I was seven years old when my family moved from Melbourne to Ballarat. As a child, the consequences of the move didn’t really sink in. Aside from leaving my friends, moving 90 minutes west of the city was no biggie.
Nor was it to my parents. Both refugees, they had fled Iran more than a decade earlier at the beginning of the Islamic revolution due to their Bahá’í faith – an independent religion originating in Iran whose primary tenet is the unification of humanity.
When we moved to Ballarat we were the only Iranians in town. But the resilience my parents had to exhibit their whole life in the face of religious persecution meant a move down the highway wasn’t to be feared.
Dad lived at the Ballarat pub the Criterion, now Oscar’s hotel, for the first few months. As Bahá’ís, we don’t drink alcohol, so not only was he the only Middle Easterner there but probably one of the only ones sitting barside with a glass of tonic in-hand.
Making jokes and having a chinwag with his newfound mates, he says he never felt discriminated against, only welcomed. It probably helped that his name is Aladdin. That’s always been a handy conversation starter for Dad.
In the late 90s there was only one organisation dedicated to bringing together culturally and linguistically diverse communities and my mother was an active protagonist. My Sri Lankan friends and I were called upon yearly to join an Indian dance group in that organisation, even though we weren’t Indian.
A lot has changed since then. In September I attended Ballarat’s Ganesh festival, which attracted 6,000 people. Ballarat now has its own Hindu temple and cultural centre and up to 15 Hindu families are estimated to move to the city every week. I’m doubtful they still need to call on Iranian teens to join their traditional dances.
It is hard to reconcile this Ballarat, the welcoming place where I grew up and am now raising my own children, with the place where a group of masked men on Sunday chanted “Australia is for the white man”.
Nowadays there are several organisations dedicated to multiculturalism and interfaith promotion and schools are starting to acknowledge a variety of cultural celebrations. The narrative is changing. Migrants are not viewed as foreign entities with everything to take and nothing to give; communities are rallying around refugees and assisting with resettlement, which then has a flow-on effect on the overall economy.
Many rural Australians are dedicating their time to sponsoring refugees from afar. Our food, businesses, the health and education sector, the arts and entertainment scene — all flourish thanks to the contribution of our multicultural communities.
In 2001 just 7% of Ballarat’s population was born overseas. In 2021 it was 11.3%, and 12.4% in regional Victoria as a whole – not including second-generation migrants like me. While the increase seems marginal, the enhanced understanding and support surrounding diversity and inclusion in our regional towns is noteworthy.
But there is a way to go. Our cultural makeup is more intricate yet perceptions and behaviours lag at times and representation in media and at executive levels is failing to keep up. Until we acknowledge we are all inextricably linked – that the demise of one is the demise of the whole – our progress will stall.
In 2014 there was a proposal to rename the suburb I live in Mullawallah, after one of the most respected Indigenous elders in Wathaurong country, who was also known as King Billy to European settlers. There was a contentious debate in Ballarat, with many concerned the name would be hard to pronounce and even more difficult to spell. The council ultimately called the suburb Winter Valley.
I’d like to think attitudes have changed over the past 10 years but the voice to parliament referendum suggests otherwise.
Racist incidents were few and far between in my childhood. Any I do recall I attribute to ignorance or view as unintentional. Others I did not categorise as racist, like being typecast as Scary Spice in primary school when I preferred Baby or Posh – though Mel B is definitely my Spice Girl of choice nowadays.
At high school I was once told to “get back on the boat” but even then a friend had my back, chasing the culprit down the corridor and ensuring he copped a real earful. There was another case later in life when I was asked where my family kept our bombs. I like to think it was meant as a joke but, if it was, is that funny?
I have always been proud of who I am, in my faith as a Bahá’í, the colour of my skin, my identity as an Iranian Australian and all I had to contribute. My children, Iranian Canadian Australians, now attend school in Ballarat and I hope their identity will also be formed by the contributions they make to society.
Noel Pearson spoke in 2018 about the three cultural components to modern Australia – Indigenous heritage, the British institutions and multicultural migration. My hope is that we can continue to grow in our understanding of what that means. I hope we can be brave enough to learn, to ask questions and not fear pronouncing names that are different.
If there’s one thing my friend taught me when she bolted down that corridor, when there’s an element of darkness there are acts of light that counter it. Just as there were acts of lightafter the white supremacist march. People in the country will always rise in support of their community when beckoned. And once we recognise those moments of good, we can work alongside likeminded individuals to build cohesive neighbourhoods characterised by unity and diversity.
It brings me joy that my hometown has morphed into a kaleidoscope of diversity, manifesting a wealth of colour with each turn of the year.