“I’m also studying entrepreneurship and innovation … I feel like I’ve found my calling”.
“Every time I think about it, the word blessed comes to mind. We have access to education, work opportunities, empowerment, freedoms that were not available to my parents and to many people in other countries.”
An audio snippet from this interview with Sam:
Perhaps you can start telling me a little bit about a typical day for you.
I run my own business, I am married with two children and I am completing postgraduate study part-time. My children are 12 and seven years of age. My day revolves around their day and what I need to get done for the clients I’m working for or people I’m working with on community projects. My work time is not a fixed nine to five. I squeeze it in the 168 hours we have per week. The day starts at 6:30 in the morning. We get up. We are a practicing Muslim family. We pray, kids get ready for school, they have breakfast and off they go. “My” time kicks in from there. I spend some of my time reading and learning even listening to motivational materials, spiritual literature. Then I head out appointments. I aim to finish my appointments during the day, that way I can be back home to make dinner. As a family, we really focus on having at the very minimum one meal together: myself, my husband and the kids all around the table. This is dinner during the week. On the weekends it’s both dinner and breakfast or lunch, whenever we can get out of bed, basically. We have our time together as a family at dinner and then there’s homework time, my work time, whilst my husband is with the kids. I wind down by 9:00 and read until bedtime.
Perhaps we can go back and I can ask you, where did your parents originally come from?
They’re both from Lebanon, both migrated here in 1974. They’d been married approximately a year, I think, before arriving in Sydney. My Dad came out here first and then my mum followed. She was young, about 16 years old. My dad is 10 years older than her. The driving force to come out here was probably more employment and I believe there was a program for migration. They just said they were given a bit of money in coming to Australia.
What did they tell you that life was like in Lebanon?
Dad is a real introvert. He didn’t really give us much insight. He is from a large family of 14 children. My mum from a family of 11 children and she was the oldest of 11. Our impressions were mainly from our mum, impressions of a tight knit community in the mountains of Lebanon, in the Mountains of the north. You get the sense of them being very proud of their family, really proud of their heritage, but also my mum was quite young so she didn’t really experience much other than going to a bit of primary school and then working really, really hard to support the whole family because it’s a village. It was highly agricultural and you didn’t expect people to go through to high school at all. It was more like, “Okay you’ve done a bit of primary school, let’s support the family”. She needed to look after her siblings. My dad had had a bit of experience working overseas prior to getting married – he was a bit more worldly – but like I said, he is very introverted, and he didn’t really give us much insight into his family. But we gained insight from his brothers and sisters who live in Melbourne and Sydney. We really gained the sense that family was extremely important, very strong bonds existed. Till this day my aunties and uncles will revive great family stories and we love to listen to them.
Where did your dad work besides Lebanon?
I think he worked in Libya in carpentry. He returned to Lebanon, married and then came out to Australia. Back in those old days Libya had a thriving Lebanese community. A lot of people worked in Libya from Lebanon for employment reasons, employment was very limited back in Lebanon. If you wanted to get good money, you’d go outside to get money to send back home to support the family. I think that was an inbred expectation of all siblings: wherever you go you are required to send back money to support the family. They had huge families. My grandfather, my dad’s father, was quite senior by the time my dad married. There were kids still at home; more in the teens and young adults. There was the expectation that men had to support the family. It still happens now, but can extend to females.
What did your parents – and this may have been primarily your mother – say about how their life changed coming here?
When they first came here, because they came into Sydney and there was already an established community of Lebanese, it’s not like they came here to a complete shock. I look through photos and the whole community would come to the airport, hold up banners to welcome you, because they all had the same journey. My dad had brothers and sisters here, they all went to the airport; they all welcomed you; they all had a network of how you would get employment. They all were working in factories, they were like, “Oh, yes, come and work for me”.
So, it was a very supportive environment when they did migrate here. When it came to family, when they had children, my mum did feel that there was a lack of support, from what she expected, because they came from a strong community base where the children are part of the community and you received help looking after them. When they migrated here there wasn’t any of those kinds of supports. They could help on the employment front and accommodation but as far as the day to day and looking after your children you were pretty much by yourself. I think they really missed that whole … I don’t even know how to articulate it … that community rearing of children. Yes, they really missed that; that just didn’t exist here.
Did they have you and your siblings in Sydney?
