Give Yourself Time to Grow
Layla Mkhayber from BYDS interviews Ola Elhassan
Whether you’re feeling ‘stuck’ out in the West, unconfident in your abilities, or lost as to where your strengths lie, Ola’s reckons you should give yourself time to grow. She’s a Miller gal who’s fought against all odds and knows the importance of resilience, believing in yourself, and asking for help when you need it. Haven’t got things sorted out? It’s okay, you’ve got time.
Okay, we ready?
Okay, so, um, hi.
We’re just gonna interview for the Stories of Strength programme.
Could you introduce yourself to whoever is listening?
Sure. Um, my name is Ola. I’m a social worker who lives in Sydney, and I have three kids, and I’m married. I love what I do, I feel blessed to be doing the work that I do. I work with people who are having a difficult time in their life, and I have multiple hats within that. And I was really excited to be asked to be interviewed for this project.
Oh, thank you. Could you tell me when and where you were born?
Yeah, I was born in Lebanon during a difficult time in Lebanese — in Lebanon’s history. So it was during the Civil War, I was born in my mum’s village which is called Kfarkahel, and yeah. It was 1979 and I was the first born in my family for my mum and dad.
Can you tell me how many siblings you have?
I’ve got two siblings, a brother and a sister, who I love and adore dearly. Family is very important to us so they’re very much a part of my life.
Beautiful. When did your family come to Australia?
So my parents migrated in 1980. Um, my father had lived in Australia for 17 years before that, or 15 years before that. He was an underwater diver and welder, so he worked on most of the great bridges here in Australia. He came out and that was his skill, he had a rare trade so he was invited under immigration laws back then. So he came out, lived here, went back home and met my mum, and brought us out in 1980. So yeah.
Beautiful. Could you describe the place where you spent your childhood?
Oh yes, I love this. I grew up in a suburb called Miller, which is out west near Liverpool. I love Miller because — I love my memories of Miller actually, because people’s initial thoughts on Miller are quite negative. If I am to use the negative stereotypes people have of that suburb, it’s a poor suburb, predominantly department of housing, mostly people living there of similar — you know, they’re going through a tough time and can’t really afford to live anywhere else.
But I say suburbs like that make you strong and resilient. Um, I had some amazing memories growing up in Miller. Even though people would say it wasn’t safe, it had high crime rate, it wasn’t uncommon to hear gunshots going off in the middle of the night, but I felt safe. Which is so weird. So I used to walk late at night, 9 o’clock from my work — I had a part-time job at the local shopping centre, I finished my shift at 9 o’clock and I’d walk and I actually felt safe.
It’s funny like that, I look back on it now and being an adult, I’ll be walking in suburbs that are totally the opposite of Miller and I don’t have that same sense of safety. So I love… yeah, that’s the suburb I grew up in.
That’s really beautiful.
Um, first years of my life I spent in Miller as well.
Oh, did you? There you go, you’re a Miller chick.
Yeah, 2168 [laughs].
[laughs] Yeah, before I came to Bankstown. Could you describe one significant memory from your childhood?
Hmm, that’s a hard one cos I have a lot of memories. Do you want it to be a positive one or a negative one? Or just something that stands out?
Anything, if something stands out.
You can do a positive and a negative one if you want.
Yeah. Um… I think for me becoming School Captain was a really special memory that I had. You know, at the time I had one of my siblings who was seen as a bit of a troublemaker at the school, and the principal really despised them [laughs]. And no matter how much good I did, she would always refer to me as ‘You’re so-and-so’s sister, aren’t you?’
Um, and I remember in about Year 10 I was like, ‘You know what, I wanna be School Captain’. And I started to have that goal in the back of my mind and really work towards it in terms of having the good behaviour and showing leadership, and at the back of my mind I really wanted to prove my principal wrong. Cos she had this image of my siblings, and I felt like she wiped us all with the same brush and I felt like that wasn’t fair. Very similar to what happens to a lot of people in today’s society. And I remember going to start the campaign to become School Captain, and it was really nice cos the whole year got behind me. And actually most of the school got behind me, which was really fascinating.
And when I was being interviewed, the principal I could tell was asking really difficult questions, almost setting me up at the time so that I could fail [laughs]. And I love that the panel unanimously voted for me and I actually became the School Captain. Against all odds, cos I heard that she had her eye on this other kid whose mother was on the P&C, who you know, fit the demographic of most of the kids in that area at the time, came from what she would call a good home, and I was voted because I was honest and real in my responses.
