As my interest in the history of the Lebanese and Syrian migration to Sydney grows, I decided on the afternoon of the 11th of May 2019 to take my grandfather back to the neighbourhoods where he spent his first years in Australia – Redfern, Waterloo and Newtown. My hope was that in my grandfather revisiting these places, it would prompt him to recall anecdotes that I could document as the oral history of my family in this country.
My paternal grandfather, Elias ‘Louis’ Bettar, travelled to Australia aged 11 from his village of Safita, Syria on May 5th 1951 with his aunty Zahie and her husband Fouad after their marriage in Zouk Mikhael, Lebanon. As we were in the car driving to Redfern, my grandfather began to tell me of how he came to live in Australia.
My aunty Zahie had returned to visit her parents for the first time since leaving for Australia. She had just got married to her husband Fouad and asked me if I wanted to return with her. When I heard the word ‘Australia’, my eyes widened. For any child in the Middle East, hearing that you are offered a trip to Australia or America was like a Christmas present! I was overjoyed and full of excitement. We went from Safita to Beirut where we boarded a plane for Cairo in Egypt. Beirut was the first stop in all family migration journeys. We spent a short time in Cairo before leaving to Aden in Yemen. Next stop was Karachi, Colombo then Darwin. When we landed in Darwin and I saw the barren landscape and airport, I was shocked! Imagine Darwin in 1951! But, when we made it to Sydney and I saw how cosmopolitan and developed it was, I was simply amazed!
Zahie ‘Josie’ (née Chahoud) Bittar had originally arrived in Sydney on July 23rd 1935 (aged 13) following her uncle, Archimandrite (Monsignor) Malatios Chahoud, who served as Parish Priest of St. Michael’s Melkite Church in Wellington Street, Waterloo and had arrived a year earlier on June 26th. He had been recalled from his position in Egypt due to unstable political circumstances at the time and posted to Sydney.
Both Monsignor Chahoud and the following year his niece Zahie and later her older brother Essa (who came on October 26th, 1937), boarded ships from the Orient Line like the Orontes which took them from Beirut to Port Said, Aden, Colombo, Fremantle and so on until Sydney – ‘So far from home’ as they all say!
Prior to my paternal grandfather coming to Australia, relatives on my mother’s side, the Chahoud family, came in the late 1940s, sponsored by my great-uncle Essa. My maternal grandfather Frank and his brother Brian arrived via the Asturias in Australia on September 22nd, 1947. Another sister, Georgette, was travelling with them, however, was forced to spend a few months living in Port Said due to the fact she could not board the all-male military vessel they were on. She later came aboard the Yugoslav liner ‘Partizanka’, docking on January 15th, 1948.
After the arrival of Monsignor Chahoud, the family trickled to Australia and by the late 1960s, most had immigrated. In the early days, the first family members to arrive lived at St. Michael’s Melkite Church until they were able to purchase homes of their own. And as is the usual case amongst immigrants at that time, their homes were opened to accommodate subsequent arrivals. As Elias and Georgette were the last single family members, they lived together in the church.
In the years preceding the death of Archimandrite Chahoud, the Chahoud and Bettar families shifted west to live in Belmore and Bankstown. Essa established a factory there and others successful family businesses. As the western suburbs of Sydney became the centre of Arabic culture, most never returned to Redfern except on the occasion of a special mass at St. Michael’s.
So, for his first time in over 50 years, I took my grandfather Elias back to the area, once known as the ‘Syrian/Lebanese Quarter’, and showed him the different surviving physical remnants of the time when inner city neighbourhoods were the haven of Levantine culture in Sydney.
Since the late 1800s and up until the mid-1900s, walking down Cooper Street in Redfern you would encounter the irresistible aroma of crunchy, syrup soaked baklava from ‘El Mowy and Sons’ sweet shop and hear the rhythmic sound of butchers tenderising spiced ‘kibbeh’ meat in their ‘jiruns’ (mortar and pestle) at ‘Rowda and Sons Butcher’. At the Maronite, Antiochian Orthodox and Melkite Cathedrals you would see flocks of suited men and elegant women going to an Eastern-rite church service on Sundays.
The sweet shops, butchers and traders are now closed, but the churches (St. Maroun’s, St. George and St. Michael’s) continue to maintain a strong Eastern-rite presence in the area, despite parishioners dropping significantly in numbers with the construction of new churches in Western Sydney. When most families moved to the Western suburbs, the lack of Eastern churches forced Lebanese and Syrian migrants to attend Latin masses, thus distancing future generations from their Eastern roots, traditions and the church of their parents.
