Turning the tide
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Photo by: Warren Clarke. Dr Jamal Rifi (left) with surf lifesaver Mr Lee Howell.

IT’S a scorching Saturday in Sydney’s south-west but no one seems to begrudge having sweltered all morning in this airless brick box. The instant a lunch break is announced about 20 teenagers fill the sterile clubhouse with talk. All eyes turn to Dr Jamal Rifi – or at least the tower of pizza boxes he’s navigating through the door.

The Muslim GP has spent the past week bombarded by extreme messages of hate, gratitude, admiration and contempt, after he called for Sheik Taj El-Deen El-Hilali to stand down as Mufti of Australia for likening immodestly dressed women to uncovered meat.

But today Dr Rifi is distracted from this emotion-charged drama by the grand plan taking shape in this horrible hot room.

Pizza distributed, Rifi heads over to chat with a friend, an animated Lebanese taxi driver – Sheik Hilali’s taxi driver, no less – who’s smiling broadly and helping himself to a slab of watermelon. A cameraman steps around to get a better view as the two discuss the logistics of getting everyone to the pool.

Rifi, in a crisp, lemon shirt and dark-blue jeans, leaps on to a chair and issues a short, sharp whistle. In an instant, the room is silenced and every teenager looks to him for direction. He is warm but formal as he sets about housekeeping. The room will be left tidy. Raise your hand if you need a lift.

It’s only the documentary makers, filming unobtrusively in the background, who give a sense of the significance of today’s events. These Muslim teenagers have just had their first theory lesson in surf lifesaving. By December, they’ll be patrolling the beach in red-and-yellow caps. Cronulla beach.

Some of the girls will team the caps with a traditional, modest full-length ‘burqini’, as they work alongside blond-haired, blue-eyed Aussie blokes.

It’s a profound image of reconciliation and healing that isn’t lost on the BBC and SBS, who’ve teamed up to film Race for the Beach. Set to screen in the middle of next year, it will track one of the teenagers working to become one of Australia’s first Muslim lifesavers. Rifi, a former Community Relations Commissioner, has recruited 22 teenagers from the Lakemba area and inspired them to become cultural ambassadors. It’s a bold plan he conceived when he took time off from his practice to work with youth and bring about peace at the time of last year’s Cronulla riots.

“What happened at Cronulla was a shame on some of us,” Rifi tells Australian Doctor. “If it happens again, it will be a shame on all of us.”

Surf Life Saving Australia’s national diversity manager Mr Lee Howell says Rifi has an extraordinary capacity to rally people and get things done.

“He’s a very focused man,” he says. “If the doc says we’re going to do something, it happens.”

Mr Howell acknowledges there has been “quite strong” scepticism about the project.

“There are knockers from within south-western Sydney and surf lifesaving,” he says.

“Dr Rifi says we must deal with people through showing the positives and showing we can achieve harmony.”

It’s the desire to achieve harmony that inspired the recent upheaval in Rifi’s life.

Back at his Belmore home and surgery – a heritage listed Tudor-style building set on large grounds – Rifi closes the padded sound-proof doors between his waiting and consulting rooms. Sipping a strong espresso, he says many Muslim people have strongly supported his stance against the Mufti.

But not everyone approves. He pulls out a threatening letter penned in Arabic that he has forwarded to police and swings his computer screen to show e-mails ripe with contempt. A drawer holds four mobile phones he leaves switched off because the harassing calls were so constant. He has increased security, is in close contact with the police, and has tried to explain the situation to his wife and five children, aged between eight and 20, so they will be “alert but not alarmed”.

“All it would take is one person to hate me strong enough, for long enough,” he says. “I don’t pretend in any way what I have done is of a small scale. I knew what I was doing. I knew if I didn’t do it, I would have a tormented conscience for the rest of my life.”

Rifi and the sheik had been good friends for more than 20 years.

“We became friends through my good work in the community and his good work in the community,” Rifi says. “He assisted me a lot. But our spokesman has done so much damage to our community’s reputation. When I go to my community, I go to build the bridges.

“You shouldn’t be defiant. You shouldn’t be insular. What he said was totally wrong. When he was talking he was dangerously wrong, because he was taking us on a collision path with the rest of society.

“To be a good Muslim in Australia is different than being a good Muslim in the Muslim world. You need to adapt your religious values to comply with the cultural aspect of life in Australia,” he says.

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It was a sweet young Lebanese girl who led Rifi to Australia in 1984. He had been studying medicine for four years in Romania when he learned that someone was planning to marry his beloved Lana.

“Her cousin had asked for her hand and her father approved,” Rifi says. “So if I didn’t act I would have lost her.”

Lana, who had lived in Australia from the age of three, was in Lebanon on holiday after her HSC when Rifi secured her hand. His family approved of Lana but wanted him to finish his degree. For Rifi, the stakes were too high.

“We met when we were little – when I was 14,” he says.

“I knew from then that I wanted to marry her. Not just me. She knew too.”

The couple moved to Australia, penniless, and had their first child when Rifi was in his third year of medicine at the University of Sydney.

Rifi decided he was going to be a doctor as a young child when grieving the death of his two-year-old brother – “the darling of the house”. The boy died after a doctor gave him an injection, from what Rifi knows now was an anaphylactic reaction.

