Twenty years ago, Dandenong was struggling to survive. The landlocked city 30 kilometres southeast of Melbourne was dilapidated. Storefronts were vacant. It was almost impossible to rent or sell a home.
Cheap rent attracted a wave of refugees who were eager to find homes for their families and open businesses, but had limited funds.
The influx has revitalized Dandenong in the last decade, making it the most culturally diverse area in the state of Victoria and Melbourne's only recognized Afghan precinct.
Refugee advocates in Australia say it's an example of the contribution refugees are making to the community. It also leads critics to question whether detention conditions for asylum seekers who arrive by boat are making it harder for refugees to become contributing members of society.
During a windy afternoon in October, the sidewalks along Thomas Street are filled with people coming and going from the halal grocery shores, Afghan restaurants, Persian rug stores and shops selling traditional Middle Eastern clothing. Pashto and Dari are heard more often than English, and Afghan music blares from cars as men socialize on the street.
Aman Nigimi, who owns the Afghan Masala Restaurant, has the air of an experienced businessman, though he's only 27. He's quick to greet regulars and make them feel at home. A Caucasian woman comes in and asks about a particular type of biscuit. Nigimi gives her the whole biscuit to sample.
The scent of the aromatic spices he uses to flavour his kebabs and tandoori chicken wafts through the restaurant and onto the street.
Nigimi has come a long way since arriving in Australia as a refugee on a boat in 2001, speaking barely any English. He had a relatively quick journey through the immigration detention system, spending just four months in Darwin before being released on a temporary protection visa. Nigimi settled in Dandenong, following many other Afghans.
He took English classes and, with the help of friends, scraped together enough money to open the restaurant in 2005. He has been successful enough to expand to a second location.
Now Nigimi tries to help new refugees get settled, showing them where to take English classes or giving them work. "I help them a lot because I know that most of them, they come here and they can't speak English," he said.
Refugees like Nigimi have helped turn Dandenong into a flourishing multicultural community, a transformation Timur Sarwar has watched with interest.
Sarwar was one of the early Afghan settlers to the Dandenong area, arriving in 1987, and now runs an interpretation and translation service called TSG Australia that helps refugees across the country. "Twenty-five years ago, Dandenong was a dead area. No one was keen to buy a property or rent a shop. Ever since the new arrivals, the good thing is, business has been booming here. It's creating more jobs for people."
The City of Greater Dan-denong has not only embraced multiculturalism, it promotes it as an attraction. Thomas Street was dubbed the Afghan Bazaar in 2009 and is the centre of a monthly cultural tour introduced by the city last year in hopes of drawing tourists.
The tours take visitors through Little India and the Afghan Bazaar, where they can meet the owners, hear their stories and learn about their products.
Grissel Walmaggia, the city's cultural planning officer, said the tours are a great way to introduce the community to the rich culture of the Middle East and Southeast Asia. "I always say, we don't have a gorgeous shoreline, we don't have mountain ranges, but we have our people."
The city also rents out an Afghan tea trolley service, which employs Afghan refugees so they can learn English and gain work experience.
Jafar Mehri, who is in his early 20s, has been working the tea cart since 2010. The ornate blue-and-gold cart is stationed at festivals or community events, and Mehri offers a brief lesson in Afghan culture as he serves bitter tea.
"I earned a little bit of money. I helped my family, my parents," said Mehri, who was granted a refugee-protection visa in September 2009. "It helped me with my English as well, talking with different people from different countries."
Mehri was held in immigration detention on Christmas Island for about four months before being released, and has been able to sponsor his parents, his 18-year-old sister Masooma, five-year-old brother Farman and two-year-old brother Farhan. They all live in a modest bungalow just outside Dandenong. The beige walls are bare, and there's a mattress in the living room where Mehri sleeps. It's a full house, but the family is just happy to be together.
Their biggest worry, however, is Mehri's 16-year-old brother Asif, who is waiting for resettlement in Quetta, Pakistan. Mehri's request to sponsor him was turned down, because immigration officials didn't believe they were related.
They asked for a DNA test, but Mehri didn't have enough money. He's slowly saving income from the tea trolley to have the test done. And so the family waits.
Mehri and Nigimi were processed through the immigration system relatively quickly.
Australia's Department of Citizenship and immigration reduced the average time in detention to 83 days in September from 277 days in November 2011.
About 10 per cent of the more than 9,300 people in immigration detention have been detained for more than a year. Medical studies have shown people are at risk of suffering psychologically after just three months in detention.
The vast majority of people who arrive in Australia by boat — dubbed irregular maritime arrivals — are eventually accepted as refugees. In 2010-11, almost 5,200 people arrived by boat asking for refugee protection.
While only 38 per cent of asylum seekers who arrived by sea were initially found to be refugees, three-quarters of the refused applicants whose claims were reviewed through the Independent Merit Review program were subsequently accepted.
Of the more than 6,300 asylum seekers who arrived by plane, only a quarter were accepted as legitimate refugees. Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are held in immigration detention while their refugee applications are being processed, while those who arrive by plane are released immediately into the community.
Vancouver refugee lawyer Douglas Cannon says Canada's new reforms under Bill C-31 will create a similar, two-tiered refugee system where asylum seekers are punished based on their mode of arrival.
"If you do believe Canada should be protecting refugees, punishing people for the manner in which they choose to get here doesn't make sense at all," Cannon said.
Jo Szwarc, manager of policy and research at Foundation House, an Australian organization that provides services to refugees who have survived torture and trauma, questions the logic of a regime that locks up genuine refugees and then expects them to be functioning members of society when they're released.
"That you would retard people's integration into society when they are very likely to be given a protection visa and become our citizens, from a society's point of view, it's very expensive and very silly. And from a humanitarian perspective, it's pretty appalling."