“I’ve been playing on this spot for thirty years now, started in 1987 with a bunch of mates. We were in a group called The Fist – because there were five of us. I still see two of them, sometimes. One guy lives out in Warnambool. Last time I saw him was two years ago, back when I still had a car. Can’t bother with a car nowadays, not in this city. We got trams and buses and I don’t have to travel too far to get anywhere. I used to play all over the city, but now I’m mostly around here. People know me here. I’m out here every weekend, sometimes during the week too. I have a bit of free time now, which is good. Gotta take the dog out for walks!”
It’s been four months since 200 residents of Fitzroy’s Atherton Gardens, a housing estate located at 125 Napier Street, were forced to flee their beds in the early hours of March 29 when the sixth floor of the high-rise housing estate was set ablaze.
Now residents are seeking justice for a catastrophe that they say could have been avoided and are seeking legal advice in an attempt to resolve issues with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
Following the fire, the Melbourne Fire Brigade (MFB) released a report damning the Fitzroy Housing Office, citing a lack of duty of care and mentioning several faults. These included a lack of smoke alarms and sprinklers and the build-up of combustible items – like a mattress that started the blaze, that had lain for weeks on the building’s sixth floor, despite residents’ complaints.
The Fitzroy Housing Office has announced they will be accepting all of the MFB’s recommendations, and Minister for Housing, Disability and Ageing Martin Foley has announced the changes will be applied to all 44 public estates across Melbourne.
But according to one resident, the fire is just one in a series of incidents that Minister Foley and the Department of Health and Human Services, of which Fitzroy Housing Office are a branch of, have to answer for.
Ranko Cosic has been a resident of Atherton Gardens since 2001, and is fed up with what he describes as a “pattern of negligence” on the part of the DHHS and the Fitzroy Office of Housing.
He says that in the 16 years he has lived in the building, there have been no fire drills or inspections to ensure all smoke alarms were in working order, but he says this is just the tip of the iceberg.
A terrorist threat, rampant drug use in common areas and instances where the DHHS had taken nine months to address complaints regarding unstable or unsafe tenants are just some of the issues Mr Cosic has brought to the attention of the DHHS and Fitzroy Housing Office. His appeals went as far as the Premier himself, but he says his complaints fell upon deaf ears, and that the neglect goes further than just the Fitzroy Housing Office landing at the doorstep of Minister Foley himself.
“Since his election, the Minister did not come to our estate until the day of the fire,” Mr Cosic says of Minister Foley, who he believes to be uninterested in his position as housing Minister and unwilling to police the performance of his subordinates.
“Everything rots from the top; it starts at the head and transfers through the whole body. I have reported very serious matters to Minister Foley and it all gets ignored,” Mr Cosic says.
He also recalls personal experiences of harassment and attempted character assassination at the hands of the department, which he feels came about in an attempt to silence his efforts to improve living conditions for himself and fellow residents.
Mr Cosic remains defiant however, declaring he’s “not going to lay down”.
Fed up, Mr Cosic reached out to Yarra City Councillor Stephen Jolly, whom he describes as an ‘integral part’ of the legal battle: “I’m fortunate Steve is there, because who else would fight? I haven’t seen anyone else.”
Like Mr Cosic, Cr Jolly is tired of the pattern of neglect shown by the DHHS and Fitzroy Housing Office, who he says have ignored their residents for years, “and it’s taken a fire and media publicity [and the] threat of legal action for them to do anything”.
While Mr Cosic rallied 30 fellow Atherton residents, Cr Jolly recruited key stakeholders and legal counsel.
He hopes the class action will lead to changes within the department, whose behaviour he labels “dangerously incompetent.”
“It’s outrageous the way the residents are treated … the only time the Department is efficient is when you fail to meet your rent,” he says.
Residents of 125 Napier St are seeking a formal inquest of the fire, along with achieving a successful means of communicating their issues with the Department and working towards having these issues addressed.
Mr Cosic admits his hopes for the outcome of the legal proceedings are “lofty” and go beyond monetary compensation. He says he would like to see the Fitzroy Housing Office “purged”, and Minister Foley, whom he describes as “inept” removed from his position and replaced with “a minister who does care about private housing, who will go to the estate”.
Cr Jolly agrees with Mr Cosic, saying of Minister Foley, “I think he needs to go”.
Mr Cosic says for him, it’s not about the money, but social justice, and with the aid of Cr Jolly, he will continue to fight his cause until he sees justice done.
