Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl
From: Featured Documentaries

Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl

The untold story of how the Lebanese community overcame the odds and found their place in multicultural Australia.

Editor’s note: This series is no longer available online. 

On December 15, 2014, an Iranian Australian holds more than 30 people hostage in downtown Sydney demanding an Islamic State flag and the right to speak to the prime minister.

I am really proud to be part of this community who is so resilient, that has survived the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein, the gang rapes, John Howard, Pauline Hanson. And we have proved that we are as Australian as anyone else.

by Jamal Rifi, Lebanese Australian

The incident results in two hostages and the hostage-taker being killed. The spotlight turns once again on Middle Easterners, Arabs and Muslims. Australia’s participation in the “war against terror” and the rise in the number of Muslims from Australia, in particular, and western countries, in general, leaving their homes to fight in Iraq and Syria have many asking the question, why?

Exploring issues of integration, racism and multiculturalism, the four-part documentary series  Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl looks to the past of an Arab community, the Lebanese in Australia – tracing the history of this community, their search for an identity, and their struggle to be accepted as Australians.

As they adapt to their newfound home, the first generation is confronted by a complex reality of racism, drugs and religious extremism.

Lebanese Australians work hard to establish their families, but a series of domestic and global crises focus negative media attention on the community, forcing them to fight to be recognised as part of a broader Australia.

The Lebanese Australian community has been besieged by international events beyond its control for 30 years. Once Upon a Time in Punchbowl is the inside story, told for the first time by people who have made a unique contribution to almost 40 years of Australian history. This is not only a story of Lebanese Australians, but a story of Arab immigrants to the West.

Episode one, 1975-1996 : The Lebanese Civil War forces around 30,000 Muslims and Christians to flee their homeland and join an exodus to Australia to start new lives. The immigrants work menial jobs to survive. Their children, growing up in Sydney, experience violent racism, but fight back and forge their place in Australian society.

Just as the Lebanese Australian community becomes established, the first Gulf War puts the Lebanese Australian community directly in the firing line of anti-Arab sentiment. At the same time, a dangerous new phenomenon, Lebanese Australian organised crime, predicated on violence and fear engulfs the community.

Episode two, 1997-2000: By the late 1990s, the Lebanese Australian community is being terrorised by a violent criminal minority enforcing the drug racket with extreme violence. On the streets, teenagers aspire to the glamour of gangster rap, many working as runners and dealers for the drug gangs. The police hit back with raids and arrests across southwest Sydney. 

Episode three, 2000-2005:  After the 9/11 attacks, many in the Lebanese Australian community feel their loyalty is being unfairly questioned. Many Arab Australians feel they are being branded the enemy within.

Episode four, 2005-present: Angry Lebanese Australians participate in revenge attacks in the wake of the Cronulla Riots. In the aftermath, a new conversation about what it means to be Australian begins.