This is the second in a six-part series on life inside Melbourne’s high-rise public housing. Read the first part here.
Farhio Nur has vivid childhood memories. “During the summer holidays every year it used to get very hot in the flats, so there was this tradition: at 4am all the kids would go down to the oval at Debneys Park, have water fights. Parents and friends took their mats down and drank tea. Even remembering this makes me happy.”
The living room in the Flemington flat that Farhio shares with her parents, Abdi Salan Mohamud and Lul Qali, and her four-year old nephew, Emaad, gestures to the family’s native Somalia and Muslim faith. On the floor are Afghan and Turkish rugs, and Lebanese prayer mats in red, green and brown. The sofa has an Arabian-style floral draping, and by the window is a teapot, or darmuus, for serving a sugary brew of cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and a sprinkling of pepper. A cable TV box streams news from Somalia’s north-eastern Puntland region, where her father still has family. After an outbreak of violence, or during Somali elections, Farhio’s parents are glued to the screen. But while Farhio has visited Somalia twice in the past six years, it’s hard for her to “feel connected in the same way”.
She was three when her family arrived in Australia, refugees from Somalia’s clan-based civil war. Within four years they’d moved into the Flemington estate, joining a growing cluster of African migrants there. “Our parents were brought here for a better life,” Farhio explains. “They didn’t speak English, didn’t understand the Australian culture. They wanted to be around their fellow countrywomen and men. If they had been placed in Ballarat or Bendigo, Melton or Werribee, a lot of stories would have been lost, a lot of bonds wouldn’t have been formed.”
In an effort to keep those bonds, Somalis who moved to suburbs such as Werribee and Heidelberg West tried to settle near members of their own clan. “People often joke that you can tell which clan someone belongs to from the first four digits of their phone number.” Farhio says this phenomenon is even more intense in Somali communities in the UK and Canada, where clans are big among young people. But she believes the dense population of the flats not only brought Somalis together but mixed them up with everyone else. She reels off the nationalities on the estate: “Ethiopians, Sudanese, Vietnamese… I had a Chinese neighbour for 17 years. We shared a laundry; people become like distant family without you even realising it. When she moved out we just hugged each other.”
Growing up in the concrete towers felt safe. People had your back, and still do, Farhio says. For instance, neighbours rushed to the Nur family door recently with offers of help after Farhio’s younger sister, Emaad’s mother, was taken to hospital in the night. In the flats, bad news travels fast but it’s often pursued by good deeds.
Farhio remembers a childhood of relative freedom and independence. At 15 she took a job working at a call centre in Bourke Street in the city; her mother taught her how to come home on public transport. “Somali women are very independent, you wouldn’t see that in other Muslim communities.” Her mother, who runs a family day-care business from home, knows virtually everyone, and is “always running up and down” between the flats. Her father drove taxis for 15 years before setting up as a mechanic. Two years ago he burnt his arm so badly while changing a fuel tank that he required a skin graft and an extended period off work. Somalis living in the flats and running restaurants on Racecourse Road, where her father ritually drank tea, pitched in to cover six months of his business rental.
These ties remain strong. Farhio has put her paramedic studies on hold to focus on a home-care business she runs in Ascot Vale with her business partner, Ridwan Mohamud, a registered nurse and also of Somali background. “I lived in 420, she lived in 418, we grew up together, sharing food our whole lives.”
Sharing food was a big part of life in the flats. In North Melbourne, a group of mothers with lots of children would split the cooking between them. One would make rice, one meat, one desserts, and so on. During Ramadan, the most sacred month of the year in Islam, Somalis cook special dishes, including samosas, or sambuus, buur, a doughy sweet, and a sweet pancake called malawah. Whatever time of year, there are bananas with nearly every meal, and always meat.
