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Etem’s tailor-made life

By Fiona West | June 8, 2023

On the main street of Auburn there is an unassuming tailor shop, known by the locals for its quality service, cheap prices and warm welcome – Etem’s Tailoring & Alterations.

The ever-smiling, ever-toiling Etem sits at his trusty sewing machine facing out to the glass street-front window, where he can work while greeting passers’ by, proud and content with the life he has created for himself, a cog in the colourful wheel of this diverse Western Sydney community.

It is a far cry from his former existence in Turkey, which he fled for his safety in 2015, with his wife and six children joining him in Australia four years later.

Although it was a tough beginning for Etem, knowing no English in a new country and being separated from his family, the 51 year old said he was still “very happy” because he knew his children would have a good future in Australia.

“Long live Australia; long live Australia,” he says with his hand on his heart and a lump in his throat.

Today Etem’s oldest son, 22, works for a plumbing company; his 18-year-old daughter is studying law at university; and his four other children are all doing well at school, with one teenager also working part-time at Coles. His youngest son, aged 10, is only one year younger than Etem was when he started working in Turkey to help support his large family. When I ask how many siblings he had he sighs: “Too much!”

“My family’s big family,” he said. “Twelve brothers and sisters. I was going to public school but my family is not much rich, so I’m going to work, tailoring, 11 years old. Not finishing high school; help the family.”

Etem worked in a factory for a “big company – maybe 100 people, boys, girls” where he learned on the job how to make and sew clothes. He says the quality of tailoring in Turkey is taken very seriously and, to this day, he is very proud of his craftmanship.

“I very like tailoring; I very very like,” Etem says with his broken, but easily understood, English.

“My dream? To open tailor shop. Three years ago I open.”

Etem says he is grateful to the Australian Government for his life in Australia, and to Navitas Skilled Futures, where he started learning English through the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) when he first arrived. He said before knowing English he lacked the confidence and knowledge to work for himself.

“English very very important,” he said.

“I’m new coming, I’m not language. Working in the city for tailor. Long hours, money not good.

“After I learn English, I talk to my friends, I’m a tailor I’m going to open a shop. I start in a shoe shop, in corner of shop. Later I open my shop.”

Etem’s shop is basic but serviceable, with well-worn machines among bright spools of cotton sitting on furniture he made himself. There is a small change room in the back corner, a busy rack of clothes being worked on, or ready to be collected, full boxes of sewing paraphernalia and a small display of subtle cultural adornments. He is proud to welcome people through his shop’s front door.

“This table; I make it,” he says, lifting a cloth to show his resourcefulness.

With a big family and the bills that come with it, and owning a business, Etem said he needed to work efficiently and do many jobs each day to remain sustainable. He said unlike the city, where people took expensive suits and designer clothing to tailors, he mostly worked on basic casual clothes, and was comparatively cheap.

“In Auburn things cheap. To make [clothes] shorter, here $15; Parramatta Westfield $29.99; City $35, sometimes $40, $50. But Turkish quality is best. Sorry Australia but Turkey number one in tailoring.”

Etem said he once had a customer from North Sydney come in with a pair of $1850 Armani pants with tag attached. When Etem quoted $15 to alter the pants, the man asked him: “$15 or $50?”.

“I said, ‘$15. One-five’. He looked at me, ‘Why brother? My area $50 to $60. Please you are tailor?’ I said, ‘Brother, relax. You not happy, I will buy new pants’.”

The next day when the customer returned to pick up his altered pants, he tried them on and danced around the store, thrilled with the outcome, and promising to bring all his future alteration needs to the other side of Sydney – not for the price, but for the finish.

“What I do is very good. Armani pants, school pants. Always good quality. Always good price.”

Etem said Ramadan was a difficult time for his business, with many Auburn residents observing the holy month and staying home. But when school returned this term with the change of season business picked up again – thank goodness.

“Big family, six kids. Only me working. House rent, business rent, electric, gas, water, internet, food. Very expensive. I only buy one car for my wife. I’m walking home [to Granville], walk no worry. I’m very happy.”

Etem said his life in Australia was full and happy, with his wife now studying English through the AMEP and his children speaking fluent English, so well in fact that the youngest spoke very little Kurdish.

“Family speak Kurdish at home, watching Kurdish, sometimes customer come in speak Kurdish. My son no speak never, all English; family help me,” Etem said.

While he insists his English is still not as good as he’d like it to be, Etem says he never stops learning and he keeps trying, encouraging other migrants to do the same.

“I can do it. You can do it,” Etem says matter of factly, as he returns to his machine at the window, turning his full attention to yet another pair of work pants, that will no doubt be hemmed with pride and finished to perfection.

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