On being Muslim in Sydney Reply

By June Ramli

Catherine Street Mosque

A community builds a mosque

There is a celebration going on at Maya Camilla’s house. One of her friends has just received some excellent news — her temporary Australian residency visa had finally been approved.

“We are having a potluck party and I am making my meatballs,” she said.

Maya, a Muslim, lives near Punchbowl train station. She says the main reason she chose to live there was because she could join the Muslim community in the area.

“Most of the fast food outlets here, like KFC and McDonalds, serve their burgers using halal meat. Besides Indonesian Muslims, I’ve also noticed a large number of Lebanese Muslims here. I was told that there are some 2,000 of Muslims working and living in Sydney and most of them live in Punchbowl,” she said.

Maya first came to Sydney from Jakarta with her husband and children in 1999 after receiving an Australian Development Scholarship to complete a Master’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Technology, Sydney.

“I came as an international student but soon after I graduated, I decided to emigrate here. This is not the first time my husband and I have lived abroad. Before coming to Sydney, I was studying at Huddersfield University in Manchester, UK. The World Bank had offered me a scholarship to complete a degree in electrical engineering,” she said.

Maya met her husband Gede Ali, a Balinese, when they were both studying in London. They married in Indonesia after graduating with their degrees.

For some time, Maya held a full-time job at the Indonesian Ministry of Technology, before taking up the offer at UTS. But once in Sydney, she decided to emigrate as she believed Australia would provide a better future for her children.

The couple love the city’s vibrant outlook. They teamed up with another Indonesian couple, Emir Rafi and Soraya Sue, to discuss finding a suitable property they could convert into a mosque.

“Muslims’ revolve around religion and so having a mosque nearby was very important. Later my husband and I bought a house on the same street as the mosque,” Maya says. “We are all permanent residents but my youngest son is an Australian citizen; I’m thinking of changing citizenship, I need to sit for the test soon.”

Today, the Catherine Street mosque, which Maya had helped established through donations, serves about 100 Indonesians living in Sydney.

“We organise summer camps during the holidays and sometimes people come from as far as

Melbourne and Canberra to attend the Al-Quran and Bahasa Indonesia classes. The camaraderie is good. We support one another, especially in upholding our Islamic beliefs.”

Maya wakes up at 4.30 am for the first prayer of the day — fajr or dawn prayers — which she performs regularly at the mosque.

“We go early so that we don’t miss the sermons. Our imam sometimes talks about the lives of prophets and what is permitted in Islam like, for example, our actions and the way we should live our lives as proper practising Muslims. These talks are good as they help us to stay true to the religion,” she says.

As soon as dawn prayers are over, she and her husband make a quick dash to their home before heading to work. Maya is an electrical engineer in the city while her husband works as a programmer for the New South Wales Government.

“I am very fortunate. I have been working in the same company for the last seven years. My boss is very understanding. At the interview, I told him that I needed a room to pray and he allowed me to use the meeting room.

“There are times when he even asks my permission before using the room as he wants to be sure that it doesn’t disrupt my prayer times. His kind heartedness has turned me into a loyal employee as I believe a boss like him will be hard to find,” she says with tears welling in her eyes.

***

Soraya, too, remembers the early days well, especially the time when she teamed up with Maya and her husband to form the Catherine Street Mosque.

“When I go back to Indonesia, I always get asked if I have a hard time with my hijab and my reply is a firm no! When September 11 happened and everyone was hating the Muslims, I still had people helping me with my bags and pram in the train stations as I had young kids with me then.”

Soraya met her husband, an imam at a mosque in Singapore, through her family. Today the couple has four kids including a seven-month-old baby girl.

“My husband goes around the world and preaches about the religion. When I first met him in Singapore, he had just finished a tour in the United States. He discovered Sydney when several Muslims invited him to do some devotional work here.

She says $1 million was raised to buy the church in Catherine Street and three adjoining properties in order to create the mosque and adjacent learning centres.

***

Today, Maya and Soraya are happy their efforts are being appreciated by, for example, have 16-year-old Diana Putri Isham, who was born in Indonesia and came to Sydney with her family eight years ago.

Diana, who has gained Australian citizenship, still maintains her Indonesian outlook by donning the veil. She says she hasn’t come across any ugly brushes with racism.

“I was interning at a fashion house in the city when the Sydney siege occurred last year.

I overheard a lady venting her frustration that a Muslim man was taking people hostage but I at the same time I heard another lady say that the incident was isolated and should not be equated to all Muslims.”

Today, Diana is busy planning her future. “I plan to do a fashion design course at UTS. I hope I can be designer one day. My dream is to introduce Batik wear to the Australian public,” she says.

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