“When you see someone who really, really needs help you need to go there and help them,” says Gabriel Maker Long.
Seven years ago, Gabriel, an African refugee and former child soldier in South Sudan, opened a shop in Newcastle. He named it Make It Low to highlight the small grocery store’s ethos – that anyone and everyone could afford to buy food here.
“If you don’t have enough money, you can come to my shop,” says Gabriel. “Or, if you haven’t got money, I will give it to you if you got money coming tomorrow. Or, if you can’t afford it, I will just let it go.”
Gabriel, who came to Australia with his stepsister in 1999, moved from Darwin to Newcastle in 2001. Separated from his family at age five to live with the army in Sudan, he joined its ranks aged 10. Seven years later, wounded from the war, he moved to Kenya where a humanitarian visa offered a new life in Australia.
“When I went for an interview with the Australian Government, they asked me, ‘Would you like to go to Australia?’ And I said, ‘What’s that?’ And they said, ‘Australia is an island in Asia.’ And I said, ‘It’s in the water?’ And they said, ‘Yes’. And I said, ‘No, no, I’m not going there’ and they said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘I can’t swim.’”
He vividly remembers the “beautiful” country he arrived in, Darwin’s lights twinkling at night. The memory of people helping him with clothes, food, housing, education, language and friendship has never left him.
“One of the ladies, she was a beautiful lady, she took me for a drive,” he says. “And I was so confused. Because everywhere I go it was all white. I was the only black. But then I see people who are the same colour like me, the Australian Aboriginals and they’re quite different. They’ve got long hair. And I just said, ‘What kind of world is this?’
“And a lot of people kept coming, introducing themselves to me, hanging around with me. So I said, ‘Wow, what a beautiful world’. Everywhere I go, people like to say ‘Hi’. Where I came from, everyone was scared to say ‘Hi' to anybody. That’s why I like Australia.”
Gabriel went to school and then worked, saving $50,000 with the aim of establishing his “community shop”.
He opened it in the Newcastle suburb of Mayfield, and Make it Low quickly became a central point for the local community, particularly refugees and low-income earners. Stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables bought by Gabriel each weekend in Sydney, the shelves featured a range of affordable groceries for people with Asian, African, Middle Eastern and Australian backgrounds.
“For me, it’s not big profit … I just want the shop to keep going, to help people who need,” he says. ”Because, in Mayfield, there used to be people who got no money, people with no luck. I start the shop to help others.”
At nights, to keep the shop and his family afloat, Gabriel worked in nursing. On the weekends, he earned money driving a taxi, often stopping to buy and share a meal with homeless people he saw begging on the street.
After three years, Make it Low became increasingly difficult to sustain. Gabriel, surviving on two or three hours sleep a night and unable to afford extra staff, found himself in hospital for a month recovering from appendicitis. Sick and exhausted, he was forced to shut the shop when he returned.
After working to overcome the trauma of his childhood, and “feeling so bad” about closing the shop, he faced further ordeals. One night, driving his taxi, Gabriel was assaulted by a passenger. Not long after, as an Uber driver, he was beaten up again. He shrugs off these events as being part of life.
“It was nothing. You can have a good time, you can have a bad time.”
He now works as a truck driver and loves it, but misses his customers at the shop and working with others. “With a truck, you’re always by yourself,” he says. “You’re alone. I’m the kind of guy, I love working with people. I like helping people. When I used to work in the nursing home, I helped people. I put a smile in their face, I play games with them. I love people, I like to talk to people, I like to learn their experience.”
After 20 years in Australia, he continues to teach his two sons about the importance of helping others. He hopes that one day he can reopen Make it Low, making it bigger and with paid staff.
“I don’t have money,” he says. “I work, I’m a truck driver. Whatever money I own, I pay my rent, I buy food for my kids. Whatever I have left, I share with people in need.
“Helping other people made me feel better. I believe one love, one world, you know, one people. So we are connected. We might be different colour but we are people, we are living thing. So helping each other makes the world go round.”