A sense of welcome

By Hilal Kirmizi

Part 1 – Welcome

Neighbouring Melbourne’s Royal Botanical Gardens, Government House stands as a monument of Victorian history. It has seen many visitors from far and wide, and I would have never thought that one day I would step foot in Government House.

My mum called me on a Friday, asking whether or not I’d like to join a gardening and cooking program at Government House and I thought: I’ve promised to take opportunities and challenges as they come — it’s my new year’s resolution. ‘Yes. I’ll come.’

The following Monday was an introduction to the program and as we were told what we would be doing during our visits, I couldn’t help but feel lucky to be a part of something special. It’s not every day that you get to see Government House.

The Peace and Prosperity Kitchen Garden Program had chosen three primary schools from the Northern suburbs to take part in this program, one of which is my old primary school. My Mum has been participating in the community hub for the past three years, and she always tells me about the various activities they do and events that are planned for mothers with children at the school and those who have immigrated to Australia.

My Mum came to Australia in 1991 after marrying my Dad. She couldn’t eat everything when she first came here, finding the bulbous shape of eggplants strange compared to the banana-like ones in Turkey. Though she took a liking to Burger Rings. After settling down into their home and with a growing family she eventually adjusted. I remember her determination to learn English after us three older children started school. Having only studied for one and a half years, my Mum made good use of Australian TV which helped her understand the English language. Now it’s only on the odd occasion that she needs our help, and I’m very proud of her determination to learn.

Now we’re here together at Government House garden, surrounded by others who migrated to Australia, some recently and some who have been Australian citizens for many years. I remember my first day: I took up to participate in preparing the flowerbeds, finding it quite calming and peaceful. At times others would say ‘hello’ and join in with the task at hand – we share our skills and knowledge, and all the while being encouraged to share what we want to get out of this program. Sometimes we are all in the same space, tending to a different task, but it never stops a conversation from arising about how to plant something, or how someone would use a vegetable or herb to make something delicious.

As we participate in the garden or cook, it doesn’t matter who is doing what because you’ll always find a helping hand. Every week we’re learning about the garden together, cooking for one another and sharing our stories and experiences. There’s nothing like biting into freshly picked Sugar Snap Peas, or eating fresh flatbread. I think it’s fair to say that there is a communal element to gardening and cooking that brings strangers together. As we eat, we talk and as the weeks progress we’re no longer strangers but a group of greatly diverse women coming together over gloves, spades and a plate of food in the garden of Government House.

Part 2 – Friendship

As the weeks progress, women from each school take it in turns to make and share food with the others. And during our second week of attending the program we ate Pakistani–Indian style flatbread, accompanied by fresh sugar snap peas — that didn’t even need cooking as they were so fresh they burst in your mouth, enveloping your tastebuds with a sweet but mild taste — and a garden–picked green salad. It was simple yet something everyone could eat and enjoy.

The following week we were served my all-time favourite dish: Dolma, Lebanese and Iraqi style. Every nationality that makes Dolma knows that despite the familiar way to make the vine leaves, each nationality introduces a different element to the dish. Sometimes it will have a lemony taste, sometimes spicy due to ground coriander seeds and cumin. Or it might be made with meat or simply with little spice covered in sliced tomatoes, tomato paste and cooked in olive oil, which is perfect with yoghurt.

When it was Bethal Primary School’s turn to cook, we discussed what would be the most delicious meal to serve and we concluded with Gözleme and Turkish-style couscous. It was a hot day when we were cooking, though having lots of experience I was happy to cook the Gözleme outside. As I cooked I was offered a helping hand, looked after, and watched so as to learn my own techniques. It’s nice to know that people you hardly know care so much about you.

During a discussion, one woman, Esra told me that she’s enjoying the program: ‘It’s nice to be able to talk to people from other cultures, and having moments where we all share a laugh together…We’re in a different country but there is warmth… everyone is friendly and the environment here at Government House is welcoming.’ Esra came to Australia after marrying her husband, she’s originally from Iraq of Turkmen background and lived in Iran for ten years before settling down in Australia. ‘I was happy to live in Iran. It was nice, but I was a refugee living not in my home country. I missed Iraq.’

Others like Beyhan, who came to Australia many years earlier but returned to Turkey for a period, came back to Australia in 2006. ‘I couldn’t get use to the food at first, it was different but as time passes by you become use to it… I quite enjoy this program, being in the garden and eating different cultural foods. Normally those working in government are formal but I found the Governor and her husband and their staff quite the opposite, they’re informal and very friendly.’

Sarah, on the other hand admits she didn’t want to come to Australia and that her husband persuaded her to make the move from Pakistan for a better future in 2015. ‘I was well accustomed in Pakistan. I was a University teacher, having finished a PhD and won an international award in research articles… I joined the program because it looked good and was something new. It was an opportunity to meet new people and see Government House as well as explore Australia.’

We’re all from such different backgrounds, coming from different situations. Whether we’re Australian born or from overseas, no matter if we want to live here or were reluctant at first, Government House has given many women in this program an opportunity to meet the first female Governor, see a different side to Australia and to make new friends.

Part 3 – Community

Every Monday we look forward to attending the program, it’s not just the food that interests me but more so the aspect of developing my limited skills as a gardener. My mum has always had a natural green thumb; something I’m guessing has developed over time as she always reminisces about my grandmother’s garden. And if I had not seen my grandmother’s garden for myself maybe I wouldn’t have understood why she missed it and why she’d refer back to it.

My grandmother’s house was built more than a hundred years ago, still standing today as a monument of Ottoman history, and I still remember being in that garden playing with the neighbourhood children during family holidays to Turkey; just as my mother had once done. The garden around the house is full of abundant herbs, plants and trees ranging from Parsley to a large Mulberry tree. I too hope one day I can have an abundant large garden, where new memories can be made.

The Governor’s garden is a garden to strive for: having each plant bed sectioned off appropriately and a range of plants and apple trees, and spacious walkways it’s definitely a dream garden. Though, I did wonder why there were flowers nestled amongst the vegetables. This was something I had never seen before, especially not in my grandmother’s garden. Why were there vibrant yellow petunias neighbouring tomatoes, sugar snap peas and peppers?

As it turns out certain flowers act as a natural pesticide warding off insects from harming produce. This method of gardening is called ‘companion planting’. Some other flowers help maintain soft soil within the garden beds allowing abundance of produce growing consistently until the season ends.

My husband is the gardener at home, and now I think I might join him, now that I have developed my skills as an amateur gardener. I have found that it’s quite liberating being in the garden, and I think this is something we all learnt as a part of the program. It puts a smile on my face knowing that myself and others have contributed to and enjoyed this garden.

It was our last week a few days ago, and I could see on all of our faces that we did not want to leave. The Governor was generous with her time, and made sure to speak with each of us and say goodbye. She handed all of us a basket with a plant from the garden, honey from their beehive, and pictures and a letter addressed to each of us personally thanking us for all our contribution. She smiled, held our hands with a heart-warming look in her eyes, some even hugged her goodbye.

Our program may have ended, but for each of us this was an experience to remember. I feel very lucky, as I’m sure the other ladies will tell you, to have been a part of this whole experience. I hope the next three schools will enjoy their time at this program just as much as we did. Now that winter is here there is a new set of plants within the garden, some of which we have planted waiting for the next group of women to cultivate and use in their cooking. In the meantime our group plans to catch up; we want to visit each other’s schools and do some activities together. We now have a bigger community with which to share our lives.