By Oliver Spring
Kilburn’s Hazara Afghani population has increased dramatically over recent years due to refugee settlement in the surrounding suburbs.
Between 2011 and 2016, Kilburn’s Afghanistan-born residents increased by 5.8 percent, with the national population growing from 28,599 to 46,799. Considering Kilburn’s size, this identifies a significant Afghan community which appears to be growing.
Media coverage of refugees or ‘boat people’ has become more and more frequent since the turn of the century. Growing up in Mount Gambier (a regional centre 5 hours south-east of Adelaide) exposed me to these stories, but didn’t exactly provide a lot of opportunities for me to interact with a diverse range of people. Talking to Kilburn residents TJ and Ilyas opened my eyes to how lucky I am to live in Adelaide.
I learn that the Afghani population living in Australia consists largely of the Persian-speaking Hazara people. Hazaras, who number 7-8 million globally, have more traditionally Asiatic facial features than other Afghans and are historically persecuted by Pashtun Afghans. Pashtuns (who identify as Sunni Muslims) allegedly rationalise this persecution by demonising Hazaras’ worship of the opposing Muslim following, Shia. Shia Muslims make up around 10 per cent of the global Muslim population. Shia sources claim that only Sunni Muslims believe in Jihad, however, Sunni sources dispute this. In learning this, I begin to think about the potential contradictions between national identity and religious faith for Hazara people.
Australia’s 2016 census showed the large percentage of Islamic people in the area, with Islam more popular than both Catholicism and Buddhism.
The influence of the Middle-Eastern community on Kilburn’s Prospect Road is clear. Afghan supermarkets co-exist just minutes up the road from each other. Homeware stores, bakeries and Lebanese barbershops are among many small businesses in the area – locals support small business here.
Taqi Jan Warasi, 33, is sharply presented, consistently dressing in a collared shirt and jacket. TJ – as he introduces himself to me – is a Hazara man whose truly remarkable story is concealed by his quiet yet happy facade.
TJ’s store on Prospect Road sells everything from rubber boots to cooking utensils. The first time we met, TJ thought I was conspiring with other white guys in an attempt to steal from his shop. He greeted me apprehensively, but as we spent time together I earned his trust.
Helping TJ with the shop is the least I can do while we talk. Arriving at around 4:30 in the afternoon, I then hang around for a few hours. Community members come and go, requesting TJ’s English translation or buying things from him. You couldn’t fit more stock into his shop if you tried. Items are stacked millimetres from the ceiling on each shelf, displayed wall to wall in the front windows and displays are locked to the verandah fronting Prospect Road. TJ reserves about a square metre for himself behind the counter amongst batteries, USB sticks, and camouflage hats. By 5.30pm TJ has counted the register and begins to pack up his displays. He politely tells me not to help with anything but I insist.
“Since I’ve been in this shop – I’ve been here nearly a year – all of us have been trying to support the community because most of the community living in this area cannot read or speak English. I always try to help them fill in forms or read their letters for them. Usually, you’ll come into the shop and there are lots of people here who aren’t going to buy anything but they’re waiting for help with things that they need. That’s the main job I’m doing here!”
He tells me about various locals asking him to borrow money – TJ can’t turn them away and generously lends them money from the till.
After hanging out at the shop for a few nights I ask if I could visit his home to meet his family. Initially reluctant, he agrees and invites me around on a Saturday evening. The immaculate Persian carpeting of the Warasi’s Blair Athol family room differs markedly to the interior of a stereotypical middle-class white Australian’s brick home. TJ and his wife have one son and three daughters who are all curious about their unfamiliar guest. Upon entering their home I naively break two Afghani customs: I fail to remove my shoes before entering the house and then offer to shake TJ’s wife’s hand, to which she shyly refuses. They don’t mind and laugh it off, but I’m still feeling a bit self-conscious and stupid.
TJ then announces that we’ll be sitting on the floor. After we sit down, green tea and dates are served. The children pop their heads in and greet us politely. TJ’s son sits with us to eat a home-cooked meal of marinated chicken, rice, salad, and yoghurt. Fruit is served for dessert as TJ switches between Afghani and Australian TV stations.
Two-year-old Helen prances in and out of the room like a yo-yo, playing with Mrs. Warasi and laughing whilst TJ and I discuss the Afghan news. Days before, about 100 protesters had been shot and killed by the government in Afghanistan’s capital city Kabul. TJ tells me that these sorts of events occur on a daily basis. TJ then shows me Kabul and Waras, his hometown via online mapping. He describes Afghanistan’s distinctive mountainous geography, showing me where the Hazara people reside in Kabul and Waras.
