holds pain and sorrow
With the promise of things to change
In this land which is now our home