My teenage son Stephen received a sobering text message on a brisk Sunday morning recently at our Darling Downs home on the outskirts of Toowoomba. The commotion caused by the substance of the text message created unease for my young family who usually rise in a staggered manner to eat.
As strict parents to a 16-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter outings to the cinema or social gatherings are meticulously planned and punctuality to agreed pick up times adhered to without fail. In many ways my wife Rhonda and I have been able to shape the lives of our children by limiting the parameters of their social activities. Stephen turns 17 soon and plans to study law at university next year. Our daughter Jayde will be 14 in a couple of week's time and, typical for kids her age, her vocational choices fluctuate as constantly as seasonal fashion trends.
In many ways Rhonda and I have been truly blessed not to have experienced any life altering social calamities that have impacted our children to date. But filtered news from relatives and friends as well as media coverage alerts us to the contrary: so often there are recurrent fatal accidents and violent assaults that are depressing beyond belief.
And so it was sad news that Stephen received of his friend Woonun: he was waiting emergency facial reconstruction surgery to repair the damage caused by an unprovoked assault the previous evening. As we made our way from Toowoomba to the Royal Brisbane Hospital 200km away the mood inside the car turned notably sombre.
I was encouraged by my son’s resolve to drop everything and travel of Brisbane to be alongside his friend, someone he grew fond of during an 18-month school based training program they participated in on school holidays with 30 other Indigenous Year 11 students from southeast Queensland at Sea World on the Gold Coast.
Stephen was apprehensive about the planned meeting at the hospital and told us in the car that he hoped Woonun would recover in time to be presented with his Certificate III in Hospitality award at a formal graduation ceremony at Sea World in two weeks time.
Surprisingly, Woonun was awake and feeling no discomfort from the emergency operation that morning when Stephen presented himself at his bedside. Even though his face was heavily bandaged and the pain no doubt numbed by strong medication Woonun was pleased to see his classmate. He told us of his unfortunate encounter with a dozen white supremacists in their 20s sporting Nazi tattoos on their arms who attacked him and his three friends.
Woonun and his friends were walking home from a video games arcade at 12.30am when the supremacists surrounded them and started hurling racial abuse. Woonun said the last thing he remembered was being smashed in the face with a fence paling and being taken by ambulance to nearby Caboolture Hospital, and then on to Brisbane where he had a titanium plate inserted in his mouth, and his jaw and lower teeth wired together.
Woonun was later told by his mother Patrice Power that the cowardly attack was even more heinous as the attacker struck Woonun in the face with a fence paling that had a nail in it. The nail did immeasurable damage to Woonun’s teeth, but on reflection a strike to the head a few centimetres higher and the nail could have done a lot more damage.
The next day I received a phone call from Woonun’s musician dad Bart Willoughby, lead singer of iconic Indigenous band No Fixed Address, who thanked me for taking the time to bring young Stephen down to Brisbane to visit his son in hospital. Bart told me that one minute he was on a real high after playing with the Black Arm Band at a historic concert with other leading Indigenous musicians at Yarrabah in North Queensland and the next moment he was experiencing a depressing low after he received the sad news of the violent unprovoked attack on his son.
After visiting his son in hospital and prior to flying out to London for further musical commitments Bart informed me that his good friends Archie Roach and Ruby Hunter and actor Jack Thompson were keen to support Woonun in his recovery. He also added that they were all keen to be involved in delivering strong messages to Indigenous youth to be aware and to take care on the streets after hours.
Woonun never envisaged that he could become another statistic of a race based assault that is far too common on the nation’s streets today. Speaking to the Redcliffe and Bayside Herald on Woonun’s assault Jarryd Williams, manager of the government-funded Redcliffe Youthspace, said youth violence was sporadic on the Peninsula. “When these attacks occur probably nine out of 10 of them are racially motivated,” he said.
The last message Woonun gave Stephen as we left him was that he would never walk the streets at night again.
It’s sad that Woonun feels so vulnerable in a community he calls home but I hope he will have a change of attitude when the police locate these cowardly assailants who hunt in packs and remove them from the streets, for the next couple of years at least. I’m sure once inside these cowards won’t feel so invincible when they meet Indigenous inmates who are a bit heavier than the 65kg that Woonun had on his light frame.
I know Rhonda and I will soon lose our capacity to impose such stringent social parameters on the hours Stephen keeps next year when he goes off to university to study, but I do know that he will be forever vigilant of his surroundings and associates after seeing his buddy Woonun weighed down in hospital with self doubt and a few extra grams of titanium in his mouth from an unprovoked assault at night.
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