Behind all the glamour and fashion of the Emporium exhibition is a story of the struggles and successes of migrating to Australia in the 20th century. Saad Milham Abikhair migrated to Australia from his town on Mount Lebanon as a teenager, accompanied by three of his cousins. The men were escaping the religious tensions and a crumbling economy and were part of the first wave of migration from the area, which began in the 1880s and lasted up until WWI. At the time, Mount Lebanon was controlled by the Ottoman Empire, thus migrants from the area were referred to as ‘Syrians’. ‘Lebanese’ only came into use in 1943 following the formation of the modern state of Lebanon.
With little money and poor English skills, it was common for men such as Saad Abikhair to join the hawking trade. They would travel around farms and rural communities on a horse and cart peddling clothes, materials and haberdashery. Most were armed with a suitcase full of the tools needed to make and mend your own clothes including ribbons, sewing needles, pins, cotton threat, thimbles and material off-cuts. It was the perfect job for recently arrived migrants given the men could buy their stock on credit from warehouses and earn cash the minute they hit the road. Saad reached as far as Tiboorburra in Queensland on his travels, but settled back in Albury near the Murray once drought struck in 1890.
Once Saad had saved enough capital he opened his own store in town. There were a number of businesses owned by Lebanese migrants in town including the grocery store and the ice works, thus they were very much a part of public life. Fortunately, Saad was naturalised before the introduction of the White Australia Policy in 1901 and the Naturalisation Act 1903. Saad was thus allowed to vote and own land. However, due to their classification as ‘Asiatic’, other Syrians were not so lucky. Some would apply for naturalisation anyway, using false addresses that placed them in ‘Southern Europe’, but this went unnoticed only for a short period. Discrimination was not uncommon. In 1902, Albury tightened its border control. A Lebanese family was stopped at the border under the Immigration Act 1901. During WWI Abikhair was struck off the electoral role as Ottoman occupied Lebanon was considered an ‘enemy alien’. However, Abikhair and his family displayed a lot of national pride, naming their shops ‘The Federal Stores’ and the ‘Australian Buildings’. They were prominent figures in town, making significant donations to the community.
Lebanese migrants such as Saad Abikhair have had a long history of participation in Australian business and community life. Emporium celebrates the legacy of Saad’s hard work and ingenuity in keeping the regional town of Albury fashionable and contemporary.
The Emporium exhibition is on display at Hurstville Museum & Gallery until Sunday 15 May 2016.
Durrant, Jacqui. Emporium: inside Albury’s most famous department store, Albury: Albury LibraryMuseum, 2014.