But I really was a good kid, um, and I love that memory because I went into it thinking, ‘If something is written for you, nobody can take that away from you’, and ‘If something is destined for you, nobody can take that away from you’, and I remember people telling me, ‘You’re not gonna get it’. And, like, at the time if you go through the board of the school, with all the names of all the School Captains and Vice Captains, there was no multicultural name up there. They were predominantly very, you know, standard White Anglo Australian names on that board. And then you go in, and in 1997 you see Ola El-Hussan, bang, right in your face [laughs].
And I love that memory cos against, you know, someone really not wanting me to be School Captain, I still became School Captain. And my work spoke for itself, and people — just having faith in people and that goodness always prevails really did work for me at that time. And I did a damn good job of it, too, so [laughs].
I believe you [laughs], that’s amazing. Oh my god, this is exciting because I was also School Captain.
There you go.
Um, a bit of a sensory question.
So, is there a smell, taste, image, or object that takes you back to your childhood?
Mmm! Yeah. Summertime. Summertime. Cos, um, Miller was very, very, very far away from the beach and not many people in our suburb had cars at the time.
Yeah, so Miller pools, Miller frontyards, Miller backyards [laughs]. Miller neighbour’s yards, and we were very creative with some of the games we came up with.
Can you tell me some?
Um, so a few of them would be — we would find old rubber tyres, and we would put tarp between them, and fill them up with cold water, and there would be like seven tyres in someone’s backyard and we’d just sit in them to stay cool [laughs].
Or we made our own pool out of tarp, like we would go and get some tarp that we had pulled out from somebody’s backyard and we would spend our summers as kids working on putting this pool together. Or a waterslide, like back then nobody could really go to Big W, or I don’t know if that was even around at the time, maybe it was — or Kmart, and buy a 40-50 dollar [pool]. Like, it just wasn’t a priority.
And we made our own stuff, and what I would love about that is cos we all worked on it, we had this sense of ownership. So even if we weren’t home — our family had the biggest backyard so we’d usually have it in our backyard — even if we weren’t home, I love that the other kids felt comfortable enough to know that they could come and use it even when we weren’t home. Cos it was theirs. Like, we all owned that waterslide and we all owned that pool, and I loved, I loved that feeling.
And then end of summer would come and it would get wrecked and it’d be green, and then you would say, ‘OK, till next summer’. So that feeling of summer, and that smell, oh yep. So that’s what I think of.
That’s really, really beautiful. Can you tell me where you live now?
So I, funnily enough, have gone back to Liverpool. I remember there was a period in my life that I couldn’t wait — you know when you’re a young person, you just can’t wait to get out of your neighbourhood? And you dream of escaping, you know, there were periods in my life I’ve thought, ‘I just can’t wait to get out of Miller. Can’t wait to move closer to the City’. And I did, I actually moved closer to the City.
Where did you move?
I moved to Flemington way, so Strathfield. Lived in a nice high-rise building, way, way, away from the west. And we decided to move back a few years ago for a lifestyle change, and we bought a farm.
Oh my god!
That’s so cool. That’s so interesting.
Yeah, very interesting.
Does it feel like home?
Yeah it does, because I’m back in my old — I’m around my old neighbourhood, so. I’m not exactly in Miller anymore, I’m about 20 minutes away from Miller. So we are part of Liverpool, but I just feel like I know those neighbourhoods so it’s really nice. So when I’m driving there I think, ‘Oh yeah, I know this place’. I’m in and out, I don’t need to use my navigator, I know where I’m going, so it’s lovely.
Do you live [near] Bringelly?
Yeah, yeah, out that way. Yep.
Wow that’s so cool. Do you have any animals on your farm?
Yeah, so we’ve got about… actually I don’t know how many animals we have cos I’m not really into the farm life. I support the dream, not necessarily having to be knee deep into the dream [laughs]. But I definitely love it for the kids and my husband, it’s nice to see them enjoying it. I know we’ve got about, I reckon 200 sheep?
Wow, that’s amazing.
Yeah, yeah. My husband specialises in a particular brand of sheep which is called the Awassi
Wow, 200 sheep. Do you guys have to shear them and stuff?
Shear them, yeah. Correction, he shears them not me [laughs].
Okay. You’re just kinda like, ‘Yeah, good job!’ [laughs] ‘Oh, you’re shearing today?’, yep. Um, so yeah my husband does shear them, and we have three dogs, four cockatoos, two cats.
What kind of dogs do you have?
I dunno [laughs].
You just have them.
They’re brown with red eyes, so.