On our ‘tour’ of the area, I pointed out Pleasant Terrace on Elizabeth Street, a series of Victorian residences where my grandfather remembered, through the eyes of his 11-year-old self, the hard-nosed landlord, ‘Mr. Solomon’. He recollected the terraces as being
atop a green sloping hill, in a picturesque setting and how everyone envied its residents. Today, Pleasant Terrace has become dilapidated and sadly fallen from its former glory. My grandfather commented that it was more ‘un-Pleasant Terraces’ these days!
As we passed further down the street, the large sign atop an ordinary warehouse reads a foreign name and reminds passers-by of an era of pioneering Lebanese migrants who established manufacturing and wholesaling firms in the inner-city. This particular warehouse, the last surviving of them all, belonged to Stanton Melick, whom my grandfather knew briefly while Stanton was in his old age.
We were invited inside by a current tenant, who uses the building as a design studio. We admired the preservation of the pressed iron ceilings, large industrial doors and ornate staircases, a physical retention of the buildings past. When my grandfather first began working as a shop-fitter, he did work on many businesses in and around the Redfern/Waterloo area, particularly Cleveland and Elizabeth Streets.
At this point, my grandfather began to retrace familiar footsteps into this past. I followed him to the corner of Elizabeth and Cleveland Streets where the building housing Joseph Dahdah and Sons, established in 1936 and the last remaining manufacturer in the Redfern area, still stands. Several generations of this family have continued the business founded by their migrant forefathers. The Dahdah factory was the foremost supplier of school uniforms in New South Wales for many years.
The Lebanese restaurants on Cleveland Street, which were, in years past, numerous and iconic across Sydney were a pit stop on our journey. He had memories of countless wonderful meals there shared when his family in Australia only numbered about a dozen people. We used to go to these restaurants when we felt homesick – for not only a taste of home, but also to spend evenings with other people from Middle Eastern backgrounds. He recalled.
The leafy, redeveloped streets that border Redfern Park including Great Buckingham and Chalmers Streets are lined with opulent terraces which once was home to many Lebanese and Syrians who came to Australia.
Redfern as an area, particularly the Park, was like the Lebanese or Syrian Consulate before there was one. People would come from the dock or airport straight to Redfern and they’d be allocated a place to stay and somewhere to work. Many people would close the balconies on their terraces so that additional people, whether new migrants or relatives, could stay with them. They used to have boarders by day and by night! My grandfather enlightened me as he pointed down Chalmers Street.
As we walked down the various streets, we would stop every dozen-or-so homes and admire a Cedar of Lebanon design. Many Lebanese migrants would construct Cedar motifs into the wrought iron on fences, place ornaments or paint them onto exterior walls. Nowadays, the number of Cedars and holy iconography continue to disappear rapidly from front gardens as these houses have passed to new owners who have undertaken ‘renovations’ on these properties.
When we reached Redfern Park, my grandfather reminisced about Sunday afternoons where the Arabic-speaking community from the adjacent suburbs would all congregate in the park. They would play cards and backgammon and would smoke the traditional Middle Eastern waterpipe called the ‘Arguileh’. Most weekends, my grandfather Elias and his uncle Essa Chahoud would come to the park and spend the afternoon watching people play sports like rugby and football and meet friends that lived nearby.
We drove to Waterloo, for the main stop on our tour – the former St. Michael’s Melkite Church. Today, (as I have written in detail about in another article) the building has fallen from its former splendour to become an ivy-choked site where paint peels and bricks are broken from every angle. After being sold to New South Wales Housing Commission in the late 1970’s, it was transformed into a series of studio apartments.
From his first few days in Australia, he served as an altar boy while his great uncle celebrated Mass, so undoubtedly this stop brought back many memories of time spent there and parishioners he met who would become close friends. This was a most emotional aspect of this experience for him and at times, he was overwhelmed. From Wellington Street, he signalled and pointed out the different Lebanese/Arab stores that once existed nearby.
On the hill overlooking the former church, my grandfather led me to Our Lady of Mount Carmel school, where he used to go to learn English and attended school for some time. He remembered the nun, Sister Mary Joachim who taught him and all his relatives how to speak English.
Although I had much of my closest family with me, I still felt lonely in this new environment. My aunty Zahie had told Sister Joachim about my parents, siblings and home. Sister Joachim then made a young boy feel better by talking about things that were familiar to me. I found this comforting.
We moved on to King Street in Newtown to see places that were owned and operated by Lebanese/Syrian migrants. Newtown has changed dramatically from when I first knew it. The people in the streets, the buildings and businesses, it’s very new to me. When I was a young boy and used to come with my aunties Rita (née Sharah) and Zahie, it was the retail hub of Sydney.
