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The Right Side of Diversity: Australia Day Lunch Message 2017 - Houssam Abiad

Posted on August 18 2017

The Chairperson of the Australia Day Council of South Australia - Clr Houssam Abiad, gave his address to the audience of the Australia Day Luncheon 2017. Unity, social cohesion and togetherness were the themes of the day. 

The following is an edited transcript of the address, to view the full address please click here

Houssam Abiad, Chair of the Australia Day Council of South Australia, address 20.0.17

I would like to acknowledge that we are meeting on the traditional country of the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains and that we recognize and respect their cultural heritage, beliefs and relationship with the land and we acknowledge their coninuing imporance to the Kaurna people living today. 

"cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

These are the words that grace the Statue of Liberty, a very timely quote, given that the United States of America today is inaugurating its new President. 

I would say if you have to, learn from your own mistakes, but make none, if you can learn from someone elses. 

But in Australia, we are different, we are fairer. It’s because we can trace our short history to the very beginning, the many successes we celebrate as a nation and also in parts of our history darkness and horrors that we wish we can only undo.

 We have it right in Australia, right but not perfect.

History did not start with us, in my mind the fair, nurturing and abundant spirit of Australia did not start at a specific hour, day, month or year, it was here from the beginning.

 We all share a story and that’s the Australian Story, Just looking back at your own history, tell me which story didn’t start with, “when I came here, when my parents arrived here or when my grandparents or great grandparents arrived here” we have all arrived here.

Somewhere in time, somehow someone in our own family made that decision, made that call, for one reason or another, to leave their country, their home because it was simply no longer a viable option. 

Imagine how hard it would have to get for someone to leave everything they know behind, their family, their loved ones, their belongings, the food - I think we brought the food with us! And come to a brand new place, with a brand new start. Imagine if we had to as Australians today, to pack up and migrate somewhere else. Where would we go and who would take us?

I'll give you an example- this is perfect in my household: if you are cooking 4 chickens and you are expecting two or three people over for lunch or dinner, and another 2 people decide to rock up. It's ok - all you have to do is make a little bit more rice, or as my Mum would say "Go to the third freezer in the garage and pull out another chicken!" Boundless plains to share! 

We were all hungry before we arrived here, and now it is very easy to ignore someone else’s hunger on a full stomach!

But despite many of the stories we share, sometimes the only thing we really have in common is our Diversity.

Diversity is our opportunity and strengths. Diversity should always win over division, hope should always win over fear, and fairness should always win over indulgence.

Can you imagine if the Amazons just had monkeys living in it? Ecosystems require diversity for it to be able to sustain life. 

Australia is ever changing. Most people refer to Australia as a melting pot of cultures, I refer to Australia as a “Salad”, because unlike a melting pot of culture, I think the different fruits and vegetables in a Salad represent Australia well.

It says that we are better mixed than blended.

The flavours we add to this country remain authentic, with no two mouthfuls the same.

There is a huge difference between equality and equity. Australia shouldn’t strive to give its people the same chances, in Australia we should personalise fairness at every single opportunity we have.

We are powerful only because we are fair. We are strong as a City, a State and a Nation because we are different. 

Especially in Adelaide - the "City of Churches". I would argue that Adelaide didn't get its nickname on the back of just being religious - we are also free. Adelaide was the first city in Australia to be free settlers. People chose to come to Australia from all walks of life, escaping religious, political and economic persecution. Adelaide did underwrite Australia’s success by being the first in Australia to elect a democratic government, to be first in the world to elect a woman to parliament, to elect and appoint the first in Australia, an Aboriginal man as our Governor and also the first to appoint an asylum seeking refugee as our current Governor today.

We were first to decriminalise homosexuality and we were also the first to raise the Aboriginal Flag in Victoria Square, in support of land rights for aboriginal people in 1971. Imagine how progressive that is. 

A City of Freedom and Fairness, a City where the first mosque of Australia was built here in Adelaide in the 1800s.

Adelaide was, is and remains a leader in social justice.

So I've spent the last 20 years of my life living in Adelaide, having to spell my name to practically everyone I meet. Every phone call, every conversation: "Hey mate, how are you? What's your name?", "Houssam", "Is that Houssam with a N?", "No it's Houssam with a M", "Can you spell that for me?", "Yes, Houssam. H-o-u-s-s-a-m. M for mary"

The first question after that of course is "Ah mate, where are you from?",  "Adelaide", "Nah, really. Where are you from?".

So my name is Houssam, with a M, and I am an Australian Muslim. I was born to migrant parents here in 1976, and at the age of three my parents decided to pack up and migrate back to Lebanon permanently. I wish at the age of three I could simply be yanking at my parents arms as they board the plane and say to them "Hey, psst, do you know we are going back to a war zone?". Simply, when everyone was fleeing the Middle East, my parents, like salmon to fresh water, decided to go completely against the current. 

Living 15 years of a Civil War was not easy, and I often wished we had the Social Media of Today to share so many of our stories.

We lost many of our loved ones in the war and as a child I remember my mother kissing my every day before going to school, hugging me like it was the last day she was ever going to see me. They live 5 minutes away from us now, she still does the same thing every time Ava and I visit. 