“I still remember my mother crying over the body of my brother,” he says.

“Then I decided I wanted to be a doctor who saves life. I wanted to become not just a doctor. A good doctor.”

It was a goal encouraged by his father, Ahmad, who taught Rifi from a young age that poverty, illiteracy and sickness were the enemies of a functioning community. The owner of a wheat mill, Rifi’s father formed a health co-operative in Lebanon in the 1960s, pooling funding to give Tripoli’s destitute access to GPs, dentists and pharmacists.

“He ended up in prison… because he was so successful and he had a lot of followers. Because poor people were being treated properly for the first time,” Rifi says. “He went a couple of times to jail. I remember the poverty we went under because we had no income and my mother struggled to feed us. But I also remember us walking with our heads high. He did the right thing and was very much respected.”

Rifi, 47, has his own reputation as a peacemaker and he too holds his head high. Although he is not keen to big-note himself, the photographs by his desk do the talking. There he is with NSW Premier Morris Iemma, a good friend and patient. Or, again, standing proudly beside former premier Bob Carr.

Another photo shows Rifi sitting with his two brothers in majestic gilt-edged chairs. Both brothers still live in Lebanon, where one heads the country’s police force. In another shot, Rifi is posing with an Aboriginal dance group who caused a sensation when he took them to perform in Lebanon.

Despite his recent time in the media spotlight, Rifi is most comfortable behind the scenes, working on small community projects that bring about significant change. The stigma attached to being a Muslim appals him and he’s doing his best to help his community chip it away. The photo with Bob Carr was taken at the recent launch of a parenting magazine written in both Arabic and English, a project Rifi instigated because he could see the damage disrespectful Lebanese teenagers were causing.

“Arabic boys, they respect their parents and behave positively at home but they don’t show that respect to their teacher, or coach on the soccer field, or even the police officer,” says Rifi, who believes this stems from a lack of discipline at home.

The boys, who are fluent in English, take advantage of their Arabic-speaking parents who rely on them to translate, he says. Any attempts to discipline the teenagers are met with a defiant explanation that here that is against the law.

“Parents did not know their role in terms of disciplining their children in an Australian cultural context,” Rifi says.

The teenagers can be bold and crafty in their deceptions. When one school principal called for a meeting to discuss errant behaviour, the parents were told they’d been summoned to be congratulated on their son being top of the class.

The parenting magazine is just one of the many projects developed by the Arabic Youth Partnership Rifi instigated with the NSW Government five years ago. And he’s also active on the ground, speaking with parents on Arabic radio and giving talks at local schools, often with one of his own children speaking alongside him.

But it’s not only people from the Muslim community who have benefited from Rifi’s willingness to fight for a worthy cause. When he was asked to become involved in the Lakemba Sports Club, he happily took on the role of president.

“That club was run down. I saw we can ill afford not to have a sporting organisation in this area,” he says, appreciating sport’s role in building self-esteem and intercultural friendships. On weekends, he supervises 20 people on parole, who he has organised to do community service at the club.

Local war veterans are also grateful for the efforts Rifi has made on their behalf. Rifi pops in once a week to the block of units where some of them have lived for more than 25 years.

As they wait to see him, a small group of veterans struggle to convey the depth of admiration they have for their doctor who successfully lobbied state and local governments to prevent the flats from being sold and the vets being shipped off to live in country towns. Not that the flats were a great place to live when Rifi started his weekly visits in the early 1990s.

“It was a place for people to die. It was a very depressing place,” Rifi says.

But he established a common room, to encourage the residents to socialise, and secured a dedicated treatment room. He has also organised for a pharmacist to collect his scripts and deliver medication.

“I never knew a Muslim before him,” a patient in the waiting room explains, laughing so hard at his own story there’s a risk it may not be old.

“I said, ‘How do I become a Muslim?’ And he said, ‘Peter, you’re not allowed to – we’ve got enough ratbags already’.”

There are plenty of others with good reason to feel gratitude to Rifi. Like the Lebanese woman with kidney failure he brought to Sydney to receive a donated organ from her brother. He arranged visas and helped raise $55,000 to cover the woman’s costs.

But the achievement he is proudest of was bringing a five-year-old child with oesophageal stricture from Iraq to Australia for a life-changing operation. The boy, who had only ever been able to swallow fluids, weighed just 15kg when he arrived. Rifi organised his visa, not an easy task in the days when Suddam Hussein ruled Iraq, guaranteed to meet expenses and found a surgeon who would operate without charge. Rifi watched in delight as the child took his first bite of a hamburger.

“There was a job to be done. I was able to do it. I did it,” he says. “Did I have pride in doing it? Yes.”

It’s not surprising that Rifi doesn’t waste much time on sleeping.

“I only live once. I don’t have much time to waste,” he says. “A lot of my networking and my communications will happen while I’m driving in the car or late at night. I send e-mails at 4am.

“During the day, I have to earn my living. I have five kids. I’m not a rich person. I don’t have the time to [focus on earning] money.”

The time for reflection on everything he’s achieved may come later.

“I’m hiding it for when I get old,” he laughs. “So when I lay down and look at what I’ve achieved in my life, I know it won’t be in vain.”

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