Family, Business and Community: Australian-Lebanese in Victoria




The Lebanese presence in Australia evolved over three waves of migration which spanned 120 years. The first wave extended from the 1880s to the outbreak of the First World War. The second was part of Australia’s great post World War Two migration, and the third, a direct result of the Civil War in Lebanon, took place between 1976 and 1990.

During the 1880s a number of Lebanese settled in Victoria and, by the turn of the nineteenth century, almost 1000 Lebanese-born and their children lived in that state. In 2001 the total Australian-Lebanese and their descendants living in Melbourne is estimated at 40,000.

First wave Lebanese immigrants worked as hawkers (pedlars), shopkeepers and clothing manufacturers. Those who came later found employment in the post-war manufacturing industries and then many opened milk bars, coffee lounges, restaurants and other small businesses. Their children either expanded these businesses, or entered professional and managerial positions.

Australian-Lebanese families demonstrate admirable entrepreneurial drive, extensive family involvement in business, and perseverance in the face of difficulties. This exhibition illustrates the continuing development of their families, the growth of their businesses, and the important contribution they have made to both their own and the wider Victorian community.

History of the Australian-Lebanese Community in Melbourne

During the last decades of the nineteenth century there was a mass movement of people from Lebanon (then known as the Ottoman province of Syria) to the countries of the New World, including Australia.

In Melbourne, Victoria, most Lebanese families lived in the ‘Khara,’ an inner city area bounded by Lonsdale Street, La Trobe Street and the Exhibition Gardens. On Sunday afternoons Lebanese families gathered in the Exhibition Gardens: the children played together while the adults reminisced about ‘the old country’, read Arabic and Australian newspapers, discussed business and, in general, sought collectively to understand the ‘Inglees’ (English) and their ways.

This led to the establishment of a small Australian-Lebanese community in Melbourne. Despite the Australian government policies of assimilation, first wave Australian-Lebanese tried to preserve their own language, religion and cultural practices.

Second wave immigrants came to Australia after the Second World War primarily to improve their standard of living. Men and women found their first jobs in the manufacturing industries that sprang up in the immediate post-war years. They later established family businesses such as milk bars, taxi-driving, coffee lounges and restaurants.

These new Lebanese-Australians provided the impetus for churches and mosques and, in the early 1960s, the Australian Lebanese Association was founded.

A major development during this period was the publication of the monthly journal, An Noor (The Light). For the first time, Lebanese-Australians had media access to information from overseas, and news about other Lebanese-Australian communities around Australia.

Civil War erupted in Lebanon in late 1975 and this resulted in an influx of humanitarian entrants into Australia. Unsettled by events in Lebanon, these third wave immigrants felt vulnerable during their early years in Australia, and exhibited specific settlement needs. To provide for their requirements, welfare groups were set up in the 1980s. Then began a slowing down of Lebanese migration during the 1990s as well as a large number of return home visits, and a gradual improvement in the economic circumstances of the newest arrivals.

Australian-Lebanese Families

To Australian-Lebanese, their family is considered to be the most important group to which they will belong, both socially and economically.

This was illustrated by the early immigrants who, earning their living as hawkers, often travelled in family groups. And wives and children worked in the shops and factories and other businesses that followed. It is this combination of family unity and entrepreneurial drive that has led to many successful Australian-Lebanese businesses.

It is to their families that Australian-Lebanese turn for nurturing, support and social activities. Their closeness is evident at family gatherings, especially when celebrating births, baptisms and marriages, and at times of crisis such as sickness or death.

Over time, Australian-Lebanese families have become smaller, education levels have risen and occupations have become more varied. There has been a decline in traditional language and religion and increasing intermarriage with other Australians.

The family of Nicholas and Amy Antees

Nicholas and Amy Antees left Tripoli, Lebanon in the early 1890s to seek a better life in Australia for themselves and their three young children. This young, pioneer Lebanese family travelled by steamer to Melbourne and met the handful of Lebanese who had just settled there. They then sailed to the port of Strahan on the west coast of Tasmania, and up the King River to the mining settlement of Queenstown, where they met Amy’s brothers. They remained in Queenstown for over 40 years, earning a good living, first as hawkers, and later as drapery store-owners. Children were born and then educated, and later married. They became an Australian family while still managing to maintain their Lebanese culture and religion. In 2001, the descendants of Nicholas and Amy live mainly in Melbourne and Sydney, and extend to six generations.

