By Cam Lucadou-Wells
Liberal MP and new Federal assistant minister Jason Wood is not exactly flavor-of-the-month in African community circles.
But he has earned the loyal support of Berwick refugee and Masters student Jafri Katagara, who arrived in Australia after his mother and father died in Uganda.
To many it would be an unlikely friendship between Mr Katagara and the newly-appointed assistant customs, multicultural affairs and community safety minister.
For Mr Katagara, their bond has been life-changing.
“We don’t agree with everything. We’ve had a few arguments but he’s not racist the way people think.
“He’s helped me more than any other person in this country.”
He says he argues with his “mentor” Mr Wood about the tone of his campaign against “African youth gangs”.
Mr Wood’s Facebook posts and recent interviews have raised the ire and distrust of African communities, along with his call to deport “foreign-born thugs”.
“I tell Jason that crime is committed by all groups of people,” Mr Katagara says.
“I was against using the term ‘African gang’. I told him to use ‘youth gang’ or ‘youth crime’.
“I told him it affects the entire African community.”
Mr Katagara argues to Mr Wood that most young migrants and young Africans are “law-abiding in this country”.
“There is only a tiny, tiny group of young boys not doing the right thing.
“(Mr Wood) was a former police officer, he is tough on crime and he calls a spade a spade.
“He believes if he doesn’t call the problem the way it is, how is it going to be resolved?
“I told him it’s very good you’re fighting crime but for me, don’t racialize crime.”
Mr Katagara was an unemployed anti-racism campaigner when he first arrived at Mr Wood’s office to explain “what was happening in African communities”.
He’d told of how he spent 500 hours in English language classes, volunteered at South East Links in Springvale, applied fruitlessly for hundreds of jobs, and he’d been kicked out of Monash University because he could no longer afford to pay course fees.
To his eternal gratitude, Mr Wood stepped in, giving him work at his office to better understand unemployment issues.
The MP fought for Mr Katagara to be re-enrolled at university. He says Mr Wood personally rang employers to help “young Africans” get a job.
He invited Mr Wood to his graduation ceremony, after completing his business degree. He is now studying a Masters of Social Work.
“Many Africans don’t find people to mentor them. They end up getting lost and heading in a wrong direction.
“I wish all Africans could get a mentor like Jason Wood.”
For the first time, he didn’t vote Labor but Liberal in the recent Federal Election.
He handed out Liberal how-to-vote cards in La Trobe, despite being mocked by rival party supporters. He’s “proud” that Mr Wood won the tightly-contested seat.
“Generally Africans support Labor because they see Liberal as anti-migrant, anti-Muslim and also the issue of refugees on Manus (Island) and Nauru.
“They see the Liberals as a racist party. There is racism in all the parties – there’s good and bad in all of the parties.
“I don’t see Jason Wood as a party but as a person.
“Because of the way I know him, I think he’ll be a great minister especially for the multicultural community.”
Mr Wood told Star News he was “tough” on deporting “thugs” on visas, but also delivered early-intervention programs to stop them going down that path.
“I’ve been the one who has been the most outspoken person to secure funding for the African community.”
One is a Les Twentyman Foundation-led program for at-risk youth in schools in the South East. It encourages them to stay at school and build resilience, he said.
He’d also won funding and visa clearance for three Brazilian footballers for the Tour of Hope soccer program in refugee communities in the South East.
“We just have to get young people who are disenfranchised something to do, rather than hanging around Fountain Gate and robbing people.
“They’re otherwise going into the revolving door of crime and youth detention.
“But anyone on a visa – it doesn’t matter from anywhere in the world – who commit home invasions, car jackings … in my world, that doesn’t wash with me.”