Profile: Hana Assafiri

People who have the courage and conviction to cut against the grain of social conformity exist in a minority group and we call these people rebels, anarchists and leaders.

“I’m always in the habit of shooting from the hip and agitating,” says Hana Assafiri.

Ms Assafiri is a legend amongst locals for her culinary ventures: Morrocan Soup Bar in North Fitzroy and, more recently, Moroccan Deli-cacy in Brunswick East.

But it is her work outside of food that has earned her the respect and admiration of the community in Melbourne, though her reputation extends far beyond the city.

Ms Assafiri arrives, somewhat glamourously, to her Lygon Street café on an arctic Tuesday morning, which is already beginning fill out.

With large handbags drooping over each forearm, she casually makes her way behind the bar and asks a staff member if the heaters have been turned on.

“No, the sun is beautiful,” they reply without shifting their focus from the register.

Since opening cafés, Ms Assafiri has employed women (mostly) with various backgrounds and histories, often coming from hardship.

“In life, everyone finds meaning in something,” she says sipping a double espresso.

“What’s given my life meaning is notions of justice, fairness and peace. You can give me millions of dollars – that won’t make me happy. It makes me content to see people living harmoniously.”

Ms Assafiri has suffered through her own trauma.

As a child, she lived in Syria before moving to Lebanon with her parents in the mid-70s, just as the Lebanese Civil War was beginning to take hold of the country.

“I remember the first Australia Day celebrations,” Ms Assafiri recalls.

“Planes were flying past and I, as a young kid, became so triggered and traumatised by the sound of celebratory planes compared to bombing planes.”

She is the first to admit that it’s been a struggle to overcome these early memories.

“I’ve done a lot of therapy.”

But even after living in Australia for the vast majority of her life and establishing herself as a leader of the community in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, Ms Assafiri has been subjected to a great deal of racism and social prejudice.

Earlier this year, she started an event in the hope of bridging the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims, and opening up a dialogue to dispel some of the misconceptions about the religion and its followers.

The controversially named ‘Speed Date A Muslim’ event takes place fortnightly at the Moroccan Deli-cacy café and has already amassed significant attention locally and nationally in a short period of time.

The event pairs Muslim women with non-Muslims, where they discuss anything from whether hijabs are worn in the shower to anecdotes of first-hand racial abuse.

For Ms Assafiri, the choice to have Muslim women represent Islam for the event was a reaction to Muslim men often dominating in the media as ambassadors for the religion.

“Women head social attitude, contrary to what we believe,” she says.

“Unless women are empowered in the home then, I’m sorry, we will continue to raise ignorant, fractured societies.

“Social attitudes are not had at school or university, they’re had at home.”

Last weekend saw a violent clash between anti-Islam and anti-racism groups in Coburg, just down the road from Moroccan Deli-cacy.

While the front-page rally etched a little too close to home for Ms Assafiri, it served to highlight the importance of her work and solidified her determination to create a safe environment where Muslims and non-Muslims can openly discuss their fears and curb misconceptions.

“It’s absolutely fear and ignorance. I believe in people’s decency and I think with most people, if you humanise the very thing they’re afraid of, they’ll do the right thing.

“The manifestation of some of these events is a direct consequence, in my view, of some of the divisive rhetoric that began under Howard and Bush and has continued uninterrogated, unexamined, unchallenged, and has, in a very sinister way become the modern day contemporary discourse that we understand and just readily accept.”

Despite the daily persecution of her colleagues, friends and family Ms Assafiri manages to consistently rise above bigotry and stay focussed on fixing, what she believes, is a broken community.

“I believe in people’s right to express their opinion, no matter what it is. But I draw the line where one person’s opinion and action begins to impinge on and harm another.

“At that point, I think we need someone who can offer real leadership if you genuinely want to work with the rhetoric that we are a multicultural society and coexist harmoniously.”












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