A fresh opportunity in a peaceful land, family ties and even love drove countless Lebanese people to seek a new life on Australian shores.
But now members of the Australian-Lebanese community have spoken out against recent comments from Federal Immigration Minister Peter Dutton that Australia made a mistake to open its doors to their and their family’s migration.
The comments generated both controversy and support, but many in the community warned they were divisive and unfair to ordinary Lebanese-Australians, whose contributions to the community were being overlooked.
Billy Dib is a professional boxer; the former International Boxing Federation’s featherweight champion and former International Boxing Organisation super featherweight champion.
His Lebanese Muslim parents emigrated to Australia from Lebanon in 1975 and opened a green grocer in western Sydney.
He has five brothers and a sister. His brother Jihad Dib is a NSW Labor MP and shadow education minister.
He also said he was hurt by Mr Dutton’s comments.
“Mr Dutton, are my world titles for Australia also mistakes? It’s just so nasty to make comments like that about a community. So perhaps he is the mistake,” Mr Dib said.
“Just today I went to a western Sydney public primary school to give back to the community and give a talk about bullying.
“And I was so proud when I looked around the room to see some many young faces, from all around the world who call Australia their home.”
Leila Ghalayini, whose parents moved to Australia in the 1950s, said her early years in Australia were just “normal”.
“I was young, I was about nine when I left, but you never felt that racism that you have at the moment,” she said.
Ms Ghalayini was born in Australia, but her family moved back to Lebanon after 16 years, as her father, who was in the British Army, wanted to be there for her grandmother.
She eventually returned to Australia to raise her own family — three sons and two daughters — but said times had changed.
She chose to cover her head according to Muslim tradition about eight years ago, before which she said not many people knew her religion.
“The reaction I got from our neighbours — we’ve been there the last 25 years, and then when they saw me covered up — you should have seen their faces,” she said.
“Their reaction to me was completely different, they wouldn’t speak to me like they used to, the looks they give me, going, ‘oh, we didn’t know this house was a Muslim house’.
“It was really shocking to me because I’ve known them for a very long time, and then all of a sudden for them to turn around and give me those sneaky little looks, I was surprised, I was really really surprised.”
She said she feared the media gave people a warped view of the Muslim community.
“What they hear about the Muslims and the terrorists … everyone that covers up, they must be a terrorist, there must be something, some bad bone in their body, but really, that’s not us.”
Beshara Taouk, OAM, was not fleeing conflict when he left Lebanon for Australia in 1958 — he came for love.
After marrying in Lebanon at 18, Mr Taouk, now 79, followed his wife — who was visiting family in Australia — to Melbourne.
“My story is a love story — it has nothing to do with politics,” he said.
“I came here to see my wife and take her back with me, but by the time I arrived she had the first child born. He was five months old when I arrived.”
More than half a lifetime later, after owning a local milk bar and a Lebanese bakery in Preston, which is now run by his son, Mr Taouk is proud to be a citizen and says Australia is the “greatest country in the world”.
“To us, and to many Lebanese like me who have worked hard to establish themselves, buy a home, and bring their family up to be good citizens, we call it the holy land,” he said.
“It’s one of the best countries in the world, and we consider ourselves lucky to be in the country like Australia. At the same time, Australia is also lucky to have migrants and such a beautiful mosaic of migrant people.”
Mr Taouk, who has been awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia, Government of Victoria Award for Excellence in Multicultural Affairs and World Lebanese Cultural Union awards, urged Mr Dutton to apologise.
“I’m talking now not as a private person, but on behalf of the Australian-Lebanese — we are Australian-Lebanese, not Lebanese,” he said.
“We are Australian now, but we come from a Lebanese background. I think, as an Australian-Lebanese, we deserve an apology.”
Faysal El-Abd’s uncle emigrated to Australia in 1970 and spoke of the great opportunities and life his new home provided.
In the 1990s Mr El-Abd joined his uncle and cousins and moved to Sydney.
He is a self-taught chef and opened his first restaurant in Greenacre, Sydney, in 2003.
“From the time I emigrated to Australia I have been working, I’ve never not had a job, not even one week did I stop working,” he said.
“I came here to work, not to take from the Government.
“I am 44 now and I can keep going until maybe 65, no problem.”
Al Aseel is now an award-winning restaurant chain offering traditional Lebanese cuisine in Sydney and Wollongong, and employs 100 people across five restaurants.
He said his community should not be pigeon-holed.
“I get upset when I hear something like this, because not all the people are the same,” he said.
“We have a lot of good people who are Lebanese people, and some like every other nationality.”
Talal Yassine, OAM, is the managing director of Crescent Wealth, an Australian-based Islamic Super and Investments firm offering socially responsible investing. He is also a philanthropist who has a vision to assist refugees by providing university scholarships.
Mr Yassine is the son of Lebanese Muslims Ali and Fatma Yassine, from the north of Lebanon.
They emigrated to Australia in 1977 when he was five years old.
His seven siblings are all working professionals in the fields of medicine, law, education, and property development.
Between them they boast 30 degrees from universities including Harvard, UNSW and the University of Sydney.
Mr Yassine is also the director of Crescent Foundation, which funds community sporting, financial literacy, and education initiatives.
He said his community felt targeted.
“Minister Dutton’s comments, which tar the entire Lebanese community with the same brush, have been exceptionally unhelpful at best,” he said.
“At worst, a shameful and overt dog whistling attempt, calculated to unfairly target a vulnerable minority group for political again.”
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