'Home and Hope in the Ethno-burbs', by Sukhmani Khorana

Photograph by Jayaseelan Thangavel, from the Auburn Cartographies of Diversity project, 2016. The artwork features his daughter, and is used with the photographer's permission.

In the Canadian winter of 2007, I was first introduced to the sights and smells of an ‘ethnic enclave’ (also called an ‘ethno-burb’, or less affectionately, an ‘ethnic ghetto’). While following filmmaker Deepa Mehta shooting Heaven on Earth, a film about domestic violence in the Punjabi community in Brampton (a suburb of Toronto), I realised I had never seen so many turbaned gentlemen outside of the north Indian state of Punjab.

Ten years later, I happened upon another resident of Brampton—the young Indian-Canadian poet Rupi Kaur—who was visiting as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Incidentally, one of her events took place at the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta, a satellite city that is known for its own ethnic diversity and growing economic might. When in conversation with western Sydney-based slam artist Sara Mansour, Kaur revealed that she felt very much at home in areas such as Parramatta and Bankstown (which is establishing a reputation as a centre for spoken word events).

I tell this tale not to draw inner city tourism to the ethno-burbs of the developed world by casting them as ‘authentic’ and unspoilt by the ironic t-shirts, craft brews and master plans of gentrification. Rather, my aim is to understand what draws new migrants to these suburbs, other than the lower rents and miscellaneous living costs. As I now spend part of the working week in another emerging fringe city of Sydney, namely, Liverpool, I am even more fascinated by what makes such spaces stand out beyond the obvious tropes of ethnic food, motorways and street crime.

The term ‘ethno-burb’ was coined by Arizona State University academic Wei Li to describe entire cities dominated by a non-white ethnic group. According to a 2011 article in The New York Times by Timothy Egan, these are ‘suburban in look, but urban in political, culinary and educational values, attracting immigrants with advanced degrees and ready business skills’. In the Australian context, a 2016 research report by the Western Sydney University-based Institute of Culture and Society found that Sydney’s Chinatown is not merely an ‘ethnic enclave’, but inhabits ‘a wider field of inter-Asian urbanism that far exceeds local imaginings and identifications’. Could we then conclude that all ethno-burbs, even those miles from thriving financial and cultural hubs, could one day become focal points of hybrid youth culture? While I am a first-generation migrant, I have never lived in an ethno-burb further than seven kilometres from a CBD, and therefore struggle with the tourist-who-looks-like-a-resident complex when I travel on the Liverpool train line for work. In the case of this new role, I was looking forward to being immersed in what I perceived as the vibrant cultural diversity of Sydney’s south-west, but wasn’t prepared for its working class dimensions. Diversity, you see, doesn't usually appear as beautifully packaged baklava topped off with pistachios. In the sprawling suburbs of ‘global’ cities, its layers are messy and incongruous, but usually still delicious. I may have stood out as the oxfords-wearing inner westie in the land of sneakers that is Liverpool, but the trendiest of brogues couldn’t camouflage the hue of my skin. This is because when I approached the office of Fairfield High School (in the city council next to Liverpool), I was asked by the (white) woman at the reception desk if I was there for English classes. In fact, I was visiting to interview another person of colour – former Iraqi diplomat Haitham Juju, who has sought asylum in Australia since 2006. He is also the coordinator of Parents Café, a social enterprise initiated by the school that has become a source of support, hospitality training and programs that assist with social inclusion for many recent refugee arrivals. The café has since been commended by the United Nations Human Rights Commission for best practice in refugee resettlement. Many neighbouring schools with a similar demographic have also adopted the model. Haitham talked at length about Australians who are supportive of refugee communities, as well as those who are apathetic or resistant:
They are working closely with the community, with the groups here, in supporting them. For those who have the opposite idea, they feel that the refugees are taking their place or their jobs, and that reflects on other aspects like prices, accommodation, employment. Through our programs, some of them are trying to understand why these people became refugees, and why they chose to come here. It’s really very hard to put the two parties in one spot, and it’s also harder for the people who are working in this area to win the other side’s support. They always need to show the purpose or the commitment from the new arrivals to be good citizens in the future, or to offer some skill to the country…Through activities (such as cultural festivals), we try to show them that we are very friendly and reliable people.

As an advocate of more just asylum seeker policies, including around the closing of offshore detention centres and the provision of better resettlement services, I have given credence to the importance of an equitable and reciprocal relationship between ‘guests’ and ‘hosts’. However, Haitham’s testimony makes me cognisant of how my advocacy may be prioritising ethics over the everyday needs many new arrivals. In other words, they may feel a greater obligation to reach out to, and befriend, older generations of Australians. Is this why the ethno-burbs are a safe haven for them, a place where there is no pressing imperative to constantly prove oneself?

Photograph by Suthanthan Swaminathan, from the Auburn Cartographies of Diversity project, 2016. Used with the photographer's permission.