I’m the oldest of seven kids. I was born in Sydney and my brother was born in Sydney, my parents then decided to move to Melbourne. The rest were born here. It was a bit tough for my mum from what I gather.
That lack of shared child rearing?
Yes, because you’re raised in that environment over there, here you don’t have that kind of environment. We’d gone to Lebanon when we were kids, we had very beautiful memories of that experience. I’ve been there – we’ve all been back in adulthood – and you see a big shift in that… and maybe it’s because we were young – I don’t know – but you have these beautiful memories of when you were young there, then they’re kind of different when you’re older. You look at things far more differently as an Australian going over there, if that makes sense.
So how did your parents’ migration experience affect the way they raised you and your relationship with them?
Because we’re practicing young Muslims, we wanted to experience everything, but there are boundaries. It was kind of hard for me to understand that the boundaries existed for a reason, it just seemed confusing. However, migration didn’t seem to be a problem, my integration didn’t seem to be a problem, sometimes we just missed out on a certain activity.
For my mum, there was a struggle in trying to go, “What can the kids do that’s acceptable but then gives us what we need”. I know that was a very hard balance and obviously being the older one I experienced most of the resistance, I was the one who pushed the boundaries quite a lot. Yes, it was hard as children being raised in this environment, not understanding it very well. And there was a mix of traditional cultural things like, “Girls don’t sleep out of home” versus the religious bounds versus seeing other children doing what they can do and their parents are allowing, it’s a triangle of struggle. Back in Lebanon this doesn’t happen. Rules are just accepted, everyone worked with them, and as a close kinit community everyone almost monitored each other’s kids.
When I am in Lebanon in my mum’s home community, everyone knows me. If I walk around I would pretty much expect my mum or grandmother to know before I tell them. Someone’s seen me on the street, blah blah blah. Hilarious! Here, I guess there was a little bit of a lack of trust in the environment.
How has that shaped and formed your relationship with your parents?
My parents are divorced now. I don’t really see my dad that often but with my mum it is a constant battle of wills between. My mum has pushed the education and professional development, really pushing me to be successful, she’s always been adamant that we be self-sufficient, “Go get yourself a job; not just a job but get a career”. She didn’t want me to be in the same situation that she found herself, she was left with seven kids, very isolated, not supported by the community because of the divorce.
There’s another very complex element of mental health problems that were present, that we now know existed but back then we didn’t understand it. Mum is very strong in her opinion “Hey protect yourself, be strong, always work hard and support your family but also make sure that you protect yourself”. I have the highest respect for my mum – very high – because she’s had to battle quite hard battles to get to where she is now, raising seven kids, and thankfully we’re all okay. We could’ve all gone off doing drugs and alcohol, and gotten into crime and stuff. We’ve turned out really, really well.
Tell me, are there ways that occur to you that your family’s migration experience has shaped the person you have become?
Well, because I have obviously Lebanese perspective, I’ve been to Lebanon multiple times. I think the word blessed comes to mind because I’ve had a lot of opportunity here and through my mum’s struggles. I’ve also seen how community can work for and against you, in both Lebanon and here.
The migration has helped shape me see there’s always a different perspective and there’s actually never any wrong answer. You can go to a different country or different city and something that’s taboo here or something that’s probably not considered or not regarded as high could be at another place. The shaping of me comes from the fact that I come from different perspectives; it’s shown me also tolerance because I consider myself Australian; I’m an Australian Muslim. Yes, I’m Lebanese as well; Lebanese almost comes third, if that makes sense. Looking at my parents, where they’ve come from, their background, the way they’ve lived, how it’s translated into our family and then going back to Lebanon and looking at how they live – Every time I think about it, the word blessed comes to mind. We have access to education, work opportunities, empowerment, freedoms that were not available to my parents and to many people in other countries.
If people have not lived overseas or even been overseas, they’re missing out experiencing just how blessed we are in Australia.
You’ve already begun to answer my next question and talked a little bit about living overseas. Is Lebanon the only place that you’ve lived or have you lived in some other places?
I’ve mainly lived in Lebanon but for work I’ve also had the opportunities to spend time in Switzerland and visited Germany, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. Other cultures fascinate me, I learn quite allot, I’ve got a heritage background so I look for heritage, I look for tradition, I look for things that capture the essence of the country.
