In a street lined with old Victorian terraces in the now gentrified and much-loved suburb, Carlton North, stands Melbourne’s first Mosque. The 50th anniversary celebrations, marked by a street festival along Drummond Street on Sunday 17 November, offered an insight into the workings of the Albanian Australian Islamic Society (AAIS) that was behind the purchase of the land and the building of the Mosque which opened in November 1969.
The Albanians who arrived in Australia, many as early as the 1920s, have come a long way with years of active community engagement that has only grown and strengthened their standing in this country.
As well as servicing their own people, they have supported other Australia Muslim initiatives and the wider community through various ventures over the years including the Red Cross blood drives, The Royal Children’s Hospital ‘Good Friday Appeal’, National Tree day and feeding the homeless.
Watching diverse members of the local community and visitors mingle with plates full and smiles wide was a sight I was glad to see make the news in the days following the celebration. The permanent historical exhibition was, without a doubt, the highlight of my trip. The images, the artefacts, the detailed lists, the contextual history and the oral interviews projected throughout the day – a perfectly executed display that juxtaposed a past marked by determination and resilience, with a blossoming present.
At the heart of this exhibition was, Ali Ymer, a man who had been collecting and preserving critical pieces of local Albanian history for almost half a century. Born in Melbourne to Albanian Ramadan Ymer who migrated to Australia in 1937, and Mariam Ymer who was born in East Prussia and migrated almost two decades later, Ali and his siblings grew up in St Kilda.
A founding member of Preston Mosque and a member of the Islamic Society of Victoria from 1958, Ali’s father was active in the numerous Melbourne Muslim initiatives that involved other notable figures including the late Sheikh Fehmi Imam & Ibrahim Delal as well as Dr Abdul Khaliq Kazi. Ali Ymer grew up surrounded by these pioneers and their families.
Whilst I was interested in his involvement in community work including his years spent as an active member of the AAIS, I was intrigued by his commitment to preserving every possible remnant of community history.
Despite the busy festival schedule Ali and his daughter Yasmine were generous with their time and indulged our curiosity, sharing memories and stories that were subsumed in the material on display – the old suitcase, newspaper clippings, family documents and other historical pieces displayed on the walls of the mosque (and others tucked away in boxes, waiting to be shared).
There are those who collect historical material and there are those who know and immerse themselves in every layer of these treasures. Ali knew every piece and gave every historical detail the degree of thought necessary for ensuring that the rhythms and connections – personal, community and mainstream, are not lost on the observer. At the very core of this exhibition was a community with a deep rooted history of commitment, care and resilience. It was inspirational.
I walked away from this experience with a deep respect for the humble, generous man who has been a collector and a keeper of this treasure trove of history. This partially permanent collection displayed on the mosque walls will give generations of Australian Muslim children feelings of pride, a sense of peace and ‘place’ – this history is our history.
I am grateful for the wonderful learning experience and the warm welcome offered by the Albanian Muslim community. To Ali Ymer and Yasmine Ymer, thank you on behalf of our community – your months and years of research have enriched our understanding of Australia’s Albanian Muslim history.
There is so much more to your story and we are all looking forward to reading more about it in your forthcoming book. Congratulations to AAIS and to all those who continue to mark our legacy in this country, and make history.