Hawkers and Warehouse Owners

The first occupation of most early immigrants was hawking (peddling). This involved selling clothing, materials and haberdashery to people on farms, and in small rural communities.

Newly arrived Lebanese bought their goods on credit from warehouses, and they then began their first journeys in the company of experienced hawkers.

Some of these early hawkers either lost their lives in floods and bushfires, or were subjected to attacks by bushrangers.

Peter Amad, the last recorded hawker in Victoria, was still hawking around country Victoria until 1963. A plaque was erected in his honour at Kaniva, Western Victoria, in 1985.

Peter Callil Fakhry and Family: Latoof and Callil Pty Ltd

When Peter Callil Fakhry left Bcharre, Lebanon, in 1881, he thought he was going to Al Na-Yurk (New York). His arrival in Melbourne was the earliest recorded of the first wave of Lebanese (then known as ‘Syrian’) migration.

In 1884 Peter opened ‘Latoof and Callil,’ a small warehouse in Exhibition Street, where he supplied goods to Syrian and other hawkers who serviced the country areas of Victoria, South Australia and southern New South Wales.

Four years later Peter visited Lebanon and returned with his bride, Anna Yazbek. Over the years their six sons and two daughters entered the business. By the late 1930s Latoof and Callil expanded its warehousing and manufacturing operations and built a modern plant in Brunswick.

During World War Two, Latoof and Callil made uniforms and other items for the Australian war effort. The family donated the profits generated to wartime charities, including the provision of field ambulances to military hospitals.

After the war the company established eight additional factories, and employed 1500 staff. Australia’s tariff barriers were lifted in the 1970s, and in 1981, Latoof and Callil was voluntarily placed in the hands of receivers. All creditors were paid in full by the following year.

Latoof and Callil traded for 99 years. The company become the largest clothing manufacturer and fabric importer in the southern hemisphere. It was the first business established by Australian-Lebanese in Victoria and, over the years, it offered employment to many thousands of Victorians.

Hawkers and Shopkeepers

Many Lebanese families who began as hawkers eventually opened drapery stores in country towns in Victoria. And in Melbourne, they established clothing warehouses, and a variety of other shops including drapery, grocery, hairdressing and boot-making.

This shop-keeping stage gave the families a degree of stability which provided the foundation for the Lebanese community in Melbourne.

Elizabeth Davis and Family: The Walter Davis Store, Ballarat

In 1891, Tannous Dabes (later known as Davis) travelled from his home village of Bkfaya, in Mt Lebanon, to Ballarat, Victoria. He began hawking around the Ballarat area until 1897 when he was joined by his wife, Elizabeth, and their three young children.

When Tannous died of pneumonia in 1899, Elizabeth was forced to fend for herself and her four children by continuing the hawking business her husband had started. She took her two boys, Joseph aged 12 and Walter aged 10, out of school and, with her four children in a horse-drawn cart, she started hawking in the Ballarat area. Her determination and resourcefulness pulled the family out of poverty.

The Davis family then started a drapery businesses. In 1920, after a number of early ventures, Walter opened a women’s clothing store, and in 1930, Joseph started a men’s wear store, both in Bridge Mall, Ballarat. The brothers were successful and innovative businessmen.

Elizabeth died in 1935 after seeing her family grow in size and prosper in business. Joseph and Walter died in the 1950s. The Walter Davis Store, one of the premier fashion houses in Ballarat, is now 81 years old.

Bernice Batrouney (nee Beshara), who commenced work in the store at the age of 14 years in 1929, was active in the business until its sake in 2004.

As many as fifteen family members over three generations have worked in the business, including the four daughters of Bernice.

Two prominent Victorians are great grandchildren of Elizabeth Davis: Stephen Bracks, Premier of Victoria and Joseph Saba, fashion designer.

Clothing Factories

Australian-Lebanese opened a number of clothing factories in the years before and after the Second World War.

These factories produced dresses, skirts, hats, uniforms, nightgowns, pyjamas, shirts, underwear and slacks.

The first factory was Latoof and Callil, which occupied a major role in clothing manufacturing in Melbourne until the 1970s.

Other families involved in clothing manufacturing were: Abourizk, Amad, Batrouney, Beshara, Boyd, Facoory, Jabbour, Mansour, Saba, Salamy, Saleeba, Tamer.

These were businesses with partnerships between brothers, husbands and wives, and other members of the extended family.