Around dinner time in Flemington, Nor Shanino’s stepmother would say, “Hey, take these plates up to your aunty”. Kids would be running between floors with plates. One or two elderly residents would often turn up for dinner without warning, and the family would have an extra plate ready in case they did. “There was one gentleman, Eritrean, an old family friend, who lived on his own, he would have been 80 at least,” Nor says. “He would just go around to different households, show up right at the start of dinner. And my father would say, ‘Hey, you didn’t come to us for a week. What’s going on? We expect you to come more often than that’. And he’s like, ‘I’ve got to do the rounds’.”
Nor’s family had two apartments right above each other. His father, stepmother and youngest siblings were downstairs, and the older siblings upstairs. At first the family numbered eight, but then a cousin, then an uncle, migrated to Australia, and lived with them for a while. Then his older brother moved out, his older sister got married and moved to Canada. Life was constant movement. If someone died, the flat would be full of visitors, sometimes for days. There was no dining room table, people ate sitting on the floor, as they did in Africa. “Even a lot of African families in the suburbs, with a big house and a big dining room table, they’ll still sit on the floor,” Nor says. “ And no one had a desk to study on, there was no room.”
Nor’s sister Hiba, a legal practice student at RMIT, still lives on the fifth floor with her older sister and her mother, Mariam, Nor’s stepmother, who runs a family daycare business from the flat. Hiba and Nor’s father, Idris, who runs a cleaning franchise, met Mariam in Australia in the 1990s. Both had been displaced in Eritrea’s border war with Ethiopia; Idris worked as a bookkeeper for oil companies in Libya and Saudi Arabia before migrating to Sweden as a refugee. Nor’s mother died while the family was still in Sweden. Idris and Mariam have eight children between them; Hiba is the only one common to both, and Australian-born.
She emerged as a voice of her community in 2016, after the Age reported that “white flight” from inner city schools was leading to unofficial segregation along race and class lines. This was not news to Hiba. At her high school, Mount Alexander College, the predominantly migrant or refugee students from Somalia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Vietnam ranked among the poorest in the state, despite soaring house prices in the area. With 319 enrolments, the school was undersubscribed by half. In an interview with the Age journalist, Hiba, then in year 9, criticised the “kerbside” judgments of the affluent. “At Mount Alexander College you learn so much, especially because it is a multicultural school. You hear these amazing stories about war, about loss … and it makes you appreciate what you have.” The journalist described Hiba as “a fiery advocate for her school”.
Some of Hiba’s happiest childhood memories revolve around the community centre in Debneys Park. On weekends and holidays the estate kids converged on the centre for Arabic and jewellery-making classes, homework clubs, poetry and televised soccer nights. “And heaps of movie nights,” Hiba recalls. “They’d hold polls for movies you’d want to watch.” Everyone knew each other. “The receptionist at the centre was your neighbour. The people running the youth programs were your friends. The people working there were my community and I felt safe.”
South Sudanese refugees had a similar experience, says Awak Kongor, a 25-year old youth worker and film scriptwriter. She says they are so attached to the flats because they remind them of their former lives in Egypt, where they often moved before coming to Australia as refugees. Awak lived in Khartoum in Sudan, then in Luxor, Egypt, before arriving in Australia in 2001, at the age of six. “In Egypt we all lived in high-rise,” she says. “Egypt is burnt into my memory. It’s incredibly nostalgic for all of us.”
Although Awak never lived in Melbourne’s high-rise, she spent so much time in the Collingwood flats as a girl, staying for as long as two weeks with an aunty or a family friend, that it felt like home. Her actual home was in Footscray, in Melbourne’s inner west. People from the flats often came to Footscray to get their hair done at one of its African hair salons. “Hair is a very important part of our culture, part of our mental health plan,” Awak says. “In the salon people would be speaking Dinka, Arabic, English: ‘Oh you’ve grown so much, you’ve put on weight, you’re so much older, where is my life going?’ Getting your hair done was important for certain events at certain times of the year, for getting dressed up, for going to church at Christmas. Footscray used to be full of people getting their hair done!” If there were too many people in the salon, someone would say to Awak, “Come to my place and I’ll do it there”. And so Awak would find herself back in the flats.
