by Saimi Jeong
When the Hassarratti family moved into a three-bedroom house in Hornsby, they were the only foreigners in the area.
The Lebanese newcomers were called “foreigners” despite having been granted citizenship in 1936, the year they moved in. “Dagos” and “blackfellas” were among their other names.
One day, a boy stood on the edge of the road and chanted at little Mella Hassarratti, “God made niggers, he made them in the night; he made them in a hurry and forgot to paint them white!”
Mella cried and cried.
“What are you crying for, Mella, for goodness sake?” her brother Charlie asked. Mella told her brother about the boy up the road.
“You go out and say, ‘God made white people without thinkin’, that’s why they’re all stinkin’!” advised Charlie.
Mella, now 82, is amused by the thought. At the time, it had offered a moment’s consolation in years of torment and isolation.
She remembers only five other households in Australia from the Hassarrattis’ village of Bane, in the holy valley of Qadisha in northern Lebanon, and all were driven here by poverty. But arrival brought with it the task of finding employment.
Mella’s father, Louie, went from one odd job to another. “He had a lot of guts to even leave his village to come to an unknown country,” Mella reflects.
On Saturdays, Louie pruned the gardens at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic School in Waitara, in exchange for free schooling for his seven children.
“We’re not allowed to play with you,” the local kids would say.
“Why aren’t you allowed to play with us?” Mella asked.
They’d say, “Your father carries knives.”
Fast-forward 70 years and Mella, now Mella Antonios, sits by the heater in her Ashfield home, knitting. There’s a knock at the door followed by a cheery “Hello!”
Michael Farry from a house across the road lets himself in, and hands over a bag of caramels. The Farrys moved into the house in 1976, a few years after Mella’s family.
“Michael,” exclaims Mella. “How are you, darling? Let’s all have a sweet!” She laughs, a bright sound that rings out and fills the room with warmth, before she disappears into the kitchen.
Michael says it’s this ability to be “immediately intimate with people” and the “talent to make you welcome at all times,” that has kept him coming for visits over the years. Mella shuffles back through the door balancing a tray laden with a large pot of rich, sweet Lebanese coffee, cups and saucers, and a dozen English shortbreads.
Neighbours and extended family visit the house on Seaview Street daily. Her daughter, Zita, now 60, calls it “a warm place and an open house, and that’s because of Mum. She’s the heart, really”.
In the past, “there was not necessarily the acceptance of Lebanese people” in Sydney, according to Zita, who was Race Discrimination Commissioner for the Keating Government. She describes her mother as “a wonderful bridge, I think, because people learned that the Lebanese are just like them, and they’re open and social”.
The Van der Sluyses, who had always lived next door, had a son, Stephen, an only child who grew up with the four Antonios kids. Now 63, Stephen regards the close relationships between Mella’s family and the neighbouring families – in light of the “interesting challenges” that come with migrants moving to an all-white suburb – as “quite a success story”.
Mella’s expertise in Lebanese cuisine has become part of the collective consciousness of the community. Neighbours rave about the homemade stuffed meat croquettes known as kibbeh, the Lebanese coffee, the Lebanese sweets and her late husband Jawad’s specialty, hummus.
But Mella, who worked in restaurants for 45 years, has a more cosmopolitan approach to cooking. “Food is food. Meat is meat, chicken is chicken and different countries cook it in different ways. But basically, in my opinion, it is all the same.”
These days, Mella will more often cook “some real peasant food” such as lentils and rice, for herself and whoever else might visit her. “As a matter of fact, I’ve got some now. I meant to give Michael a plate, I forgot!”
Up until last year, the whole family used to gather at the Seaview Street house every Monday night for a feast. This was before Jawad’s ill health and death in April this year.
“We had a bigger, better social life when he was well,” Mella recalls. The Lebanese community from Bane grew steadily larger over the decades, and kept in close contact. But after Jawad got dementia, he and Mella did not go out so much.
Mella remembers a time when Sydney was more noticeably Anglo-Saxon than it is today.
“If you saw a Lebanese in our day, we’d stop them in the street and say, ‘Hello! You’re Lebanese! I’m Lebanese’,” she says. Now, she says the faces in the street represent many different cultures.
But Mella says that even today, there are still many who assume that a group of Lebanese people must be a gang, and that they all carry knives. She admits that it was harder to deal with as a child “because we were shunned”.
“But as you get older, you don’t get hurt as much. You realised people who were saying these things weren’t nice people.”
“They were the ones that gave us hell, ones who didn’t know us,” Mella says, as she prepares the lentils and rice for her next guest.