Looking for a promised land - the Hazaras of Dandenong

As the world looks on in horror at the plight of Afghanistan, there is a suburb in Melbourne where the fear and pain is being felt most bitterly.

Walk into the Bestway Supermarket on Dandenong’s Lonsdale Street and you’ll immediately see 20-litre cans of sunflower oil and 80-litre cooking pots stacked neatly near the entrance.

There are also posters advertising Quran classes, English lessons and home child care.

This simple social accoutrement gives you an oblique insight into Dandenong’s close-knit Afghan Hazara community.

Bestway’s co-owner Mohammad Reza says: “Australians come in and see the big pots and they laugh. But what they don’t realise is that if we have a get-together or a party at someone’s house – and we Hazara have lots of these functions – there will be 60 or 70 people and they all have to be fed.”

Reza was one of the first Hazaras to settle in Dandenong in the late 1990s. He worked for three years in a slaughterhouse in Pakenham and then opened a small shop on Thomas Street, one block back from the main drag.

He sold groceries and other items to an almost exclusive Afghan and Iranian clientèle. In January 2014 Reza and his brother and a cousin opened the Bestway Supermarket on a prime spot in central Dandenong opposite the imposing, recently refurbished Drum Theatre.

The tidy, well-stocked shop serves as many locals as it does Afghans; you can buy Vegemite and Tim Tams as well as sheep’s brains and Lavash bread.

The Hazara community around Dandenong has grown steadily over the past fifteen or so years to the point where there are now an estimated 12,000 living in the area which now extends to Narre Warren, Hampton Park and Cranbourne.

The first Hazaras arrived in the late 1990s as attacks on them in Afghanistan and in the Pakistani city of Quetta, to which many had fled from the Taliban, increased exponentially.

As mostly Shia Muslims, the Hazara are targets for violence by extremist Sunni Muslim groups such as the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangri.

More than 1500 have been killed and 4000 maimed over the past decade in Pakistan and not a single perpetrator has been brought to justice in that time.

It is not known how many more have been killed by the Taliban inside Afghanistan.

And the killing may escalate again after the Taliban’s recent seizure of power.

Photographer and filmmaker Barat Ali Batoor, who has compiled a photo exhibition on the community, says the Hazara community is defined by its circumstances.

He says the community is wracked with concern over what may happen in Afghanistan but also mobilised to help where it can.

“There are thousands of people at dire risk of being persecuted by the Taliban,” Mr Batoor said.

“They include religious minorities such as Hazaras, Sikhs, Hindus and Shias; and also members of civil society,” he said.

They also include children, whose human rights are under threat from the Taliban, journalists, people who worked with international organisations like the UN and people from the LGBTQ community. They all need urgent help.

“Apart from this, there are thousands of Hazaras in Australia who are citizens or permanent residents who have family members trapped in Afghanistan.

“We would like to see a mechanism and process for these people to reunite them with their families on an urgent basis,” said Mr Batoor.

He said that events such as those currently occurring in his homeland have brought out the inherent resilience in his community.

“It’s a very close community because we are all a long way from home and we all know what is happening there – there have been so many Hazaras killed in the past few years and anyone who knows anything about the political situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan will tell you that it is only going to get worse,” he said.

Batoor, who worked as a photojournalist in Afghanistan and whose exposure of the sex slave trade in his home country earned him international recognition and made him a target for the Taliban and conservative interests, says there are strong cultural bonds in the Hazara community.

“Hazaras tend to look out for each other and they’re very social. In Dandenong, there is a very strong Hazara cultural scene. There are youth groups, music groups, theatre, sporting groups and other community activities,” he said.

Hazaras are the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, at about 2.8 million, the majority of whom are Shiite Muslims. They also have a population approaching 500,000 in neighbouring Pakistan.

The word Hazar means ‘‘thousand’’ in Persian and some experts believe they are descendants of Mongol soldiers left by Genghis Khan in the 13th Century; a theory supported by the Hazaras’ distinctive Asiatic facial features.

Mohammad Danesh runs a recycling business. He came to Australia in 2005 as a refugee from Ghazani Province in Afghanistan sponsored by family members already living here. Originally, he settled in Sunshine – at the time there were five or six Hazara families living there.

“We stayed about a year,” he said. “Then we moved to Narre Warren South – close to Dandenong – where the majority of Afghans live,” Mohammad said.

