Words || Yehuda Aharon
I’m off to see Jihad Dib, the state representative for Lakemba and I’m wondering if he will remember me…
We met about six months ago at an inter-faith harmony walk at Lakemba. Today, faint recognition rolls over his face as he asks how to pronounce my name. He looks smart and is dressed in a black suit with an off red tie –He looks like a politician but I hope he will be more interesting than one.
Walking down from his office it is immediately apparent that he is a celebrity around here. A mother takes a moment to stop screaming at her kid in the mall to smile and the waitresses at the cafe all know him. Courtesy of his popularity, we get a ‘special table’ that looks just like all the rest and I place my phone on the table to press record.
All of this is to be expected from an MP but Dib has a particular charm with the people around him, he is from them and has lived his life alongside them. He arrived from Lebanon as a child and moved around a fair bit with his parents working odd jobs. Life was a struggle, “the money just wasn’t there. Dad worked at a place called containers limited which used to make aerosol cans and containers. Mum used to work in a factory as well.”
After university, he went to teach at Ulladulla. There he leant to surf and also acutely aware of the fact that not many people had the name Jihad. He still loved it but Dib grew to miss the gritty suburbs he knew as home, as family. He applied to be the principal at Punchbowl Boys High, a bold move. The school had one of the worst reputations in the state. There was a seven foot barbed wire fence the surrounded the school and drugs and gang violence had taken over. Despite this, he tells me when he looks back it is through “rose tinted glasses”. I am shocked. I have read about those days and a favourite writer of mine, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, recently composed a short radio play about his time there. It was filled with beatings, gangs and pure chaos. The difficulty of his time there even gave the foundation to a recent SBS miniseries called ‘The Principal’. At the time he was appointed, he was the youngest principal in the state.
“What I loved the most about school was the relationships that were built; actually building the relationships with the kids, teachers and the community. I loved the emotional stuff. It was an emotionally broken place and when you don’t have a love for a place you don’t care about it and that was the feel that I got when I walked in there. The mentality was that it was not worth it. Everyone else had tried, what was I going to do?”
“I used to have parents ask me, ‘Mr Dib, can you help my son get into a better school?’ That would break my heart. I mean why take him out to a different school. We want him here, let’s make this the better school and that took a while.”
“Everyone sees the success story but it took some real tears and some tough decisions.” It was his personal belief in the kids, day in day out that brought gave many kids the faith that they needed to feel in themselves. Regardless of who the kids were or who they associated they became his family, their own family. “Why is that a family? Because families do stuff together. Families look out for one and other. When somebody is struggling they pick them up. When someone is doing well we celebrate. We had funerals too. Kids can die, family members can die, but we did it all together.”
I ask Dib about his decision to go into politics. He tells me has been asked this a million times but is not trying to push it off. “Every time I get asked, my answer is a little different.” “It sounds so cliché, but I made a difference to the community in my school. I lived it and now I want is to take that to another level.”
He shares with me a story about a local lady living in public housing. She calls regularly and “It may not be a major thing for somebody else but that’s the world for her and she knows that every time she rings our office we will fight for it to be fixed. I become her voice.”
“The government talks about looking out for the most vulnerable. I’m saying we have some of the most vulnerable here yet we can never get the funding. People here will say, why aren’t we treated the same, why are we always getting the leftovers? We’re not here to whinge and say woe be me. All we want is the same. We know what we need. Let’s put them in. One of the things I have said is ‘invest in people because we will be paying a lot more if we need to pick up a broken society’.”
“I’m not interested in saying it’s OK as it is, because it isn’t. It’s not OK. And I don’t want us to have anything more than everybody else. But I damn well will fight for it to be the same.”
Despite this the community in and around Lakemba is one of the most vibrant communities in Sydney. It has a flair to it. This stems from their cohesion. Here there is no shortage of people who give, and they do it in a voluntary sense, out of their own pocket. For example the Lakemba community centre that is funded to an extent, but the reality is that their output is much greater than their funding. People just donate extra time and if they don’t have money it’ll be food or something else.
“What I love is that the reason they do that, it’s because they know what it’s like to need that help, or they are close to somebody who does. Nothing comes easy.
I guarantee it that if you went to Lakemba and you went to one of the shops and they knew you were down on your luck – they’d feed ya. They’d also know if your bull crap. They’ll work it out. But they’ll feed ya and look after you. And give you a job if there is one floating around.”
“Come down to Lakemba for Iftar, the Ramadan feast and you will see the place buzzing but amongst all that, the mosque hosts something every night down by the car park. It’s for people who don’t have family or somewhere to go. Much of that is donated by families. If they are cooking they just cook extra, they assist where they can.”
“People open their homes up, to others, to people of other faiths to people of no faiths.” This doesn’t surprise me – charity is a pillar of Islam, it is mandated by law. But he tells me that it is everywhere, the people strive to help each other. They are more tolerant of each other than people are in other communities because they all live together. And of course anybody can come to Iftar – “who cares? It’s food!”
“It cops a really bad rap and it’s unfair and yet so resilient. I love it. There is no airs of grace here – and they’re happy. That’s what you get – it’s a warts and all community. We have our problems but there is a real passion in the place.“ All he asks is that people come and look at the place the way he does – as it really is, with the glass half full.
The time is up and we are only half way done but he has to go prepare himself for Australia day celebrations despite the fact that he is a republican and makes it known to me that he thinks we should have it on a different day. “We are a great nation but we need some serious national healing.” A new day, he tells me would be more inclusive, and incorporate “those first Australians fifty thousand years ago all the way to the ones who will become citizens tomorrow.”