From the outset, the City of Bankstown in south-western Sydney’s sprawling migrant belt is a picture of multiculturalism. The geographic heartland of Australia’s 100,000-strong Lebanese community, its red brick apartments and cement-sheet homes are peppered with mosques, musallas and churches. Men of Middle Eastern appearance banter amicably in Arabic within tea rooms and coffee shops, while women wearing headscarves, hijabs and, on the odd occasion, burqas wheel prams through Centro, Bankstown’s sparkling white shopping center.
But below the surface of this lower-middle class success story is a Middle Eastern ghetto terrorized by members of its community. Restaurateurs in Bankstown pay up to $50,000 a year in protection money or risk having their premises firebombed, while Shia and Sunni Muslims exchange invectives and blows on the streets. Crime families exchange gunfire and trade narcotics with apparent immunity; arrestees in Bankstown are 60 times more likely to use heroin than those in other parts in Australia. And an otherwise law-abiding majority erect a wall of silence when dealing with police they regularly accuse and sue for thuggery and racial profiling.
“In the last few decades unfortunately we have not had peace in Lebanon,” Pierre Semaan, of the Australian Lebanese Christian Foundation, tells TIME. “Killing and shooting and illegal activity have become part of daily life. So the problem we have now in Sydney is a ramification of what has been going on in Lebanon.”
That much was confirmed by Lieutenant Colonel Rony Ghanem of Lebanon’s Internal Security Force. “We are afraid there is some connection between these guys here and the guys in Lebanon,” he said during a three-month visit to Sydney earlier this year to exchange information on criminal syndicates with the New South Wales Police Force’s Middle Eastern Crime Squad.
And “these guys” are well armed. There were 72 drive-by shootings in Sydney in the first half of this year — one every 2½ days — most of which took place in Bankstown, the City of Liverpool further west and in Sydney’s inner-west. Drive-bys were virtually unheard of in Sydney until the mid-1990s, when the sons and grandsons of hardworking Lebanese migrants emerged as serious players in a world of organized crime, hitherto dominated by Vietnamese and Calabrian gangs.
“In the past there was a code among crime gangs in Sydney that bodies in the street were bad for business,” says Michael Duffy, the author of Drive By, a new novel about a Lebanese crime family and the efforts of a bigoted, dispirited police force to lock them up. “But with drive-by shootings, the nature of criminality in Sydney has changed. That’s what’s so disturbing.”
Lebanese-born educator Keysar Trad believes criminality in the community is a by-product of overly strict parents who expect their children to excel at school, and racism in the classroom and playground that prevents them from doing so. “Unwelcome at school, too much discipline at home, so where do these teenagers go to find respect?” Trad asks. “To the streets, that’s where.”
Australian-Lebanese filmmaker George Basha agrees. “Growing up in western Sydney, I was bullied and picked on for everything I did and stood for. If I opened up my lunchbox and pulled out a Lebanese roll, I would get hassled. It was non-stop,” he says. “But when I was older and more Lebanese kids moved to my area, we formed a gang so we could protect each other and I started bullying back. I’d punch any Aussie kid who even looked at me.”
After finishing school, Basha became involved in more serious crimes. But after seeing a close friend covered with petrol and set alight, he turned over a new leaf and began writing The Combination, a film about Lebanese schoolchildren who get caught up with gangs that won critical acclaim on release in 2010.
“Once you got into the zone where you are powerful and people are scared of you, you don’t want to stop. You just want more,” Basha says. “I was lucky; I got a second chance. But these days it’s worse. Once Lebanese kids gets involved in gangs, they’re killed or in prison before they get a chance to grow up.”
There is no data available on the prevalence of criminality in Sydney’s Lebanese community because people who are arrested are not legally required to give information on their ethnicity or heritage. “We tried setting it up once but it didn’t work,” says Don Weatherburn, director of the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research. “And given the history of government efforts to obtain information on race, I’m not even sure it’s something we should be doing. Look what happened in Germany in the 1940s.”
Selda Dagistanli, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Western Sydney, agrees that, “When you attach criminal behavior to ethnicity, that’s racist, and it makes you question the motivation of the people saying it.”
New South Wales Police Deputy Commissioner Nick Kaldas says the problem in Bankstown and other parts of southwestern Sydney is not as bad as it seems. “There are certainly criminal groups you could describe as Middle Eastern in origin but the lines are now blurring,” he tells TIME. “Criminals are coming together from a really diverse range of backgrounds to do bad things together.” Nevertheless he acknowledges Middle Eastern organized crime in the city is not going to go away and more research is needed. “Before we can solve it we need to understand it,” he says, “and I’m not sure we do.”
Trad thinks the problem can be nipped in the bud by changing the way schools deal with Lebanese delinquents. While working as CEO of the Australian International Islamic College in Brisbane last year, he initiated a new program that saw problem students placed in a behavior-management room where they were closely supervised by an Islamic cleric.
“At first they resisted, but we made them believe that respect is something every child deserves, but that they needed to take action to earn that respect,” he says. “What we found was that in a matter of weeks they were excelling the other kids in school. The improvement was remarkable … Imagine what they would be capable of if they had a better start in life.”