This is the last in a six-part series on life inside Melbourne’s high-rise public housing. Read part five here.
In April, just as the first coronavirus lockdown was closing businesses and forcing students to study from home, Anab Mohamud, a single mother from the Fitzroy public housing flats, took a job as a community liaison officer at Fitzroy primary school. She helps the school’s many parents of Somali background who have moved into the flats in recent years set up their children on the Compass remote learning system. She also helps the children with their homework. She meets at the school with mothers, many of whom she knows from the flats, and shows them how to use Compass. Others will talk to her only by phone. “They’ve got a paranoia about the virus, they don’t want to go out, say they’re scared of the air. I tell them it’s not in the air. ‘Go for a walk, get some exercise.’”
Anab now plans to take another step by running for Yarra council as a Greens candidate in the local government elections in October. “I have a dream to be prime minister one day,” she says with a laugh.
Fitzroy primary school.
In the Carlton flats, Hamdi Ali, who came to Australia in the early 1990s as an 18-year-old, plans to run as a Labor candidate in the same elections. He remains secretary of the Carlton Public Housing Residents Association, and most days can be found in his office on the ground floor of 510 Lygon Street, which functions as a workshop, office, counselling and advocacy service, IT help-desk (he has completed a course in network engineering) and clearing house for tenants’ legal cases, which get handled, pro bono, by his lawyer friend Ian Cunliffe.
“I even had to run citizenship classes from [the office] after one woman came to me and said she had failed seven times,” Hamdi says. “For someone not from this culture it’s pretty hard to understand that the CEO of our country is the Queen.”
His flat now holds five children, aged from two to 18. His daughter, Ridwan, who turns 15 this month, was last year named most valuable player in her division for the Fitzroy Lions Soccer Club. She thinks she might want to be a doctor one day.
Hamdi Ali looks out over the Carlton housing estate.
In 2018, after the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, accused “African gangs” of terrorising people in Melbourne, 25-year-old youth worker Awak Kongor joined with local hip-hop musician Titan Debirioun to publicly challenge what they saw as false and prejudiced portrayals of South Sudanese people in parts of the Australian media. The pair spoke out in an episode of Four Corners on the ABC.
In Flemington, tenants have protested the loss of car-parking and communal space to private apartments in the blueprint for redevelopment of the Flemington estate. When last year Moonee Valley council voted to cut funding for a planned renewal of its faded community centre, Farhio Nur, whose family are Somalian refugees, says a petition went around the towers “like fire”.
Anisa Ali from the North Melbourne flats, whose father is Somalian and mother Australian of Anglo-Celtic and Indigenous background, works in a communications role at Indigenous Business Australia. She loves her job, in part because it enables her to connect with the Indigenous heritage of her grandfather. When she sees a growing number of “mixed kids” like her, or African faces in advertising or on the side of buses, she feels optimistic about the future. “We’re a lot more multicultural now, and I think Australia is embracing that more. It makes you feel recognised and acknowledged. When I was younger, it was like ‘Do people even see us?’” She also thinks police attitudes are slowly getting better, even if “I do think the general African doesn’t see a police officer as someone that’s on their side”.
Police outside the North Melbourne public housing towers.
Since the violence of 10 years ago, law enforcement and community leaders have worked to improve relations, and our interviewees say views have softened on both sides. Local cops walked the Kokoda Trail alongside young Africans, and Victoria police now has 26 officers from non-English-speaking African backgrounds, after a targeted recruitment campaign was launched in 2018.
Yet writing in the Age after the conflagration in the US over the police killing of unarmed black man George Floyd, lawyer Daniel Nguyen from the Flemington-Kensington Community Legal Centre’s Police Accountability Project argued that structural changes are still needed to ensure Africans aren’t being singled out by law enforcement. He wants any police officer who stops to question a member of the public to be required to issue a docket recording the rationale for the stop, and the person’s “perceived ethnicity”. This data, he says, should be provided to an independent monitoring body, and allegations of discriminatory policing must be independently investigated.
The aspirations of the people interviewed in this series challenge stereotypes about public housing entrenching a permanent underclass. Despite their considerable disadvantages, young members of African communities in public housing have emerged as confident advocates for their people.
An empty hallway in the Canning Street flats, North Melbourne.
And older migrants, in particular, still see the towers as home, village and refuge. Nor Shanino, whose family are Eritrean refugees, knows of people who moved out to the suburbs, felt too isolated, and were back in the flats within a year. Farhio has told her parents the family can afford a house in the western suburbs with a backyard. “But they don’t want to leave – it’s their safety. We’ve suggested to our parents: ‘Why don’t we all get big houses near each other?’ But no. We’ve even been offered a commission house – no.”
“My parents raised five kids in public housing, on welfare,” says Nor. “It gives you a different perspective on what’s important. A lot my friends say, ‘I want my children to have a much better life than me.’ But on the other side, you know what? If we don’t have a lot of money, that’s what I’m actually used to, so I’ll be OK. Even now, with the whole Covid thing, I realise that people who do have great jobs but have come from public housing say, ‘It sucks, it’s really bad, but I’ll survive.’”
Nor Shanino outside the Flemington flats he used to call home.
When we spoke with Nor in May, he said he was proud that his community, especially the older generation, had followed social-distancing rules. Widespread awareness that African communities in Europe and America had experienced high infection rates had “really highlighted this sense that, ‘Oh, we’re so lucky to be in Australia. We’re a part of this country.’” Similarly, Farhio said in May: “We are living in a country where we have a government that is able to stand up for us. They put all these lockdowns in place that allow us to have a better chance at life. I’m really proud to be Australian at the moment.”
Despite her loyalty to the flats, Farhio says: “When I do get a family of my own I want to start in a new place, start a new chapter.” The children who grew up in the towers are leaving them. That fact alone proves that public housing still works, still fulfils its function integrating new waves of arrivals. It’s more than just a safety net, it’s a road into Australia. And over time, in big and small ways, it is changing Australia, too.
A message greeting visitors at the 141 Nicholson Street flats.
Nor’s sister, Ibtisam, has moved to Tarneit in the western suburbs with her Canadian husband. Although she no longer lives in public housing, she still makes her husband take food to the neighbours, Nor says. “He’s uneasy. He says, ‘Do you know how weird it is? They don’t know you, and you want them to eat something you made?’ And she’s like, ‘What do you mean? It’s normal to send food to your neighbours. We’ve made cupcakes, send a few to the neighbours.’ And you know what ends up happening … you do it a couple of times, they start sending food back. So the Aussie family across the street – he’s a mechanic – always sends food back. And I remember when my sister had to explain to them, ‘Listen, we’re Muslims, halal and non-halal is an issue. Just don’t send anything with meat in it.’ And they were like, ‘OK, no worries.’ So they send cupcakes over, stuff like that. Now they text message each other, they housesit for each other. They’re really close with all their neighbours now.”
• This is the last in a six-part series on life inside Melbourne’s high-rise public housing. Read the rest of the series here. These articles were commissioned by the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute as part of a series on immigration and multiculturalism in Australia.