• Arad Nik wants to bring two cultures together: Persian and Australian. (Persian Pantry)Source: Persian Pantry
Welcome Merchant helps refugee-led eateries and food companies gain a following – from Palestinian knafeh bakers to Persian jam makers.
Lee Tran Lam

17 Jun 2020 - 11:07 AM  UPDATED 20 Oct 2020 - 2:36 PM

An Instagram image might measure only a few centimetres high and wide, but it can be incredibly powerful. 

That tiny square format became a lifeline for rural communities devastated by drought and bushfires, when Instagram accounts such as Spend With Them and Buy From The Bush were launched to help regional businesses doing it tough. These accounts – which each have around 200,000 followers – highlighted rural retailers that needed online customers, from a Dubbo shop selling Australiana socks to a Mudgee company cooking up spiced onion relish.

Marjorie Tenchavez hopes to do something similar with Welcome Merchant, an Instagram account that showcases refugee-run businesses in Australia.

She often works with refugee entrepreneurs and when she ran the Amnesty NSW Refugee Network Facebook account, she noticed there'd always be "super-high" interest and engagement whenever she posted about a refugee-led business.

So Tenchavez started Welcome Merchant soon after Harmony Day, an event that celebrates Australia's rich multicultural diversity. Many of the business owners she's profiled cater to people’s appetites: from Palestinian knafeh-maker Mohammed Wahib to Yarrie Bangura, who creates ginger tonics inspired by her Sierre Leone homeland. 

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"Australia's food culture wouldn't be the same without immigration, right?" she says. "Food is an amazing way for people to share their culture and for them to make an income as well."

Tenchavez obviously takes her research seriously. "The places I've posted, I've eaten at them all," she says.

"Australia's food culture wouldn't be the same without immigration."

She's driven to Lakemba in Sydney's west to scoop up a kilo of pastry from Wahib's Yummy Yummy Knafeh business ("I was distributing it to friends!" she says) and she's dined three times at Colombo Social, the Sydney restaurant that offers work opportunities to Sri Lankan refugees. It also serves an excellent kottu roti. She rates Colombo Social's version of this Sri Lankan specialty, made from stir-fried roti strips, as her favourite in Australia. "I spent a part of my Masters Degree in Colombo and that's where my kottu roti obsession started."

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Welcome Merchant isn't just about businesses that have kept her well-fed: she's supported Parliament On King for many years and used to run cooking classes with their asylum seeker chefs for Amnesty NSW Refugee Network fundraisers; she’s also referred refugee clients to The Bread and Butter Project's traineeship project.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are currently more than 70 million refugees in the world. The UN agency reports that "one person is forcibly displaced roughly every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution". These statistics reveal how vast populations around the world do not feel safe where they are – but these numbers can also mask individual experiences, too.

"It's important to support refugees and share their stories," says Tenchavez.

One account has particularly stayed with her: the experience of Arad Nik, who currently runs Persia's Pantry in Cygnet, south of Tasmania. He worked as a microbiologist for 17 years in Iran, analysing blood and hair samples and examining microbes, viruses and parasites. Arad also worked with the courts.

"Any time the police or security find drugs, they'd leave them in my laboratory. And I would report it to court and according to my reporting, they would charge the person."

But he ran into trouble when he realised the authorities were trying to frame activists, human rights advocates and people from the Ahwazi Arab community, a minority group he identified with.

He reported this corrupt misconduct to the court, but he was punished for it. "Four times they arrested me and put me into torture [rooms]," he says. Later, they threw him in jail for five years. Then they imprisoned his father for six months. It was clear the harassment would never stop – Arad knew he had to leave Iran permanently.

He made his way to Indonesia and, along with 59 other people, travelled to Christmas Island by boat. But well into their journey, the vessel filled with water and began to sink. There was a pregnant woman on board, as well as a young parent with a seven-month baby. People started to yell and cry. "We were close to dying and then the navy came," he says.

Arad was rescued – but ended up spending a long time in detention centres. Once he got out, life outside of a cell was tough, too. His visa didn't allow him to work or learn, so he had to survive on Centrelink payments. It meant he only had $4 a day to spend on food. "It was a very tough time," he says. He scraped by on the heavily discounted fruit and vegetables he bought from the supermarket just before closing time.   

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Now that he's been recognised as a refugee, he runs Persia's Pantry, a line of food products inspired by his mother's Iranian recipes. 

"I tried to bring two cultures together: Persian and Australian," he says. His sweetlips (Iranian-style muesli), for instance, are made with Tasmanian nuts, and he's reworked family recipes to suit local palates.

It often leads to very heated long-distance debates with his mother – who doesn't understand why Australians would prefer organic coconut sugar to the plain white stuff, or why they like nutmeg instead of fennel seeds. "How do they eat this without fennel seeds? Why?!" she asks.

Over the years, he's sold his moraba (carrot jam), rose-flavoured tira syrup, garlic vinegar and eggplant chutney at markets in Perth and Tasmania. But COVID-19 has meant closing down his Tassie market stalls in the meantime. So he's grateful for Welcome Merchant showcasing his Persia's Pantry products to a new audience via his online shop. "It's amazing," he says. 

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @leetranlam and Instagram @leetranlam.

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