“In the high-rise you spend a lot of time in communal spaces,” she says. “It’s very intimate, you are forced to get to know each other. You know every crevice, every hole, every corner of those flats. You’ve just come out of war, so finding another black or African person in your building is crazy. We grew up figuring out our identities. We were all fish out of water at the same time.”
Awak most remembers the parks on the estates. “The parks were pristine. I remember hanging on the monkey bars, and the scenes through the trees were so pretty. Or we painted, or community organisations would get involved and decide what the kids would do. It was just a huge adventure. All of our cousins, all our friends, met there. We were tiny so everything was oversized to us. Late to us was when the street lights came on. I really felt like the park was the most magical place on Earth.”
A lot of the kids were East African, but not all. “There was a Billy here, an Emily there. I have strong memories of a Jason, and Jack and Jarrod riding bikes. There was no discrimination, or I didn’t notice it at least.” At night, “we all slept in one room, like we did in Egypt”.
It was the excitement of being packed together, with so much going on around them, that the young people most remember. Many had been born in one place, grown up in another, and their lives reflected a kaleidoscope of cultures. Nor’s older brother Osman has never lived in America but “has a weirdly New York accent in some things he says. He doesn’t sound Australian. When he got to Australia, aged 16, he had been watching a lot of mobster movies – Scarface, Casino, Donnie Brasco – and learning English from them. So he would say things like, ‘I’m gonna bury those cockroaches,’ or like Don Corleone in The Godfather: ‘That I cannot do for you’. And I’m like, ‘Mate, we live in Australia. We don’t call people cockroaches here’.”
The language of the flats was lively, blunt, at times brutal. A friend’s older brother had been locked up for a serious drug problem; an uncle had beaten up an aunty – children discussed everything, Nor says. Somalis are especially frank. A man with one eye was simply addressed as One Eye; another with serious leg problems was called LG – short for langa, or one-legged. Other Africans called Somalis “banana eaters” because they ate the fruit with every meal. “In Australia that’s rude or inappropriate behaviour. But we come from a culture where you say things frankly and upfront. There is this idea that if someone’s being honest, you can’t really fault them.”
Yet for all his happy memories, Nor sees both positives and negatives in the life he knew. The friends he made in public housing remain the closest he has. “Some of us grew up and grew apart. But when we run into each other, it’s literally like we pick up where we left off. I had a circle of 20 guys who I probably saw every day for 10 years, sometimes spending six, seven hours a day together. Those guys are as close as me as my brothers.”
But perhaps that was too close. Perhaps, he wonders, the estate was too much of a fortress, too closed off from mainstream Australia. Some of the brightest people he knew from the estate “go to uni and it’s a struggle. Not the studies or the schedule, but the cultural struggle. A lot of them didn’t even make it past first semester. They were like, ‘No, uni’s not for me. I can’t do it.’ I tell them, ‘Hey, you’ve got to understand that all of a sudden you’re out of your comfort zone.’ A lot of them have never really spoken to someone outside of that bubble of public housing, apart from maybe a teacher. You sit them in front of someone from outside their estate, and they just shut down.”
He tells the story of a friend – “a very funny guy, a very honest guy” – who went to university but never told his new classmates were he came from. One day they were all on a tram to do an exam at the Showgrounds. As they passed the Flemington high-rise, a good friend of Nor’s friend said: “Oh my God, imagine growing up there, how would you end up?” They asked Nor’s friend what he thought and he said, “I imagine it would be very difficult”. A few days later he said to Nor: “I’ve been angry ever since. I was so disappointed with myself, so pissed. I should have just told them.”
This is the second in a six-part series on life inside Melbourne’s high-rise public housing. These articles were commissioned by the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute as part of a series on immigration and multiculturalism in Australia. Tomorrow: drugs and police pursuits.