“It was easier to communicate and connect with the community,” he said. Mohammad opened a supermarket and grocery business with some partners. After two-and-a-half years he left open a recycling business that is still running.

Mohammad’s son Bashir runs a travel agency and money exchange in a Dandenong arcade dominated by Afghan and other immigrant-run businesses. Bashir was 13 when he arrived in Australia and completed his VCE and went on to study international business and aviation.

“Language is one of the main issues for Afghans looking for work here. So it’s very important to learn English,” Bashir said.

“Because I was quite young when I came to Australia it was easier for me,” he said.

Bashir says there is a small Hazara-based economy running in the Dandenong area which provides some employment for newly arrived migrants and refugees.

“We have, for example, Hazara businesses which import things you can’t buy in Australian shops. This makes it easier for people in the community to get their traditional goods and it gives some people jobs.”

Not far from Bashir’s arcade, lives a man who does not have a job nor a business to run. Syed fled his home in Quetta in fear of his life – leaving behind his wife and children and his elderly mother. As a middle-ranking public servant and a Hazara, he attracted the attention of the Taliban.

“I had to leave because there were men with guns looking for me. My colleagues at work told me not to come to work because these men had come to my office looking for me,” Syed said.

Taiba Kiran an Education Counsellor with refugee and migrant settlement agency AMES, and herself a Hazara, sees her own community from a range of perspectives.

“It’s a very close-knit community and people are very helpful toward each other. People already here, are established and working to help new arrivals to settle in,” she said.

Kiran says Dandenong became a magnet for the Hazara because a critical mass of the population was achieved. “You had a few Hazara living here and that attracted more and then more,” she said.

“There was also affordable and available housing and all the key services are here,” Kiran said.

“The Hazara are just the most recent wave of immigration that Dandenong has seen over decades. You had the Greeks and Italian in the 1950s, then Albanians and Vietnamese – now it's Afghans. Businesses were established here that provided the special requirements – halal meat and other food imported from Afghanistan or surrounding countries.” She said.

Another prominent Hazara woman is Zakia Baig. She founded the Australian Hazara Women’s Friendship Network (AHWFN) in November 2012, with the aim of helping other Hazara women feel comfortable in Australia by providing them with a social network and building their confidence.

“Friendship is the main focus,” she said. “We want them to feel welcome, accepted, and part of the broader Australian community.”

Her organisation gives women the opportunity to receive regular training as well as free English classes in their own language. They start by building basic skills, such as English, finding friends in the Dandenong community and gaining the knowledge and confidence to access services, use public transport and learn computer skills.

“We are working especially with newly arrived and older women who suffer isolation and a lack of connection with the broader community,” Zakia said.

“It is alarming for us because we can see that in the future our women might suffer even greater isolation. But we are meeting this challenge by taking them out and helping them mingle in the wider community. A lot of our women are not well educated or literate and this makes for a lot of communication problems.

“The cultural differences are also an issue. Many Afghans, and particularly women, have no understanding of other cultures and so no way of making friends from other cultures.

“One of our strengths though is that we are a close community and everyone tries to help one another – this is because we’ve been living in areas where discrimination and repression of Hazaras are very high.”

“Newly arrived people are included very much in community events but they still have their challenges,” she said.

“For instance, the local community could do more to provide English classes for this group,” she said. But overall, Zakia says the Hazara community is in good shape.

“I’m optimistic, as a community we are making progress. We have students going to uni – including young women – which would never happen in Afghanistan,” she said.

“More women are coming out of their homes and if they’re given opportunities, they are very capable and keen to find ways to make contributions and to shine,” Zakia said.

“These are very positive signs. Despite all the challenges we still face, Dandenong and Australia have been good for the Hazara.”

Bestway Supermarket owner Mohammad Reza is now an Australian citizen. He came here on an asylum seeker boat to escape the dangers he faced in his home city of Kabul.

“I am very happy to be here in Australia – not for myself but for my family. They are safe here and they have good lives,” he said.

“They are both working and studying hard and want to be successful for themselves and also to help our community.”

Reza says many members of the Hazara community have family back home they worry about.

“I remember when I first came here, I would drive my car to a quiet place and cry because I felt bad about being away from my family,” he said.

“I’d love to go back to my country and take my children to show them how people live there – I consider my homeland like my mother. But unfortunately, that is probably not possible now,” he said.

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