By the 1970s competition from overseas imports caused the closure of many factories and the conversion of others into import businesses.

Bubs and Victor Batrouney and Family: Merlvic Schrank Pty Ltd

In 1938 at the age of 20, Muriel (Bubs) Saleeba, purchased Saleeba Manufacturing from her father and began her own small factory in Brunswick Street, Fitzroy. In 1939, when Bubs married Victor Batrouney, a family and business partnership was formed that lasted for over 6o years. By 1949 their company, Merlvic, had three directors: Bubs and Victor Batrouney and Ron Saleeba. Its staple products were sleepwear, nappies, and babywear.

Merlvic moved to larger premises in St Georges Road, Northcote in 19??. By the late 1960s, Beverley and Bob, (Victor and Bubs’ two children) started working in the factory, first part-time and later full-time, assuming greater responsibility by the 1980s.

The influence of the second generation was felt in the appointment of a professional manager, the move to larger premises in Reservoir, and the purchase of the Schrank brand. Despite Merlvic’s attempts to diversify, overseas imports in the 1980s eventually forced it to abandon local manufacturing and increase its imports. While retaining the Reservoir factory as its headquarters and design centre, the company began manufacturing in China by the end of 2000.

With a history of over 60 years, and three generations of family involvement, the Merlvic story illustrates how family cohesion and entrepreneurial drive can assist a business to grow, adapt and prosper.

Small Business and Restaurants

Many second wave Lebanese immigrants, who came to Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, first worked in post war manufacturing industries and later opened small businesses such as milk bars, taxi-driving and coffee lounges. These often v

Said Sedawie provides an example of businesses activities of second wave immigrants. In 1957 he opened The Lebanese House, the first Lebanese restaurant in Melbourne, and now his family runs N.S.M., importers and wholesalers of Middle Eastern foods.

The contribution of Louis Fleyfel to fine dining in Melbourne dates back to the 1960s when he opened two major establishments: The Walnut Tree in 1963 and Le Chateau in 1968.

Other successful restaurants include Abla’s Lebanese Restaurant (Abla Amad), Chappellis (the Seoud family), Joe’s Garage (Alex Salem), Colombos (Raif Kurban family).

Edward and Marie Haikal and Family: Almazett Lebanese Restaurant

Edward Haikal migrated from Beirut, Lebanon, in 1968. The following year he brought out his wife, Marie, and their five children to further their education. Edward had been a senior accountant in Beirut but could only gain simple book-keeping positions in Melbourne.

In the early years, the Haikal’s had to balance the demands of education for the children with the need to earn an income.

The family’s first venture into business was to lease Abdul’s Lebanese restaurant in1977. They then opened Almazett restaurant a year later. The Haikal family was the first to introduce a set price for a banquet (mesa), and this was a great success with the public and set the style for many other restaurants.

Over the years the Haikal children obtained, in total, two medical degrees, a law degree and three science degrees. They worked in the family business while studying.

Following the success of Almazett, run by Bachar Haikal, families related to the Haikals opened other Lebanese restaurants: Cedar Tree in Brighton, Chateau Lebanon in Middle Park, Dunyazad in North Balwyn, Sinbad in Dandenong, Kanzaman in Richmond and Samsara in Mount Waverley.

People tended to work in their relative’s restaurant until they had enough capital and experience to open their own. Through family unity and enterprise, the Haikal and related families made a major contribution to the cuisine of Melbourne.

New Occupations

The occupations of Australian Lebanese are now more varied than those of earlier immigrants. Many third, and later, generations of Australian-Lebanese entered the professional and managerial ranks. However, their still-present entrepreneurial drive is making sure that they continue to establish their own businesses.

Blue Star Logistics is a family company established by Khalil Eideh, who migrated from Lebanon in 1970. After gaining local experience, Khalil and his five brothers established their own transport business in 1987. Blue Star runs 120 trucks, has approximately 260 employees and branches throughout Australia. Blue Star Logistics prides itself on its ‘commitment to family values including loyalty, honesty and integrity.’

In the world of fashion the names of Saba and Najee are well known throughout Australia.

Lattouf International has become a highly successful ladies hairdressing and hair products company in Victoria.

Joseph Saba, Fashion Designer

In 1965, at the age of twenty-four, Joseph opened his first store in Flinders Lane, Melbourne: The Joseph Saba Shirt Shop, selling distinctive men’s shirts and sweaters. Twelve months later Joe expended to another city store and then yet another in Geelong.