Oh my god, that’s helpful! [laughs] [laughs] My son looks after them, they’re his dogs.
How old are your children?
So I’ve got a 11-year-old, a 14-year-old, and a 4-year-old.
That’s beautiful. All boys?
No I’ve got two older girls — sorry, two girls. The oldest is a girl, the youngest is a girl, and a boy in the middle.
Oh, so the boy is 11?
He’s 11, yep.
And he takes care of the dogs.
Yeah, he’s a real farm guy.
But you know that responsibility will really teach him.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
Um, that’s so cool. What dreams did you have for your future when you were younger?
What I actually have now, I’m really lucky. I feel like I’m one of those people that got to achieve their goals and dreams. I had really wanted to just have a family, be content with where I am in life, I never ever dreamt of my future being a rich or lavish one, or having titles or anything. Just being content with lots of friends and family around me, and I do have that, and I feel very blessed.
When you were younger, did you feel like those dreams are achievable?
Sometimes, and then sometimes not. Anyone who grew up in suburbs like Miller — it does feel like quicksand sometimes. You feel like the suburb, or the way society is set up, is that people living in suburbs like that are not meant to get out of them. And they’re not meant to get out of the systems that sort of govern them.
Um, so when I was watching a lot of young men entering prison, or losing their life, or young women getting married early just to escape home, there were times where you’d sort of lose hope and think, ‘Is that going to be my life?’ But then there were times you held on to that dream and you really worked your butt off to make sure that you get out of it. But in having said that, I think it’s really important to acknowledge that there are a lot of poeple who work very hard to achieve their dreams and they still don’t.
So I don’t think life is about how hard you work, sometimes I think luck does come into it, and a bit of divine intervention. Some people were doing some great stuff when we were growing up, and sadly [the suburb] sucked them in, and that’s not because they didn’t try hard or they didn’t dream hard enough. It’s just chance.
As a social worker, do you feel like sometimes it’s not the destination but it’s the journey?
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
I think that’s so cool.
Yeah it is the journey. Sometimes we never even reach that destination, or we spend our whole life working towards a destination, and so we’re gonna be spending a lot of time on the journey. So it’s really important to make sure that we’re equipped for the journey, so in everyday terms that’s make sure you’re hydrated, you’ve got food for your soul, and you’ve got company so you’re not lonely.
And if I was to translate it into social work terms, that [would be] looking after ourselves mentally and physically, and remembering that there’s gonna be windy parts in this road, and it’s going to be complicated, and there are gonna be humps, and you’re gonna endure hardship. It’s about continuing on that road and not giving up.
What dreams do you have for your future now?
Um, just to be able to really keep doing social work and doing the stuff that I love. Like being dedicated towards justice and fairness, and supporting people during difficult times. To see my children and other young people of their generation in a place where things are better for them. And to continue being supported and to have the love and kindness and friendship of those people that I love, to have them in my life for the future, that would be everything for me.
So, this programme is called Stories of Strength. The big question?
What does strength mean to you?
Strength to me is moving on, continuing, getting up every single day despite the wounds we have. So we all have wounds and sometimes we try and hide them, sometimes we try and ignore them, and sometimes we try and put them out there and bear them. There’s no right way, but strength is getting on with life despite those wounds.
Um, strength is raw, it’s vulnerable, it’s got — it’s knowing the power of your strength, the limitations of our strength. It’s being out there and just putting yourself out there and then still having faith, and not losing faith in whatever that faith may be. Um…
Can you tell me something difficult you’ve had to overcome?
Mmhm. Uh, bullying. So before I moved to Miller, I grew up in an area called Wiley Park. I spent the first few years of my childhood in Wiley Park, and it wasn’t — we were the majority there. So my parents were a Lebanese background, my mother spoke Arabic at home, my siblings and I were of a darker skin, were very Middle Eastern/Mediterranean looking, and that was the norm in Wiley Park. I really didn’t know what racism was, and I didn’t know what being different was. I really didn’t. I felt, you know, when we talk about belonging, I felt that I really belonged in Wiley Park.
Then we moved to Miller, and my mother and our family were, at the time, one of the few Muslim families. I think there was a total of maybe five or six at the time. And my mother was probably the only one that was veiled. So we grew up with a lot of racism, my first fight was somebody calling me something really horrible and then punching me and pulling my hair. And I’m not an aggressive person but I remember thinking, ‘If I don’t fight, I’m gonna be picked on for the rest of my life’ [laughs]. So I had to fight back, and nobody picked on me after that. But they picked on my siblings, they picked on my — I think all of my siblings had been cornered after school at some point where they were physically hit, picked on, bullied.
