Successful Stories From Australian Immigrants

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Dr Nouria Salehi inside Afghan restaurant

Australia has had multiple waves of migration. Few have a longer history here than South Asian communities.

War brought Dr Nouria Salehi to Victoria. Two years after the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, the biophysicist, who  specialises in nuclear medicine, moved to Melbourne.

Realising there was just one Afghan family in the whole state, she set about changing that and in 1983 started Melbourne’s first Afghan restaurant, The Afghan Gallery.

“I wanted to see how I could help Afghan refugees and increase their numbers in Australia so I started the restaurant to give them jobs and I brought out 35 families. Now there are about 1000 Afghanis here,” Nouria said.

“When they came here they couldn’t speak English but the parents helped their children to study. They went to school and became accountants and doctors and scientists … and some of them now have double degrees,” she said.

Five years ago Nouria was named Senior Victorian of the year for her efforts to help others. Through her Afghan Australia Development Organisation she makes annual trips to Afghanistan where she has trained almost 3000 teachers, taught 63 street kids to be carpenters, and is funding six-month basic literacy and numeracy courses for village women who are also training as dressmakers.

“Why do I do this? Because it’s in my heart. I always rush to help people and refugees not just from Afghanistan. It’s in my blood.”

There have been only two waves of Afghan migration to Australia. The first was during the 1860s when cameleers helped the mining industry expand. The second was after 1979 when Australia accepted a small number of refugees.

Long before the IT revolution, when ships moved about the oceans with giant sails, Indian migrants came to Australia.

“It’s a little known fact that small numbers of Indians came here during the white convict settlements,” Dr Jayant Bapat said.

He is a retired Monash University academic and Hindu priest who has co-written a book, Indian Diaspora: Hindus and Sikhs in Australia documenting migration from India.

“Some came as domestic servants because India was under the British at the time,” he said. Others came as itinerant merchants who worked around the country, making their way to Victoria’s goldfields and setting up stores in Melbourne. Some as indentured labourers who returned to India when their contracts ended. And some as camel drivers in the outback.

In 1881 there were almost 1000 Indians in Australia. Ten years later the population had almost doubled to 1700. But migration from India stopped when the White Australia Policy (WAP) was introduced in 1901 soon after Federation.

Now, there are more than 400,000 Indians in Australia who have made significant work and cultural contributions.

Dr Bapat said when he arrived in Melbourne in 1965 things were very different. There were a handful of Indians, spices were hard to find and the social network was almost non-existent.

“It used to be challenging but now it’s easy because there are many restaurants and social networks and it’s much easier to get a job,” he said.

The abolition of the White Australia Policy in 1972 led to a flood of IT savvy people from India marking the first of three major waves of modern Indian migration.

The second wave was in 2000 when the Federal Government made it easier for overseas students to study here.

“Many came hoping they could eventually settle here,” Dr Bapat said.

And the third wave, a few years later, brought more IT experts and engineers.

Peter Byrne is the son of Indian migrants. His parents arrived in the late 1960s. His father was a medical sales representative and his mother a flight attendant. Peter runs a successful bakery in Melbourne’s inner north, the Northcote Bakehouse, and says he has his parents to thank for his work ethic.

“The migrants who came here saw Australia as a second chance and so they worked extra hard … My father used to push the pram for 15 kilometres to drop us off at a childcare centre before catching the train to work,” he said.

While migration from India is among the oldest, one of Victoria’s newest migrants is from Pakistan. Sami Shah moved here last year after a four-year spell in rural WA as part of his migration conditions. The comedian and journalist visited Melbourne with his wife in 2006 and fell in love with the city.

“I always wanted to live here. It’s multicultural, it’s got a great vibe, the restaurants are fantastic, the coffee is great, it feels like one of the more culturally important cities of the world and it felt like a natural fit for my tendencies,” Sami said.

Migration to Australia from Pakistan began in the mid 1800s, some coming as cameleers on short-term contracts. In 1901 when the White Australia Policy was introduced, many Pakistanis returned home. Today there are about 10,000 Pakistanis in Victoria. They are among the most educated of the emerging communities.

Rashmi Soysa was 13 when she moved to Australia with her family from Sri Lanka. The first six months were the hardest – a new co-ed school, no friends and a different culture.

“Most of us from Sri Lanka have adapted very well to life in Melbourne … it’s important to integrate into the mainstream but it’s also important to know your own culture,” Rashmi said.

Sri Lankans began migrating to Australia in the late 1800s. It was a shortage of sugar cane workers in northern Queensland that brought them here. Some went on to work in the gold mines in NSW, as pearlers in Broome, set up businesses on Thursday Island, toiled on the country railways in Victoria, and many intermarried with Aboriginal women.

By 1901 there were 609 Sri Lankans in Australia. While the  White Australia Policy curtailed Asian immigration, the number of Sri Lankans began increasing in 1948 when the country won independence from Britain, triggering the second significant wave of Sri Lankan migration: Tamils and Burghers (Sri Lankans of European descent). In 1973, there was a third wave of mostly Sinhalese Sri Lankans with professional backgrounds.

In 1991 that Dr Chandra Deepak Pokhard migrated to Australia from Nepal. When his home country replaced the 240-year-old Shah monarchy with a democratic government, political turmoil ensued and many of the country’s brightest minds fled to safety to countries like Australia.

The Nepalese community in Victoria is small and almost all are skilled migrants.

“What Australia has been able to offer us is nothing less than fantasic,” Dr Pokhard said.

“It’s our second home … In such a short amount of time we have managed to integrate well and those who are born here have completely assimilated,” Chandra said.

“Our upbringing has made us considerate and harmonious people … we invite people from different communities to our functions,” he said.

There are 25,000 Nepalese in Australia. Victoria’s Nepalse community is currently raising funds to set up its first cultural heritage centre. Where it is built will depend on how much money is raised but it is likely to be in an outer suburb.

State of welcome

South Asia, also known as the Indian subcontinent or the Asian subcontinent, includes Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and, in some definitions, Afghanistan and the Maldives. South Asians live right across Victoria but communities often come together in particular areas.

  • Many Afghanis live in the Dandenong, Narre Warren area with fewer recorded in Ashburton, Chadstone and Burwood.
  • Most recent Indian migrants have moved to Melbourne’s outer suburbs including Tarneit and Cranbourne where homes are more affordable.
  • Many Pakistani migrants live in Melbourne’s outer east.
  • Dandenong has a strong Sri Lankan community.
  • The Nepalese community is strongest in Wantirna, Burwood and Clayton.


Story: Verica Jokic  
Photos: Shannon Morris
Published in RoyalAuto Nov 2016

Comedian Sami Shah
Peter Byrne