This included the Malouf building. Much like other old buildings and warehouses owned by Lebanese in the mid-1900s, the Malouf Building serves another purpose, though behind the layers of moss and weeds you can still make out the name and year of establishment – 1922.
Further down King Street, we came across the heritage-listed Doumany and Son Drapers. It is listed as ‘a fine example of an early Lebanese business’. Before our visit, images I had seen showed the original signage and awning on the building just as it was when opened in the decades after the turn of the 20th century. Upon our arrival, we saw a site that was no more than an awning. Smothered in graffiti, we could barely make out ‘Doumany’ and ‘draper’. The front entrance was completely boarded up, obscuring any view of what remains of the inside.
Near the entrance to Bailey Lane, bordering a petrol station, my grandfather told me about the existence of a popular Syrian-Lebanese Club.
Every week, my Uncle Essa would gather the family and take us out to the Club. We would spend hours here, dancing, talking with other Arabic-speaking migrants and enjoying traditional music from the ‘old country’. On weekends when we didn’t come to the club, most of the family and Middle Eastern community would spend the evening in King Street, enjoying the restaurants and other nightclubs.
Newtown Train Station was crucial for both my family and also other Lebanese migrants who worked in the suburbs around the inner-city.
Most commonly, people had jobs at the Sunbeam factory or at other factories and warehouses in the suburbs.
I myself would catch the bus which would stop directly in front of St. Michael’s in Waterloo to Newtown Station, where I would then go to Belmore by train.
As we walked towards Darlington, to see the ‘new’ St. Michael’s Melkite Cathedral, my grandfather pointed to a studio space on Wilson Street.
This was Lemaire Photography Studio, where the family would regularly come to have portraits taken. The owner was so pleased with the portrait of Monsignor Chahoud that he asked permission to display it in the window for an entire year! We were very pleased to showcase that Lebanese and Syrian communities were established and thrived in this country.
Like other ethnic enclaves and communities in Sydney, the Syrian/Lebanese Quarter had its own distinctive character.
My maternal grandfather, Faraj ‘Frank’ Chahoud told me that peddlers would sell small commodities on the streets while hawkers, like himself and his brother Brahim ‘Brian’, would load cargo and goods to sell to promote Essa’s factory. Many hawkers would leave Sydney and embark on long and perilous trips around rural New South Wales.
Brian Chahoud and his wife Dalal (née Nadour) went on to establish “Cedars Delicatessen” which was the first business in Australia to produce ‘burghul’, crushed wheat, for the Syrian/Lebanese community. They were one of few pioneering stores that sold and made ingredients for Near Eastern cuisine. Burghul is used in most Middle Eastern dishes including the famous Tabbouleh salad which has become ubiquitous in Australian restaurants!
Despite becoming proud Australians and flourishing in their new home, there was always a longing to return. Both grandfathers returned to their village in Syria to marry. Elias and his new wife, Omaima (née Obeid) returned to Sydney with their infant son, my father on September 22nd 1968. My father was just 5 ½ months old when he migrated to Australia. Frank and his new wife Noël (née Tayar) arrived to Sydney on September 22nd 1960.
My aunty Georgette (née Chahoud) Bashour was the first to return to the Middle East. After this, we trickled back home to soothe our homesickness and get married.
Although I came here as a young teenager, I never forgot my roots and where I was born. Once I arrived in Safita and spent a year with my parents, I then realised my home was in fact Sydney, and I came back with my beautiful wife Omaima and our baby son.
My grandfather Elias went full circle. When he initially came, he lived with his Aunty Zahie and when he returned from overseas with his new family, he went back to live with her and her two children (Zahie’s husband Fouad had passed away on September 12th 1964).
My family, like so many other Lebanese and Syrian families in Australia, is a testimony to the opportunities this great nation provided immigrants. The Syrian/Lebanese Quarter provided a place of familiarity and cultural connection for the Middle Eastern immigrants and therefore fostered their achievements.
Today, the old Syrian/Lebanese Quarter is mostly gone. Many of the locations featured in this article no longer exist in the condition or state mentioned. I was truly fascinated by my grandfather’s memories of the area. Through oral recounting, it revived the memory of the area and the legacy of its former inhabitants and of the locations I had been researching, many of which would be familiar to many readers of this article. His stories were coloured with excitement at recalling long ago memories and touched with melancholy remembering those people closest to him and their early years together. This visit to Redfern and surrounding suburbs and the retelling of almost a century of family history in Australia was a priceless and unforgettable experience.
In an interesting postscript, Elias’ two sons and daughter along with other relatives like his Aunty Zahie’s children have now moved into the inner-city and areas like Newtown and Redfern, walking in the footprints their parent’s did all those decades ago!
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* All quotations (specified in italics) are the words of Elias Bettar.