The Taliban killed TJ’s father during their notorious regime from 1999-2002, “My dad was working in a political party as a deputy leader. His main job was collecting taxes.” TJ left his family and fled Afghanistan to save his own life, having been targeted because of his father.
TJ identifies himself to me as ‘one of the boat people’. He travelled by boat from the Middle-East to Indonesia and then from Indonesia to Australia’s top end. He arrived here in early 2010 and spent over a year in a detention centre in Western Australia. Upon his release, TJ moved to Adelaide. He worked hard with no experience to earn 10 hours a week cooking at a restaurant.
“This isn’t my first job in Australia, I used to work in a restaurant in 2012 in Glenelg called Eden Dining Room. I worked there for a little longer than 2 years and I also used to have another job in the city on Rundle Street at the Living Room Bar, I worked there for over a year,” he recalls.
Working at least 40 hours a week was elemental for him to save $4000 to pay for DNA testing to verify his family’s identity when they arrived.
I’m welcome in TJ’s real-life – his place to relax and have fun with his young family. I slowly realise that TJ trusts me around his family. The gravity of it’s still sinking in – considering his past, some suspicion is understandable but his kindness and generosity are truly admirable. I also suspect that I’m the first white Australian friend to visit their home. He acknowledges the pain in his past yet remains optimistic about the future. TJ spent a total of 4 years without his family and risked his life all for the opportunity to bring them to Adelaide.
Ilyas Ahmedi is a 24-year-old Hazara man living alone in Kilburn. Ilyas moved from the central area of Afghanistan near Kabul to Adelaide in 2007.
Ilyas’ parents were killed when he was just four years old, “It’s pretty common to live in a mud house there, we cannot afford bricks and stuff. Wooden doors, windows, and everything. I don’t remember too much in detail, but apparently, there was either a rocket fired or a bomb blast in the town and the whole house collapsed when we were sleeping.”
Ilyas, his brothers, and sister then sold their cattle and land and moved between Pakistani refugee camps for the next five years.
“You don’t have Pakistani citizenship so all you can survive on is literally selling vegetables, cleaning houses or building houses – unofficial jobs. You couldn’t go to proper school…
“To be honest, my life in Pakistan and Afghanistan was just a blur. You have no identity, you are nothing. You’re just growing up illiterate and ignorant. You’re just working hard to get some bread and trying not to die,” he said.
Just 14 when he moved to Australia, Ilyas is the youngest of a sister and 2 brothers who were also sponsored by his brother-in-law to move here.
“One day you’re in Pakistan and then 24 hours later you’re in Australia, it’s a sudden difference. A few of the things that you notice are the very clean streets, lots of trees, lots of clean people, not many poor people and it’s very bright here. Very nice people,” he said.
Ilyas currently studies Nursing at the University of Adelaide and is one of few Hazara people actively trying to adapt to Australian culture.
“We [Afghanis] have this weird tradition that once you’re married the women just stay at home and cook and look after the house. As soon as you’re married the society has this pressure on you that you must have a baby within the first year…
“That becomes the job of the wife. You have another baby after that and you can have up to as many as 5 babies. The wife, the grandmother, and grandfather stay home and look after the kids… Unfortunately, this is still happening, even in Australia,” he said.
Although they’re both Hazara men, Ilyas and TJ are different people and this is revealed most clearly by their attitudes towards the preservation of Hazara tradition.
After my inelegant display at the Warasi’s house, I query Ilyas about the custom of removing one’s shoes before entering the house. He replies, “You must take off your shoes because the house is considered very clean in our culture and we pray in our rooms. It’s going to make the carpet dirty but also then we cannot pray there.”
“They [Sunni people] are nice people but they’re easy to radicalise or brainwash because their beliefs are pretty hardcore.
“Things that I love about living in Australia are a lot of freedom; a job; you always have money, which is amazing; and you have the opportunity to get an education, I could be a pilot, a doctor or anything. The fact that you’re so free and aren’t persecuted is absolutely amazing.
“I cannot imagine living in another country – Australia is the best and I can see myself growing here best,” he said.
Despite the violent and unjust persecution that forced them to seek refuge here, Ilyas and TJ are friendly, peaceful and happy people. This insight into their lives shows that although Ilyas and TJ view Hazara traditions differently, they feel no need to influence others.
The Hazaras are kind and honest people and as a community, we should learn from, and admire their resilience and attitude.