And mainly because of the way my mum looked. She was called a rag head, a ragdoll, a Lebanese leftover — I still don’t know what that means [laughs]. I really don’t know, I wish somebody could tell me what that means. Um, so I think the racism — and it took a few years to really find our place in Miller and once people got to know us and more diversity moved in to the area, the racism did die down, and that was really — like I could see the shift, and it was somewhere around Year 7 or Year 8.
But for those first few years it was very, very difficult. I have memories of my mother being chased up a main road in Miller called Cartwright, just after — or I think it was during the first Gulf War. Two men were chasing her with a stick, and she had to hover us all under her arms, and the men were swearing and calling us very, very horrible names. But her strength, despite her wounds, is what helped us get through it. So she never, ever tolerated us adopting hatred or giving back the hatred or labels, or being mean.
We always grew up with a lot of kids in our home of different cultures and backgrounds, my mother always took in kids from the local neighbourhood. We would have neighbours that were of an Anglo-Australian/Aboriginal background breaking their fast with us, like sitting on our dinner table with us. So my mother’s example was what helped us all to not harbour hatred and not adopt the hatred that we grew up around. And, you know, my siblings and I all went on to have a diverse circle of dear friends, and one of them even married somebody from an Anglo-Australian background, so she taught us what love, kindness, and peace really means.
How did you turn those bullying experiences into personal strengths?
I think the biggest part was not to own them, cos they weren’t my issue, they really were [the issue of] the people who were generating the hatred and the bullying. It’s their issue, it’s their weakness. So I was able to really distance myself from the racism, and not adopt it and not let it into my heart.
I think also having seen the good in people really helped us growing up, so we would always — we were never one of those people who’d say, ‘Oh, but I’ve been picked on by this particular group, this is why I have these feelings towards a group’. We always judged people on their own merits and the way that they treated us. So that’s how I turn those negative experiences into something that made me a stronger person, and able to be objective and kind. Cos I didn’t wanna be like that.
Beautiful. Um, different way of the interview, but what is the quality you love about yourself?
There are a few things [laughs].
Go, name them.
No self-esteem issues here [laughs]. I would probably say that, despite my wounds, I’m still able to smile and go on with life, and be able to be kind to people and not let what happened yesterday affect me today, or what happened 2 hours ago affect me now. So I’m able to really just move on despite the hardships, and I don’t think that’s for everybody. I think that comes from being the eldest and having to always soldier on and just be the one that makes everybody okay and the giver in the family. But I think that’s the quality I love the most is that I don’t let people’s negativity into my heart.
That’s beautiful. If you had one piece of advice for your younger self, what would it be?
Look after yourself more. Make more time for yourself. So, again, being the eldest and having to take on responsibilities very young and early on, I became the nurturer. Very nurturing, very giving, and being there for everybody, and sometimes I do forget to be there for myself. So my advice would be, ‘Make some time for Ola’. It’s okay, it’s not selfish, it’s not being selfish. And loving yourself is actually prioritising yourself.
Beautiful. Just like the final question, what advice can you share with others who may be going through similar experiences that you have overcome? And how can you help those people recognise their inner strength?
The biggest thing would be to actually ask for help. I think that’s a beautiful quality to have, to say to somebody, ‘You know what, I’m really struggling with something, are you able to help me with this? Are you able to mentor me?’. I struggled academically in school but I was able to reach out to my teachers and say, ‘I really wanna go to Uni but I don’t know if I can based on the marks that I’m getting, are you able to help me?’.
And just the power of asking for help, there are so many amazing people out there who will really give back. So don’t be afraid to ask for help, and be vulnerable. It’s okay to be vulnerable, we’re all vulnerable, and from the vulnerability is where the strength comes from. Allowing ourselves to be bare and to have trust in other people’s goodness is also a very good trait I think to have, to get on with life.
Um, how can you help others recognise their inner strength? Hmm. I think that requires a long answer and I’ll remove my social work hat and just speak as an everyday person. I think with that, it’s okay, you may not figure it out. It might be something that you figure out in your 30s or 40s or 50s, it’s okay if you haven’t figured out what your strength is. It’s okay if you haven’t named it or owned it. It will come with time. So give yourself time.
Definitely. So, that kind of ends the interview. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this, I really appreciate this.
Transcribed by Isabella Teixeira Henriques
Edits by Fay Al-Janabi
Photography by Chris Woe