Dandenong is a living portrait of the vibrancy refugees can bring to an area.
About 20 years ago the land-locked city located 36 kilometres southeast of Melbourne, was tired and dilapidated. Storefronts were vacant and it was difficult to rent or sell a home.
But a wave of refugees have settled in Dandenong in the last decade, making it the most culturally diverse area in Victoria and Melbourne’s only recognized Afghan precinct.
When I spent the afternoon in Dandenong on Monday and Wednesday, the sidewalks along Thomas Street were filled with people coming and going into the Halal grocery shores, Afghan restaurants, Persian rug stores and shops selling traditional Middle Eastern clothing. Pashto and Dari were heard more often than English and Afghani music blared out of the cars as men socialized on the street.
Aman Nigimi, who owns the Afghan Masala Restaurant, has the air of a businessman much more experienced than his 27 years. He’s quick to greet regulars and make them feel at home. A Caucasian woman comes in and asks about a particular type of biscuit. Nigimi gives her the whole biscuit to sample.
The smell of the aromatic spices he uses to flavour his kebabs and tandoori chicken wafts through the restaurant and onto the street.
Nigimi has come a long way since coming to Australia as a refugee on a boat in 2001, speaking barely any English.
After spending four months in refugee detention in Darwin, Nigimi settled in Dandenong, following many other Afghans who had done the same.
Nigimi took English classes and, with the help of some friends, scraped enough money together to open the restaurant in 2005.
He’s been successful enough to open up a second location in Springvale.
Nigimi tries to help new refugees get settled in the area, showing them where to take English classes or helping them out with a job.
‘I help them a lot because I know that most of them, they come here and they can’t speak English,” he said.
Timur Sarwar was one of the early Afghans settlers to the Dandenong area, arriving in 1987. Sarwar runs an interpretation and translation service called TSG Australia that helps refugees across the country.
Sarwar has watched Dandenong transform from a dead area 20 years ago to a flourishing multicultural community.
“Twenty-five years ago, Dandenong was a dead area. No one was keen to buy a property or rent a shop. Ever since the new arrivals, the good thing is, business has been booming here. It’s creating more jobs for people.”
Sarwar said it also provides an easier transition for refugees who can find shops, restaurants and clothes from their home country.
The City of Greater Dandenong has not only embraced Dandenong’s multiculturalism, but promotes it as an attraction. Thomas Street was dubbed the Afghan Bazaar in 2009 and is the centre of a cultural tour, introduced in 2011 by the City of Greater Dandenong in hopes of drawing tourists to the area.
The monthly tours take visitors through Little India and the Afghan Bazaar, where they can meet the owners, hear their stories of migration and learn about their products.
Grissel Walmaggia, the city’s cultural planning officer, said the tours are a great way to introduce the broader community to the rich culture of the Middle East and South East Asia.
“Council has recognized how important the cultural diversity is to the city. I always say, we don’t have a gorgeous shoreline, we don’t have mountain ranges but we have our people.”
Katie DeRosa is a Victoria Times Colonist journalist investigating Australia's mandatory detention policy in light of Canada's tougher refugee reforms under Bill C-31.