This is the third in a six-part series on life inside Melbourne’s high-rise public housing. Read part two here.
In Flemington, young people gave each public housing building a nickname. Nor Shanino, who lived in the estates as a boy, and his friends called their building the Kingdom because the cool people lived there. Another was One Tweezy, an American rap term for 120, the building’s street number. And then there was Junkieville.
Junkieville was the name for a set of little walk-up buildings that Nor says are now completely broken down. “A lot of people who came out of jail, who were very badly on drugs or whatever, lived there. Anyone who had kids made sure they got out of there. It was literally about 50 metres from my building.”
The Shanino family, from Eritrea, moved into Flemington at the tail end of Victoria’s heroin epidemic, when drugs were a reality of life on some estates. “If you wanted to, you could get whatever you wanted very easily,” Nor says. “We had somebody that was dealing literally at our doorstep. We opened the door and he was one metre in front of us.” At Northcote High, the sight of two young men preparing to inject in the park behind the school one day caused pandemonium, with students running in all directions, apart from Nor and another boy from the Flemington estate, who continued their kick-to-kick football game. The assistant principal rushed and told Nor to walk slowly away from the men and towards him. “I’m thinking, ‘All this drama. I saw two guys shooting up on the stairs this morning’.”
People on drugs were just part of the community, Nor says. “Everyone knew them. No one was scared of them. They were usually the nicest people, because they didn’t want problems. I still see some of those people around. They don’t remember you. Some of them are begging, or just sitting there, talking to themselves.” But this grim exposure also had a perversely positive side. “Because we grew up around it, we saw what it did to people. We were like, ‘No, I’m not going to do that, because I know where that leads’. I think that was true for 90 to 95 per cent of us.”
“It was a rollercoaster in the flats,” agrees his sister, Hiba. “Looking back on it, there were neighbours who were alcoholics. I remember very vividly the parents fighting. The kids were very young, always running round the corridor and stuff. I remember being young and seeing kids shooting-up heroin. Some did it inside their house; some outside, on the staircase or in the lobby. These were usually people who, to put it mildly, were Caucasian. You knew who the dealers were in the building; some lived there, some didn’t … There were these two brothers … they had an apartment but they were in and out all the time.”
An older heroin addict had routine visits from a social worker. One day the social worker knocked on the man’s door, to no response. “I remember the police turning up. They unscrewed the windows and broke the flyscreen to get in. He’d died.”
Both Hiba and Farhio Nur, whose family came to Australia from Somalia when she was three, see prescription drug abuse as a growing problem in the flats. Anti-depressants, Xanax – “they’ve worked out a system about how to get it,” Hiba says. “Sometimes they’ll tell you themselves. Or they’ll have ‘episodes’. The neighbours will gossip about it in the laundry room.”
Hiba got her first inkling of how people outside the estate might perceive the people within during a painting class at her Catholic primary school in Kensington, where she mingled with wealthier children whose “childhood was not like mine”. One day, “we were painting in class and there was newspaper covering the table and I saw a story about the police beating up brutally a boy who lived on the estate. And I thought, ‘OK, this is what’s happening where I live. And this is the notion people have about Flemington’. Because for me the police circling all the time was normal.”
The biggest problems often came from outside. Farhio recalls young men “running amok” when multi-ethnic gangs, some from far-flung suburbs, brawled with local boys on the estate grounds.
At Mount Alexander College, Hiba recalls students leaving after year 9 “in ridiculously high numbers”. Just six or seven from her initial cohort at the flats stuck it out until year 12 graduation. Often, the kids who failed to finish school became withdrawn; shunning the community centre, disappearing from the estate for days at a time.
Somali community leaders referred to the culturally adrift young men in their ranks as “the lost ones”. Farhio says: “The problem was that Victoria police had no link with the community and the community had no link with the parents whose kids were in trouble.”
In 2011 an Office of Police Integrity report raised concerns of excessive force and “racial targeting” by police against young men of African background in north-west Melbourne. Two years later, Victoria Police settled a case brought against it by six young men alleging racial profiling and discrimination between 2005 and 2009. It was one of a long list of complaints made against police in Flemington and Moonee Valley in that period. The men were from African families living in the Flemington, Kensington and North Melbourne flats. Victoria police denied any wrongdoing but agreed to review their public relations and cultural awareness training as part of the settlement.
Nor Shanino was not part of that group of six men but he and his friend Ahmed Dini, also from the Flemington high-rise, had their own tussles with police. In 2010 the police paid Dini $70,000 in an out-of-court settlement after he alleged that an officer had smashed him in the face with a torch while he was handcuffed, breaking his teeth. A magistrate found that police had “unlawfully touched” Dini.
Police would often say to young African men, “Let me catch you when the sun goes down,” Nor says. “We knew them by name. We would be sitting there, and a car would pull up, and depending on which coppers were jumping out of the car, there was a good chance you’re going to get beaten up. So, everyone just ran.”
When Nor was 18 (he is 34 today), two police officers pulled up at the front of his building. One asked why Nor’s friend, who had just driven off, had been parked in the loading zone. Nor said he didn’t know, he didn’t own the car. The officer “turned around and said, ‘You’re an effing smartass, aren’t you?’ And I didn’t say anything, I’d been beaten up before. Then he goes to me, ‘You know what? Go home.’ I was like, ‘What do you mean? I’m over 18. I don’t have a curfew. I’m standing on the sidewalk, I haven’t done anything wrong. You can’t tell me to go home. You don’t have the authority’.
“And he’s like, ‘Yeah? How about I show you my authority.’ The only thing that shocked me was, he’s going to do this at three in the afternoon, in front of mothers and witnesses. And I just said to him, ‘No, I’m not going home’. And he’s like, ‘I’m going to come back in 10 minutes, and if you’re here, I’m going to kick your effing head in.’ So I got upset, and I said, ‘You know what? I’m not going anywhere. I haven’t done anything wrong. You can’t tell me to get off the streets.’ I even said to him, ‘This is not South Africa.’ And then he got really angry, and he goes, ‘I’m going to do this and do that to you.’ And I’m like, ‘Let me guess, you’re going to chase me at night.’ So he swung the door open and he was telling me, ‘I’m going to effing kick your head in.’ And I took a few steps back thinking, ‘Wait, are they doing this in broad daylight now? I’m not going to run, but do I fight back, or do I just let him beat me up?’
“So he tries to get out, but he was so angry he forgot to take off his seatbelt. And then the senior one, with the stripes on, who hasn’t said nothing at this point, he grabs him and says, ‘Don’t worry about it. Let it go.’ And I’m thinking, ‘That’s the good one.’ So I look down and I say, ‘Thanks, mate.’ And he goes, ‘Eff off you effing monkey. We’ll see you after dark.’
“That happened a few times. And I remember one day the junior officer actually got out, chased me and yelled out, ‘I told you I was going to catch you’. But I was too quick for him.
“For us, that was just a part of living in public housing. One police officer, believe it or not, in seven days he pulled me over five times and searched my whole car in the same street, my street. And I’m like, ‘You did this yesterday and the day before’. And he’s like, ‘What are you going to do about it?’”
This is the third in a six-part series on life inside Melbourne’s high-rise public housing. These articles were commissioned by the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute as part of a series on immigration and multiculturalism in Australia. Tomorrow: generational tension in the flats.