Turkish community leader and proud grandfather Mehmet Balikel, a former restaurateur, journalist, jeweller, factory worker and soldier, tells Benjamin Millar he has never been tempted to call anywhere but Footscray home.
What is your connection with Footscray?
I came 2nd August, 1970, to Tullamarine. We came to the Midway Hostel. When we started to rent outside, we came into Footscray. I was working seven years in Smorgons meat section and paper mill. We came with three children, here I had two more children. After that we went to Turkey when my grandmother died and came back in two years time and started from zero. I worked in many factories, working hard. I’m happy in Australia. I’m Turkish but Australian too. Australia is a beautiful country.
What do you like best about the area?
Footscray is the best in the Melbourne area, it is very good. Many people tell me come to Sydney but no, I like Melbourne, I like Footscray best. Many fruit shops, shopping centre, not only like Sydney Road in Coburg or Lygon Street, every street in Footscray is a city. When people moved to Broadmeadows and Glenroy, everyone said sell, here you can buy a big house. I said no, I stay here. I’m a Footscray boy, many people say ‘you are a Footscray boy Mehmet’.
Tell us about your restaurants?
We started the Sofra restaurant in 1986 in Footscray. We started in Williamstown for four years, in Ferguson Street. After that we came back to Footscray again, where Footscray Best Kebab House is in Nicholson Street. We had people come from all over to eat in my restaurant in Footscray. I do limbo, I do a lot of fun after the food, we bring in a belly-dancer and make people happy. Members of Parliament like Ralph Willis and Steve Bracks came.
What could help improve Footscray?
Footscray has changed. It was a busy shopping precinct until Highpoint opened. We have a parking problem, everyone goes away to Highpoint or Sunshine or different areas where parking is free.
Tell us about your Anzac centenary project with Victorian RSLs?
In Sydney, a member of Parliament read the Mustafa Ataturk writing to the Anzacs killed at Gallipoli about the Johnnies and the Mehmets. He said this very nice writing, we would like everyone to see that and read that; it should be put in all Australian RSL clubs. I read this and straightaway I wanted the Footscray RSL Club to make this writing there. I put it in the university, I put it in primary schools and some high schools. Every day I went 400 or 500 kilometres. Everyone be happy for the little gift, I got many thanks sent to me. I would like to put them in all RSLs in Australia but it is only myself working.
Why is it important to honour Anzac Day?
For Anzac it is important because we lost 16, 17 years old, from Turkish soldiers as well as Australian and New Zealand. We have no grudges, soldiers were just soldiers doing their jobs.