Bendigo residents reject racism

PEOPLE proudly rejected racism through a jubilant gathering at Hargreaves Mall on Saturday.

The mood was celebratory, with more than 300 people gathering at 10.30am to enjoy live music and a free sausage sizzle hosted by the Rotary Club of Bendigo.

At 11am City of Greater Bendigo Mayor Barry Lyons took to the stage, telling attendees the gathering sent a powerful message that racism would not be tolerated.

"This campaign is designed to raise awareness and confront prejudice in our community," he said.

"Those subjected to racism can experience poor mental health and limited opportunities."

Cr Lyons then led a pledge, which the crowd repeated.

"Racism. It stops with me. I will not tolerate racism in my community," they said.

After the pledge attendees gathered in front of the stage for a group photo with their hands on their hearts - the pose linked to the "Racism. It Stops With Me" campaign by the Australian Human Rights Commission.

Amna Ali, a Bendigo doctor and Pakistani Muslim, said she had never experienced racism in the city.

"I love people here ... People are very welcoming," she said.

"I was surprised by the reaction to the mosque - I never thought people were like this."

Mrs Ali said media reports on Muslim extremists had made people fearful of Islam, but most Muslims were peace-loving.

"Extremism in any religion is unacceptable," she said.

Aneesa Ollivier, an American Muslim who has been living in Bendigo for four years, said she was made to feel uncomfortable about her religion on two occasions in the city.

The first was when someone made a comment about her headscarf and the second was at a restaurant, when staff were rude to her about her dietary requests, seemingly taking issue with her religion.

But she said many people had expressed their support of her choice of religion in light of heated debate about the planned Bendigo mosque.

"I've made a lot of friends in town from all different cultures," she said.

"Many have expressed gratitude for sticking around and they have showed their support."

Minister Wendy Lovell and Member for Northern Victoria Amanda Millar also attended the event, telling the Bendigo Advertiser multiculturalism and religious diversity ought to be embraced.

"I live in Shepparton and we have had mosques there for several years," Ms Lovell said. "Bendigo has nothing to fear."

The event comes after a proposed mosque in Bendigo attracted heated protests, including a campaign that involved hanging black balloons on houses and landmarks.

A counter-campaign involving colourful balloons for tolerance was subsequently launched and many attendees brought colourful balloons to today's event. 

City of Greater Bendigo Mayor Barry Lyons was contacted by the Australian Human Rights Commission to join the campaign, which invites all Australians to reflect on what they can do to counter racism. 

Throughout the week people have been posting photos of themselves making the pledge on Twitter, at: #ItStopsWithMeBendigo


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