Didar Ali identifies most of the hundreds of items in his shop by feel or smell. Since opening The Daily Market in June 2014 in Naracoorte in country South Australia, the Hazara refugee’s vision has slowly deteriorated to 5 per cent. But he rarely stops to think about it.
“It’s challenging thinking about what will happen to my eyes. I try to be happy,” Didar says. “[I try] to use my mind or my heart or my hands to work.” Whatever he’s doing is clearly working. In seven years of business, he’s grown a strong clientele — catering to the many cultural groups that have made the state’s south-east home.
“When I came here we didn’t have any of my [country’s] food … We would travel [five hours] to Adelaide or Melbourne,” Didar says.
After starting with a few staples like bread and tea for the growing Afghan community, Didar now imports hundreds of products from more than 15 countries. Migrants from Laos, Iran, Samoa and beyond travel hundreds of kilometres to buy tea, spices, soft drinks, children’s toys, frozen fish and vegetables.
“I know what country most foods come from and what they [the people] like,” Didar says. “And if [it’s] not here they can order and I can provide for them the next week.”
To help keep up with demand Raihana, Didar’s nine-year-old daughter, often serves the customers and operates the cash register. The eldest of Didar and wife Basbanoo’s four children, she revels the opportunity to help her dad after school and on weekends.
“He’s very kind … I like to spend time with him. We don’t really get to spend time together,” Raihana says. Running the shop is seven days a week for Didar, a sacrifice Raihana seems to understand at her young age. “Even though he lost his eyesight, he still works for [our family],” she says.
Fleeing Afghanistan and the Taliban in 2008, Didar made it to Indonesia where he began a dangerous boat voyage to Australia. They are hard memories to have. “More than 40 years of fighting … Afghanistan is very bad right now, the fighting doesn’t stop,” Didar says. “Always people [leaving Afghanistan], scared of each other. That to me is very sad.”
After two months on Christmas Island, he eventually made it to Brisbane in 2008 on a permanent visa, then Adelaide. His wife later followed him to Australia. When his eyesight made English lessons challenging, he took a meatworks job in Naracoorte, bringing him to the South East.
“I had to think in a different way … Better to choose another plan, I chose to work,” Didar says.
A few years working at the meatworks and then vineyards gave him the opportunity to save for a shop, similar to the one he had in Afghanistan. The exception being that his old business stocked Afghan products. Now he knows ingredients from around the world, and advises locals on how to use them.
“They say, ‘Oh, I don’t know how to cook it’. I say, ‘OK’ and give them directions on how to use it. And the next day they come and say, ‘It’s good’,” Didar says.
As manager of Naracoorte’s Migrant Resource Centre, Frances Kirby appreciates being able to direct new arrivals to Didar’s shop, which doubles as a hangout for other migrants after work with two pool tables in the back room.
“Didar is somewhat of a staple in the multicultural community,” Ms Kirby says. “He has this physical presence which acts as a meeting point to service people from different multicultural backgrounds.”
Since finding out about The Daily Market through a friend, Ali Hussaini travels an hour from Mount Gambier every week to stock up on Afghan biscuits, bread and meat. “It was a really nice surprise to have this kind of shop in this area,” Ali says. When it comes to serving his customers, Didar’s limited sight means he has to rely on customers doing the right thing.
“Australia is a good country … there are honest people here,” Didar says. “98 per cent of customers are good and some [not], that’s OK.”
The few that aren’t upset Raihana. “I sometimes feel bad for him because some people trick him and I don’t feel good,” Raihana says. Ms Kirby says Didar would get the same amount of people trying to scam him with counterfeit money as anyone else. “[But] nothing gets past this guy. He’s like ‘come back and give me some real money’,” Ms Kirby says.
While Didar prefers not to dwell on his retinitis pigmentosa, the unfixable condition affecting his eyesight, he does think about it. “Yeah, I’m worried about my eyesight because what will happen in 10 years?” Didar says. “If I can still have the same sight left then I’m OK [but] anything less, challenging.”
In the meantime, Didar — with the help of Raihana — will continue to serve his community. His main employee doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. “I enjoy learning how to be a shopkeeper. So when I grow up, if I don’t have anything else to do I could just be a shopkeeper,” Raihana says.
“For me life is good, I’m happy right now. It’s a good life,” Didar says.
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