I then ask about Parents Café, and how it came to be such a successful enterprise. According to Haitham, it grew from the school:

The idea behind the Parents Café was to help the new families, and to help them with the settlement process by running info sessions so they can understand more about Australian society. We also had a community garden program, and others that were expanded. Through our connections with the other services in Fairfield, we try to meet their needs. We help them to apply for jobs, and also to develop their communication skills. We support the women through different courses such as hair and beauty, aged care and community service, and English classes through TAFE. There is also a sewing social enterprise which has new groups enrolled. We even have catering.
It is the catering arm that has led the Parents Café to be featured in both local and national media, just a few years after its inception. I was curious about whether it is now successful enough to fund itself. Haitham responded:
For the first five years, I was by myself, and my salary was coming from the school. After a while, we began to operate in partnership with other services in the area. The Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation now cover my position, and three other positions in the Parents Café. The school continues to pay for many courses and logistics. Now we have about 150-200 parents involved at any one time.
In line with my research interest in food and inter-cultural encounters (including in the ethno-burbs), I am intrigued by the role of food in building bridges, especially through the catering arm. Haitham explained that this is also a tool for advocacy:
I also work with my hospitality team to add a cultural touch. It’s not just the food; we are delivering a message through it. We put the name of the dish in the original language so that people learn. We cook the food in the traditional way, but with modern presentation. People like it when they taste it, and that is why our catering business is very successful. Most of our orders are from the city rather than the local area…It’s all about how you advocate your case or story. When you listen to people at the same table, you are definitely going to change your mind. We dance together, we play music together, they eat our food.
While sharing food is often used to break the ice between Anglo and non- Anglo communities, we seldom hear about how various migrant ‘others’ relate to each other over the kitchen or dining table. According to Haitham, cooking in the same space facilitates communication between various refugee groups at the Parents Café:
We try to strengthen our relationship with other people through food. Food is not very complicated, and it can make people change. We even use food to develop English conversation. When you put people of different backgrounds together, and they start talking about how to cook rice, for example… Food is a common language; there are no barriers, and people have fun. [It] is a successful way of creating new friendships.

As we wrap up the interview in Haitham’s office, and he walks me to the kitchen where the catering orders are prepared, I notice several makeshift structures on the school grounds. Haitham tells me that these are extra classrooms put up to accommodate the increased numbers of students enrolled there. I recall a recent story in The Sydney Morning Herald on how nearly half of the recent 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugee intake announced by the Federal Government will be settled in Fairfield City Council.

When I return to my Liverpool office, I recall an earlier phone interview with Russell Shields, the manager of Melbourne-based ‘Food Justice Truck’. As it happens, this food truck is also located in a school, and in an area of high refugee concentration. Shields reported on the choice of location and the project:

What we have done is that we have located the truck in some primary school locations, and this has proven to be a wonderful setting for that cultural and community conversation to take place. So we have the Footscray Primary School, where we have a lot of people seeking asylum who come to the school. What we've found out through our surveys with the principal, and the parents at the school, and our customers who we speak to every week, that what a wonderful, warm and welcoming environment the food justice truck can provide. The setting for the simple sale of food creates wonderful conversations about what are you going to do with the food, how you cook the food, and that wonderful welcoming environment where you see parents mingling with people seeking asylum (which is people they may not have met before). So the truck creates a conversation about the issue of people seeking asylum in Australia, some of the deplorable government policies that we’ve seen in recent times, and how can we as a community show that we care, and how we can create a better community through food.
Footscray itself is comparable to Fairfield as an ethno-burb of Melbourne, albeit more proximate to the CBD, and therefore undergoing rapid development. It remains the home of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, which likely explains the high number of refugees and ex refugees who seek it out as a community hub. Shields mentioned that most of the volunteers are drawn from the local refugee population itself, and that it hones their feelings of belonging:
Several of our volunteers are people seeking asylum. This shows their values, and how they want to give back. We’ve also got research projects – Monash University is doing research on the impact of the truck using photo voice method, and volunteers who were people seeking asylum talk about the sense of belonging that the truck provides them. They have a sense of feeling that their role is very important because they are giving back to an organisation that is helping them. There are also the wonderful chats with the customers, and I know that for some of them, it’s a great way to practice their English. They enjoy having natural conversations with people where they can learn our slang words. They love that interaction.

At the end of that work day, as I prepare to cruise down the M5 from the south west to the inner west of Sydney, I am aware of how much intra- and inter-cultural homeliness I am yet to encounter, let alone comprehend or participate in. While we are quick to notice the cosmetic (and sometimes skin-deep) diversity of our inner city precincts, there is much more critical and creative work in the making to unpack what is happening away from the celebrated centres of cultural capital. Moreover, what is to say that the grounds of Fairfield High or Footscray Primary are not more innately cosmopolitan than the bustling laneways of Sydney and Melbourne.

At the same time, I am reminded of chats with friends in Melbourne about the opening of ‘hipster’ cafes by the children of migrants in Footscray, and how this is dividing sections of the community. Perhaps due to its greater distance from the Sydney CBD, there hasn’t yet been comparable gentrification in Fairfield, which makes it an ethno-burb that acts more like a shelter for new migrants than a culinary destination. Both the projects featured here, however, are exemplary of how unthinkingly we conflate our nation’s diversity with the heterogeneity of its food cultures. While this isn’t untrue, it is poorly understood. What would make it more cogent is a considered examination of the layers of time, space and materiality that constitute patterns of interaction and belonging, and how the two converge. For example, the Middle Eastern variations of baklava, as well as its iterations in the ethno-burns of Australia, merit equal attention and appetite.

Sukhmani Khorana lectures in media and culture at the University of Wollongong. She has a forthcoming book on food and cosmopolitanism in contemporary Australia. Her essays and commentary have appeared in Overland, Kill Your Darlings, Peril, Crikey and The Conversation amongst others.