Seeing my father dragged out of a car at gunpoint, hiding under staircases in buildings with my little brother on the way to school as shooting erupted and missing death at a checkpoint by simply one car. Just one car would have kept me away from you today. 

 We accepted and normalised violence, we had to, it was our only coping mechanism.

I remember so many incidents, and I block so many more, but today I choose to use them as a reminder to how lucky and blessed we are. 

I remember the three thing my parents did every night, was to go to sleep with a prayer, our Australian passports under their pillow and just the little bit of money we had, just in case we had to make a quick escape. 

Wars do not start when people disagree; they start when people lose compassion. They start when being right is not good enough anymore, and when we want to go out of our way to prove that someone else is wrong. I never understood why my parents went back to a war-torn country to live on the front line of a civil war, where so-called Muslims killed Christians and so-called Christians killed Muslims. Where humanity took its revenge on humanity. I couldn't understand until I realised how impossible it would be for me to leave. To simply just pick up and leave and leave all of the people that we love behind. The only reason and the only thing that differentiates me from them was that I was holding a piece of paper-The Australian Passport, the Opportunity.

I would argue that in one stage in your history you've also had to leave some family members behind - well unless you're Greek and you brought the whole village with you!

My family lost everything in the war and it was rather impossible for us to live in Lebanon after everything that's happened, so in 1995, almost 16 years on after my parents left Adelaide,  they decided to come back. I couldn't comprehend why many of my family members and friends as I was departing Lebanon were looking at me and saying to me "You are so lucky to be able to leave". I could never comprehend that at that point of time. I could never understood why they were saying that to me.  

So we arrived here, the whole family, back in Adelaide. I was 19 - new country, new friends, new school and a new language. 

Learning "Aussie" was 'fun' you reckon? I never thought English could be so entertaining - well at least for the people that were listening to me speak. I learnt most of my Aussie at a snack bar and for the better part of three years, I really thought elbow grease was a detergent,  I thought that 'fair dinkum' was a product sold at Coles or Woolies, and I even thought that Vegemite was Nutella - that experience was definately life changing stuff. I also learnt that when it gets tough-swearing is ok, and words like 'mates rates' where pretty handy to have. 

 But the two words that echoed with me the most were “Fair Go”.

In coming to Australia, everything seemed like low hanging fruit. My life experiences from Lebanon amplified my senses for opportunity, as the war taught me two very valuable lessons, 

  • To never take anything for granted
  • That I deserved to have the right for self-determination, to simply have a say on how I live my life.

I would never have had the opportunity to marry my beautiful wife Ava, to start my own businesses, to be elected and to have served as deputy Lord Mayor, and most certainly, to Chair this amazing organisation (The Australia Day Council of South Australia) and be your host today. 

Living in Adelaide meant everything, suddenly a new lease on life.

 It is rather difficult to appreciate what Australia has to offer to a full extent without the opportunity of experiencing how tough life can be somewhere else.

This is why Australia Day for us is usually a family day, that look you give your parents in thanks, for the decision they made to have you come or be born in Australia. It’s the unspoken that resounds loudest in our family, the subtle hints we give one another on what life was like before.

But it should also be a day of remembrance, a day to pay tribute to the many sacrifices made along the way.

Australia Day is about celebrating what we have become as a nation, not how we started as one.

On the 26th of January and on the flip coin of our celebrations other Australians mourn their countless losses at a Survival Day. I would like to pay tribute to our indigenous communities, that despite many of history's horrors - they emerged positive, inclusive and hospitable to us. 

We have much to learn from our first people, our indigenous communities, and on Australia Day let us never forget the past, but also let us never repeat it. We should live with the reminder that we will never be free, not even in Australia, if we do not advocate for Justice everywhere.

So where would I be today if I wasn't here? Where would you be? I'd be living in a village north of Lenabon with a PHD and no job prospects. I would probably me married to a Lebanese - most possibly Muslims, because I wasn't open to other ethnicities and religions. I would have at least two or three kids that I would struggle to feed or even send to school. I would most probably be sitting at a cafe somewhere smoking shisha, having coffee, playing backgammon or cards watching the news - that sounds pretty cool though! But I would also have no understanding of the West and I would simply would never have been afforded the opportunity to visit it because the Lebanese passport gets you nowhere. All of this living in a country that is one tenth the size of South Australia with four times the population. Mind you- 1 million of these people are refugees that could have easily been me or even you, without the Australian passport. 

The world is not in a good place at the moment my friends, but was it ever?

Throughout history and now - World Wars, invasions, colonization, massacres, war crimes, terrorism, mass exodus of people and refugees. The rise of Pauline, Trump and Brexit.  It seems we never learned from history and that is why it keeps repeating itself as if to just remind us. 

The world is responding to extremism with extremism, it almost feels like we have lost the middle ground.

We will be naive to think history stops with us, we will not have the answers to all our problems today, but the future will. 

We as Australians have an opportunity now to seize the moment, especially with everythin that is happening around the world. We can effect change, we can show leadership and we can franchise our fairness. We can go out there and demonstrate our successful formula for coexistence because peace, tolerance and equity are more than words they are a perspective!

 And with that in mind the only way we can affect change is by changing our own personal perspective and by the way the way we treat one another. Because change is needed- but change needs courage, and courage my friends, well courage changes absolutely everything.

Thank you. 

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