The Coolibah Centre in Fitzroy, the first senior’s citizen centre in Australia, is doing things differently and providing socially isolated and vulnerable senior members of society with vital life skills.
Events and activities such as barista classes, table tennis tournaments and competitions involving the CEO are a part of daily life and are also crucial in maintaining the fun loving culture at the centre.
Open since 1946, The Coolibah Centre is part of the not for profit organisation, The Brotherhood of St Laurence.
Program co-ordinator, Marica Cindric, told The Yarra Reporter that “we identify each member’s need and then try to help from there.”
“For example, some need help with their shopping, some with healthy cooking and others with cleaning.”
“The main aim of the centre is to help vulnerable older people to become more independent than they currently are, so that they can live in the community that they love for as long as possible.”
Members of the centre hail from all walks of life, with some coming from dysfunctional families where they were not given an education, and many suffering from addiction or dementia – this is where the Coolibah Centre steps in to offer a helping hand.
The centre takes a holistic approach to helping its senior members by arranging a number of different events and activities, such as cooking and gardening classes, advice and education on how to lead a healthier lifestyle, physical activities that range from table tennis tournaments to walking groups, and arts and crafts programs.
“The centre is more than just a social centre, it’s a place where you invest in health and well being. It’s about building healthier and happier people, which in turn, has a larger overall benefit to society,” said Marica.
A ‘family atmosphere’ is crucial in the running of the Coolibah Centre to ensure every member who joins becomes happier and more independent.
“Some changes are immediate, some take longer, it depends on the individual’s goals, but there’s always an improvement,” said Marica.
“We want our members to have a direct input, for example, our CEO teamed up the senior members for a table tennis tournament, it’s a community endeavour and staff regularly get involved in member events.”
The Coolibah Centre is open six days a week and on any given day, between 25 to 45 senior members access the programs and activities available.
For more information on the Coolibah Centre, click here.
Hana Assafiri, founder of Speed Date a Muslim, is building bridges through social justice platforms.
Speed Date a Muslim is Hana Assafiri’s way of responding to the hostility of social injustice. Her platforms and forums are built on the “principle of social justice and practical application, enabling, employing and empowering women,” she says.
Hana Assafiri was born in Melbourne and relocated to Morocco when she was four. She then went to Lebanon, her mother’s home country.
“Are you of Moroccan background?” I ask her.
“I am somebody who dances around categories,” she responds.
Assafiri doesn’t appreciate it when people “put you in a box. I am mindful and aware [however] I reject all categories.”
“My heritage is Moroccan,” she eventually says, explaining that her mum is a mix of Lebanese and Syrian heritage.
“We are a hybrid.”
At the age of 12, she came back to Melbourne with her family. Leaving Lebanon for Australia in her teenage years was difficult, but it was unavoidable due to the outbreak of the civil war.
When asked how it was growing up with an ethnic back ground, she replies, “I felt the difference [growing up], it can be cruel.”
“[Getting] made fun of [as a kid] and what makes you different became something you get teased about.”
Assafiri had difficulty speaking English as a teenager so she stopped speaking at school.
“My teacher thought I was mute,” she says with a smile.
Not wanting to be made fun of and be targeted by other kids at school, Assafiri would go home and practice English in the mirror.
“When we learn English like that [it is easy] to impersonate,” she expresses.
Assafiri explains that the hostility or racism coming from children is almost innocent and “now fast forward, that hostility is inside the system,” she says poking fun at the differences.
“[We have a] Prime Minister speaking about multi-culture diversely,” she says.
Her forum, Speed Date a Muslim is a way of responding to the hostility.
“This is a social justice platform.”
Assafiri’s day is busy left, right and centre, filled with work at two places all week. In addition to releasing a cookbook, she is the owner of the Moroccan Soup Bar in North Fitzroy and the Moroccan Deli-Cacy in Brunswick.
Speed Date a Muslim has been operating for the past year and allows Muslims and non-Muslims to have a chat with each other and break down barriers.
Assafiri stresses the importance of being aware of what is going on in the community, whether it’s social or political hostility.
“We became aware of the hostility and plurality [and so] our strategy is unconventional. Offering an opportunity to engage with [Muslims at] Speed Date a Muslim.”
Assafiri explains that the platform is not a chance for people to speak on Islamophobia, but instead a space for conversation, to talk out our differences and learn about each other. Speed Date a Muslim allows people of a community to be humanised when it has been separated and made to feel scared by the media or government.
