• Lakemba's Ramadan Night Markets. (SBS News)Source: SBS News
Lakemba went from being notorious 'Muslim Land' to the most Instagrammable food spot in Sydney, but before all that, it was also my home.
Sarah Malik

6 Jun 2019 - 4:38 PM  UPDATED 11 Jun 2019 - 10:18 AM

It's 2005 and my journalism class is going on a field trip to the badlands of Lakemba. Like cultural anthropologists in a foreign land, we are going for 'the works'. This means visiting the Lakemba mosque and then heading out for Lebanese food at Jasmin's on Haldon Street. 

The class is polite and wide-eyed. Some have never traveled to this suburb in Sydney's west -- an area often referred to in the media as 'Muslim Land", where pubs and the 'Australian way of life' are fast becoming extinct and women in niqabs dare to roam freely without public censure. 

The excursion is for our 'reporting ethnicity' class. A subject designed to make my almost all-white cohort of future Australian journalists more sensitive in reporting on the diverse communities in Sydney, especially those who bear the brunt of unfair and inaccurate media portrayals. 

But for me, Lakemba is home. It's where I lived as a kid when my parents first arrived in Australia when I was four. My memories are of the six of us living in the 1970s brick flats that the suburb is dotted with, of holding my mum's hands as she balanced Franklins groceries on the pram. It's being curious about the za'atar rolls my fellow students at Lakemba Public School had in their lunchboxes. It's walking along the unpaved roads and seeing lonely mums with shalwar kameez make tentative friendships in the rundown playgrounds they take their kids to every afternoon.  

My family later moved to the Kath and Kim country of Penrith, where the demographic used to be distinctly anglo. But like many South Asian and Arab migrants, Lakemba was our first stop in Australia. I have friends who are diplomats and lawyers, who now live in gated communities in Canberra and the Eastern suburbs who also remember Lakemba with fondness.

It's where our parents found their feet, found others like them, learned the ropes of this new country and found friends at the mosque where people understood your first language and could translate this new world for you.

Far from being scary, segregated 'ghetto' enclaves, migrant suburbs are often just the best place to find your bearings as a new arrival and a good launching pad for young communities. Like many migrant suburbs, including inner west's Marrickville which was once home to the Greek working class, these places become a historic part of Australia's migration mosaic, one that enriches our society rather than threatens it.

There is nothing that illustrates this more strongly than the nightly crowds of up to 30,000 people who are estimated to have flocked Haldon Street's Ramadan markets this past month. It's the first year where mainstream Sydney has descended on this part of the city, where vendors beckon hungry fasters with a smorgasbord of street food from all parts of the world -  where steaming kebabs, sticky knafeh, creamy sahlab and sizzling camel burgers all compete for the foodie's attention. 


The night markets this year has attracted people from all parts of Sydney. People who may have once only seen Lakemba in shrieking headlines now get to interact with its living, breathing inhabitants.

While there are a lot of Instagram #influencers in this crowd, it's encouraging to see people's hearts open by accessing a part of Sydney that not only expands their taste buds, but hopefully their minds, too.

Sarah Malik is the deputy editor of SBS Life. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @sarahbmalik.  


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