My Favourite Place with Azem Elmaz

By John Lewis

Everyone has a favourite place.

It could be a river bank, or a mountain top.

It could be your loungeroom or garden, a beach or a shed — somewhere that’s a refuge or an inspiration.

Or somewhere that just makes you smile.

During the next few weeks we will be asking people who regularly appear in The News about their favourite place.

We might just get to see a different side to them.

John Lewis reports.

It’s a tiny, litter-strewn space off a car park at the rear of a renowned central Shepparton cafe-restaurant.

It’s on the ugly side of town.

There’s a beaten up kettle, a battered fridge, three double power points on the wall and an old milk crate packed with biscuits, sugar, packets of Twisties and a jar of Moccona instant coffee.

It’s not much, but it’s Azem Elmaz’s favourite place.

He could have chosen the majestic mountains of his Macedonian homeland, or our iconic Victoria Park Lake where his People Supporting People van regularly sits dishing out free food to the homeless.

It could have been the straw-gold Strathbogie hills where Azem regularly helps feed hundreds of firefighters during bushfire season.

Instead, Azem chose this battered little spot among the bins and the litter at the back of his restaurant.

This is where the homeless, the lost, the confused or the plain down and out emerge from the darkness every night in search of some simple comfort.

When the restaurant is closed they can help themselves to a coffee and a snack supplied by Azem and his army of donors.

The supplies in the milk crate sit on a slightly wonky benchtop.

‘‘I open the door in the morning, and then I see it’s been used — and that makes me happy,’’ Azem says.

‘‘It’s open 24/ 7 — there’s a light on and people can charge their mobile phones, they can have a shave — I see all sorts of weird stuff. But it always makes me happy,’’ he says.

‘‘Some people take the kettle — but that’s only $8. That doesn’t bother me.’’

Azem arrived in Australia 35 years ago after leaving his Macedonian home for a better life.

He lived in Denmark for five years, but his mother persuaded him to come to Australia to see his brother and cousins in Melbourne.

He arrived with $2.40 in his pocket.

‘‘I arrived at Tullamarine and I stepped off the plane — and then it’s a mystery. I can’t tell you what it was, but I just loved it,’’ he says.

He travelled to Kyabram to meet more family, and there he met his future wife Jehin.

He applied for an extension to his visa, got married, built up a cleaning business and bought a nice home in Melbourne.

Then five years later, he discovered the country life.

‘‘My wife said, ‘are you crazy?’ We had a good business, a nice home — but I watch my life. And I liked this country life. I like the slower life,’’ he says.

He went from earning $2000 a week in Melbourne to earning $50 a week cleaning windows in Shepparton.

‘‘But did I care? Of course not — money is just a tool,’’ he says.

In April it will be 30 years since Azem and Jehin opened their Wyndham St restaurant Lutfiye’s — named after their daughter Lutfiye.

Their reputation for wholesome, freshly cooked, tasty Macedonian food has grown alongside their reputation for helping the hungry and the lost.

Azem’s efforts earned him a Medal of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of 2016.

The award is displayed under the glass counter of his restaurant.

Nevertheless, he shrugs it off as something that hasn’t changed him.

‘‘In Islam we have a saying that when you receive praise or awards, you step back and ‘watch yourself’,’’ he says.

He looks around the tiny kitchen with tin walls in the car park at the back of his restaurant.

It’s battered and frayed from years of use by countless ghosts who come and go in the night, each with their own story of struggle and hope.

Azem reflects on what it all means to him.

‘‘No-one likes to have that lifestyle — and I’m very happy when the food is all gone. The best is when I see people in the street and they call out or thank me with a smile. That is priceless, my friend.

‘‘I never have negative thoughts.

‘‘When I enter the tunnel I don’t look at the dark, I look at the light at the end.’’

Azem looks out of his cafe windows at the roaring traffic on Wyndham St.

‘‘At the end of the day, it’s almighty God that runs the show, and we are all equal,’’ he says.

Azem sits down in his restaurant, now quiet and empty after a busy lunchtime service.

The lights are off, and the chairs are stacked on tables ready for Monday morning and another week of service with a smile.

Out the back, the light in the tiny kitchen stays on.