“Women find empowerment inside Islam,” she says and this is a chance for everyone to speak on common ground. Speed Date a Muslim is a place where women can feel safe – and strong.
Assafiri has found purpose and meaning based in her platforms and events of social justice.
“Each person has something to do, some discover [their purpose] earlier. For me, my thing is social justice, [that is where] I find life’s meaning.”
When asked why that was her answer, “the why is … is [because] it is inevitable [but it’s] where I find passion and meaning,” she responds.
Our constitution, in Section 44, says that those holding dual citizenship are ineligible to run for office in the Australian Government. With more and more politicians holding dual citizenship and falling on their sword, the stability of the Australian Parliament is being threatened. But does it really matter if our politicians hold dual citizenship? The Yarra Reporter took to the streets to find out if you think where you come from is more important than what you do while you’re here.
Johnny, 28, Carlton, works at Her Majesty’s Theatre
“I don’t think it’s an issue at all. I think we project this idea that Australia is a multicultural mixing pot and it seems really strange that politicians can turn around and say ‘we have to be Australian’. It’s a new country and we don’t have the long cultural history that other countries do, so it seems strange to pretend that we have to stick to this tradition that we don’t really have.”
Kylie, 22, Brunswick, Student
“I think losing elected senators is bad for our political system. The people elect their members and it’s not fair that they should resign over something so petty. As long as the senators are Australian, which they all are, I see no reason they can’t hold dual citizenship.”
Luke, 21, Caulfield, Actor
“Politicians should be able to be dual citizens. All the senators who have resigned in the last fortnight haven’t been acting with Australia’s best interests second. Their dual citizenship might enrich our nation.”
Albert, 22, Fitzroy, Student
“I don’t think it’s a problem – I think the main idea is that they’re willing to serve Australia and the community; I think that’s the number one priority. I think it’s important for politicians to know their history, not so much in terms of whether it would have an impact, but just in terms of having a knowledge, I think it’s important.”
Luisa, 27, Carlton, Nurse
“I don’t think it’s relevant at all. I think that’s the least important thing when it comes to them doing their job well. The fact that it’s stopping politicians from doing their job – it just shouldn’t be an issue.”
Vincent, 26, Fairfield, Finance
“I can see why politicians can’t be dual citizens. At the same time, a person’s citizenship can have a big role in how they identify. A senator resigning is probably not necessary; revoking their dual citizenship would be enough.”
The Real Greek Souvlaki is slightly more expensive than Lambs with standard souvlaki’s starting at $12.
However, Fitzroy locals Jacob Friest and Andrea Crocco believe the one dollar premium is entirely justified.
“Of all the shops on the strip Real Greek easily has the most appetising spread – all the food looks really fresh and you can tell everything’s hand-made.”
“Out of the four, Real Greek is the place to go,” they said.
Chubbys Kebab, Pizza and HSP might be the best value on Brunswick Street, with the going rate for a souvlaki at a measly $9.50, but regular Chubbys’ customer and Fitzroy local Adam Crew said that there’s a clear reason the souvlakis are the cheapest on the strip.
“At the end of the day Chubbys is cheap and nasty, it’s the kind of place you go late at night and it tastes good at the time, but you pay for it the next day.”
“In saying that I think they have the best bread on the strip, particularly the Turkish bread,” Adam said.
Lucas Anderson said that of the four shops on the strip, Souvlaki King is easily the most forgettable.
“Souvlaki King is alright, but it’s not the first place I would be going, in fact it’s probably the fourth,” Lucas said.
All four souvlaki shops on Brunswick Street are open until 5 am, so if you’re ever feeling so hangry you could ‘squirrel grip’ your brother we at The Yarra Reporter would recommend The Real Greek Souvlaki.
“I grew up in Tasmania and moved to Melbourne when I was in my early twenties. I came here never having had my hair cut in a shop, never having bought food at the supermarket; we cured our own meats… I came here to study fine arts and ended up getting into massage, which was a good field for me. I liked getting to work with my hands and having that opportunity to physically connect with people… A lot of people in this city put a wall up between themselves and other people, but that’s what happens in cities. I’ve seen a lot in my fifty years though, lived with a lot of people: the Bedouin in the Middle East, Native Americans in Canada and Central America, the Maoris in New Zealand. The values in tribal living, community living, are so much more inclusive than cities. Everywhere I went, I was accepted as one of their own. It was pure trust and openness, acceptance. You don’t see that here.”