A tribute to Melbourne’s marvellous multiculturalism

Spring in Oak Park, has been heralded, not just by the emergence of colourful blossoms on the trees, but by faces bearing even more colourful names like Bonafazio, Komaragiri, Yesilyurt, El-Halabi and Yildiz.

They’re all on posters stuck into front yards, on shop windows, along busy streets, in front of schools and businesses in preparation for Moreland Local Council elections on October 27.

Some are huge portraits printed professionally on glossy metal signs, with enormous faces smiling back at you and catchy slogans, while others are barely larger than a coffee table book.

“Your voice, your vote.”
“Promise, persist, progress.”
“A voice for change.”

Olive skins, shades of brown. And white. They are the sons and daughters of immigrants from Italy, Turkey, Lebanon and India. Some are immigrants themselves.

Like Antonio Bonifazio (pronounced Bo-ne-fa-zee-o), who I met for coffee at the McDonalds on Pascoe Vale Road.

He’s a 68-year-old retiree, with a full head of silver hair, silver side burns, a twinkle in his eye and a mischievous smile, which lights up his face when ever he tells me about the victories he has had over dodgy builders, lax council officials, car yard dealers and Essendon airport.

He arrived on a boat from Sicily in 1954 with his mother, just eight-years old.

“I was called a dago at school and was getting into fights because of it,” he tells me.

But he gave as good as he got, though it’s hard to believe, looking at this genial father of five and with grandchildren in the double-digits.

Though his early life in Australia was not easy -he left school at 14 and worked as trimmer at suitmaker John Sackvill to support his family and once, nearly cut his thumb off –  he later went to night school and became a motor mechanic and ran his own workshop, before retiring 10 years ago.

But rather than slow down, retirement has energised Bonifazio, who apart from gaining a degree of fame when he took on and won against electricity firm Jemena, over a $200 charge to remove a disconnected meter he never used. He has also become something of a local hero, acting on behalf of neighbours and friends in Oak Park, representing them at VCAT disputes with builders who he says are “out of control”.

To date he has been successful in forcing them to lower garages, re-locate drainage pipes and lower the heights of buildings so they don’t peer over neighbours properties.

He says the Moreland Council not enforcing VCAT rulings and letting builders “get away with things” is one of the reasons he standing for council – to make them accountable.

Another candidate for north-west ward is Oscar Yildiz who has been mayor of Moreland City since 2008.

He is of Turkish descent. His father migrated to Australia in the late 1960s; he was born and raised in Moreland.

“The Word Yildiz means “star”,” he tells me, “as in galaxy or pop”.

An educator by profession and a father of two girls, he says that multiculturalism means “sharing, embracing and living harmoniously with the many cultures, traditions, rand nationalities in this beautiful country of ours”.

In his incoming 2011 mayoral speech Yildiz said: “Almost half of the Moreland residents speak a language other than English at home. There are 132 different community languages spoken in this city.”

He is campaigning on a platform of delivering the best return for rate payers in terms of infrastructure, sport and recreation, better elderly and youth services, better maternal health care and an efficient and effective waste service.

I also caught up (over email) with Zeynep Yesilyurt, who arrived from Turkey with her parents and siblings in December of 1977, as a 6 ½ year old.

“The origins of my first name are Arabic – apparently it means precious jewel.  My surname Yesilyurt translates to Greenland,” she says.

She is married to an Italian-Australian and says they have blended all three cultures into their lives.

“However, one thing that I will always maintain is the importance of family and of course the love of Turkish music.”

She says multiculturalism means being able to maintain aspects of your culture, traditions and beliefs and live in harmony with other cultures.

“It is also about respecting people’s differences and not imposing your own values and beliefs on others,” she adds.

Her campaign for a council seat is based on getting rates reduced.

“I have had street stalls, visited senior citizens groups and door-knocked and the burning issue for many residents has been the excessive rate rises over the last few years.

“With the rise of cost of living, pensioners and families are struggling to keep up.  Rates are now a big chunk of people’s incomes.”

According to the 2011 census, 35% 0f Moreland residents were born outside of Australia.

Common languages spoken in Moreland homes include Greek, Italian, Mandarin, a variety of Indian dialects, Maltese, Croation,  French, Dutch, German, Japanese and Macedonian.

Other Moreland Council candidates include Praveen Komaragiri, who hails from Secunderabad, located in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh north of Hyderabad.

Another is Catherine Farres, whose poster reads “La Vostra Voce a Moreland” in Italian – “Your voice in Moreland”.

Halil Kaya has Turkish ancestory. Milad El-Halabi hails from Lebanon.

Alesio Mulipola is from Samoa.

All these interesting faces smiling back at me. The cynics would say they’re just politicians, and who can trust pollies these days?

But I see a tribute to the best of Australia’s multi-cultural heritage, about what it means to have a “fair go” or a “fair shake of the sauce bottle” to quote former prime minister Kevin Rudd.

I wonder, what kind of dull, bland, boring country Australia would be if we’d not open our doors to these people standing at the coal face of Australian politics.

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