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Shaun Christie-David can still picture the bin where he used to ditch his dhal sandwiches, the furtive act of a teenage boy of migrant parents desperate to fit in.

He loved dhal at home. The aromatic combination of lentils, tempered mustard seeds, spices and fried onions made by his Sri Lankan-born mother, or amma, Shiranie, was his favourite meal.

But at school, he’d be teased about his weird-looking, pungent lunch, buffeted by taunts of, “Shit man, your lunch stinks”.

So, the sandwiches stayed in his schoolbag all day before being dumped in that bin next to the ticket machine at the train station in south-west Sydney where Shiranie was waiting to take him home.

Today, that dhal, Amma’s Dhal, takes pride of place on the menu of Colombo Social, the first of Shaun Christie-David’s string of Sydney-based restaurants and social enterprises that celebrate multiculturalism and diversity, giving work and purpose to refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, older women, people with a disability and former prisoners.

“I reflect on that sandwich and I still get sad,” Christie-David tells Australian Story. “To throw away a piece of my mum’s love and to throw away things that my dad worked hard for [because of] being ashamed of my identity.”

The fact that Christie-David was born here didn’t calm his unease. He looked different from other Australian kids, his parents had accents, his food was odd — and his confusion about where he belonged was acute.

“It’s not just me,” he says. “It’s all of us that grapple with being a first-generation migrant.

“Only later in life did I realise … you don’t have to renounce being Sri Lankan to be a proud Australian or vice versa. I’m powerful because I have both cultures; I can take the good from both cultures and build my own identity and really lean into that feeling. But that takes a while.”

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By Leisa Scott and Vanessa Gorman

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