My time in Switzerland, it felt like living in Australia. There’re open to opportunity, you don’t feel the struggle. Everyone really knows their culture. It’s an open society there, people are free to have an opinion, people are free to get an education, people are free to pursue whatever career they are. It’s open, it’s progressive, it’s good. I love that compared to Lebanon.
So what was it like to live in Lebanon as an Australian? You touched on it a little bit.
It’s different. I lived in Tripoli, its impoverished, in my eyes, compared to Beirut. You have the super-rich and super poor and a small emerging middle class. I could dress down and look exactly like they do there but will still be spotted as the complete foreigner because of the way I walk, the way I talk, the way I present myself. I’m a very confident individual; I look people straight in the eye with a carefree attitude, I meet people that I can almost hear the thought in their minds “What are you doing here? Have you come here to show off?”
There’s the perception of Australians, you’re super rich, you can be treated quite privileged or you can be looked down upon by others. You can be a target. Certain parts of Tripoli have high risk of sectarian violence. As an Australian I need to be conscious I can’t go into these areas because I’m putting myself into a bit of trouble. Yes, I’m seen as different, privileged… bizarre!
How have these experiences of living overseas shaped you?
It comes down to perspectives. I can see different sides of the same coin and some people find that a bit difficult. Motivations of people … I’m into human behaviour and psychology … The same behaviour here is driven by different factors than in Lebanon and I look at the community and look at how it works; I look at how things like very taboo subjects over there are not taboo here.
I can look at things from different perspectives. When my kids telling me about how another child acted in a certain way … I generally respond, “Well maybe that’s acceptable in their community; don’t judge the person”. I have many discussions with my kids around this. I teach them to not judge, I avoid judgments as much as possible. It isn’t fair. I can’t impose my judgments on other people. When overseas, it doesn’t apply in that environment. It’s just different. They have a different set of ideals; they have a different set of beliefs, a different set of life experiences.
I tend to it turn the other way, “What’s good about what they do?” It’s more of an opportunity: “What can I learn from them?” And that’s what I teach my kids: “What can you learn about the heritage? What can you learn about other people. Take the good, leave the bad; take the positive and the negative.” That’s how I think it’s shaped me.
I’d like to go back to the question where I was asking about your typical day and you said something about your work. Can you tell us a little bit about your work?
My work is a mix. I’ve come out of a business/corporate background. I spent 17 years in that space. I’m quite fortunate to be able to not have to work full time and that my husband is supportive I can pursue interests and other ventures. I fell into consulting. People in my network knew that I wasn’t working and rang me up and said, “Can you help us out with these projects?” iPrincipals is my own business focussing on strategy and service / experience design and delivery.
I found my purposes in the world, because there are two purposes when you’re a Muslim. There’s the purpose of being a Muslim and you practice being one. But there’s another element I believe that you need to add onto that which is: Well, you’re given a set of skills and experiences. What can you do with them in addition to being a practicing Muslim? What is your contribution to humanity? That’s the approach I take. What’s my contribution? This is what God has given me; what can I do with them? I look at three things: I create, lead and connect. I look at the opportunity: Does it give me an opportunity to create something? And it could be anything: proposals, grants, a PowerPoint presentation. Does it give me the opportunity to lead – not authoritatively but be proactive, and maybe even being a leader in a different space, in a new space. Or does it give me the opportunity to connect with other people? I look at that. That’s where I am at this point in my journey. I look at things and I look at opportunities from those three and it’s got to actually meet those three criteria. Because I find if it doesn’t it tends to be something that I’m not motivated to do. I’ve had to drop few projects recently because I’ve looked at it doesn’t hit all three when I thought it would. I’ve tried it. Has it hit all three? Okay I think I need to just drop them and move to something else. I’m also studying entrepreneurship and innovation, a Masters. I’ve got an MBA and now I’m looking into another Masters which is entrepreneurship and innovation. I feel like I’ve found my calling, going, “This is great, this is what I want to do, start stuff.” Yes, and being innovative… I think that’s what I can contribute to my community, getting into that space and maybe even helping them move from where they are to different state, a new state, hopefully. I don’t know what that is but we don’t have to know what it is; we’ve just got to start the journey.
This interview is part of the This Is Us Australia project. If you are interested in taking part, please read our Project Description and use our Contact page or email us at thisisusaustralia at gmail.com.