Over the last thirty-five years Joseph has been involved in many successful fashion ventures. One was the launch of his jeans’ brand, Staggers, in 1969. It was Saba behind the Staggers and JAG labels that led the denim revolution in Australia. He opened his first women’s store in 1974, which developed into a well-known import salon.

In 1995 Joseph Saba was awarded the Elder’s Wool Menswear Award. In the following year he was awarded the AFA’s Menswear Award and was inducted into Powerhouse Museum’s Fashion of the Year.

Saba clothing is currently available through the company’s 19 retail outlets, department stores and leading fashion boutiques throughout Australia, New Zealand and Asia.

Australian-Lebanese Community Today

The church and the mosque are the most significant community organisations for most Lebanese. The centre for Maronite Catholics is the Sacred Heart Church in Carlton. They also established a child care centre in Coburg, St Paul’s Hostel for Middle Eastern elderly in Thornbury, and the Maronite College in Coburg.

Melkite Catholics founded St Joseph’s Church in Fairfield, the Church of Sts Peter and Paul in Hampton Park, and a mission to the western suburbs of Melbourne.

The Antiochian Orthodox founded the first church in Melbourne in 1931: St Nicholas in East Melbourne. They also have St George’s in Thornbury, St Paul’s in Dandenong, St Mary’s in Kingsville and

The number of Islamic societies in Melbourne serving both Lebanese and other Muslims, had expanded to 35 by 1998. There are concentrations of Lebanese in the following mosques: Omar Bin Al-Khattab Mosque or Preston Mosque; Newport Mosque; Maidstone Mosque; Fawkner Mosque and Dandenong Mosque. Over the last 10 years, the Muslims have established six schools, both primary and secondary.

Smaller groups of Lebanese belong to the Alawi Islamic Association of Victoria, the Druse Community of Victoria, and various Protestant denominations.

The Australian Lebanese Association is the umbrella organisation for the Australian Lebanese community in Melbourne.

Australian Lebanese Welfare Inc. services the welfare and employment needs of the Lebanese community.

Victorian Arabic Social Services aims to bring community workers together for action on specific issues.

The Australian Arabic Council engages in political representation and encourages accurate reporting on Arabic issues.

The many village associations in Melbourne provide social activities and humanitarian assistance to their villages in Lebanon.

Numerous other Lebanese bodies have been established to promote sporting or cultural activities or to provide services for youth or women or other sections of the community.

Citizenship and Loyalty

Australian Lebanese have always shown a strong desire to settle in Australia and become Australian citizens.

While some were able to become citizens of the colony of Victoria before 1901, at Federation two acts of Parliament affected the Lebanese. The first was the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, which excluded non-Europeans through the introduction of a dictation test in any European language. Then the Naturalisation Act in 1903 denied Asians and other non-Europeans the right to apply for naturalisation, to receive the pension, or to enrol as electors.

The Lebanese strongly rejected their classification as Asians, which excluded them from Australian citizenship.

Being classified as ‘enemy aliens,’ due to Ottoman control over Lebanon during the First World War, subjected Lebanese immigrants to further indignity. Many applied for citizenship, but were unsuccessful until the Nationality Act was passed in 1920. This Act allowed non-British residents living in Australia for five or more years to become naturalised.

The response of the Lebanese at that time was to assimilate into the Australian way of life. They displayed public spiritedness through gifts to charities, and enlisted in the armed forces in numbers.

In 1914 an estimated sixty young Australian-Lebanese joined the Australian Imperial Army, and fought in the various battlefields of the First World War. These included George Saleeba, Leslie Doblie and James Callil, among others from Victoria.

Young Australian-Lebanese served in the militia between the wars and many hundreds fought in the various battlefields of the Second World War. Among these were pairs of brothers, including Jack and Sam Abood, George and Jacob Antees, Mick and Albert Batrouney, Stan and Laurie Khyat, and Zac and Harold Yodgee.

Leila Ganim (later Fleyfel) served as an army nurse during the Second World War in Greece and New Guinea.

Today ninety-six per cent of eligible Lebanese take up Australian citizenship—one of the highest of any immigrant group.

© Dr Trevor Batrouney

First published at an exhibition at the Immigration Museum of Victoria: Family, Business and Community: the Australian-Lebanese in Victoria, November 2001 – January 2002.