Marrying a husband in another country
Souad, a Lebanese Muslim of Syrian descent, grew up in the suburbs of Tripoli in Lebanon. Her early years were spent in the companionship and security of her extended family who lived close together in the same neighbourhood. At the age of 15 years Souad became engaged to Ramzi, who had migrated to Australia in the early 1960s. Their engagement began with the two sets of parents formally agreeing to the marriage at a small gathering and celebration. Souad spent the year of her engagement preparing for her new life as a bride in Australia.
The couple married by proxy in a religious ceremony in Lebanon. Ramzi’s brother stood as his proxy and signed the marriage agreement, which included a set dowry to be paid to Souad’s family. These rituals took place before she travelled to Australia for it would have been unacceptable for her to join her husband unless they were married.
The Journey to Australia
On 11 May 1967, Souad’s year of waiting ended as she boarded the ship and began the long sea journey to her new home. She travelled with a group of nine people from Lebanon, all of whom shared her sense of shock and dread as every day they read of the tensions and incidents leading to the Seven Day War in the Middle East. There had been no hint of the war when she left Lebanon. On her arrival in Sydney on 5 June 1967, war broke out in her homeland.
Souad and Ramzi began their married life without any outward celebration. The war in Lebanon had cast a shadow over their new life. Ramzi drove her to her new home in Lakemba which, they shared with her brother and sister in law. Their first meal together was a quiet family affair.
Wearing the hijab
In the uncertain days following her marriage and departure to Australia, Souad made a momentous decision. She gave up wearing the hijab, the traditional modest dress of Islam. Early in her teens Souad had vowed to wear the hijab as a sign of her lifelong commitment to Islam.
“I thought I would fit in better if I wore what Australians wore so I did not wear the hijab for a number of years. But I never felt really comfortable. In the mid to late 1970s, a lot of Lebanese Moslems came to Australia because of the war in Lebanon, and many of the Moslem women wore the hijab so I decided to wear it again.”
Early years in Australia
Souad and Ramzi had written letters to each other and exchanged photographs but they did not really know each other until Souad arrived in Sydney. Ramzi took two weeks leave from work so they could get to know each other and to introduce his wife to her new life and friends in Sydney. They spent their time visiting other families from Tripoli living in Lakemba. They also made many excursions around greater Sydney and their local area.
It was on a visit to Roselands shopping centre that Souad saw an escalator for the first time and it took all the courage she had to mount the moving staircase. Although she was unfamiliar with the technology in Sydney and often daunted by it, she was surprised by the contrast between Sydney and her hometown. She recalls that in comparison to Tripoli, which was modern and cosmopolitan, Sydney in 1967 was humdrum. Her first impression of her new home was that it was a bit of a backwater – so much quieter and less developed than Tripoli.
When her husband returned to work, Souad found herself left to her own devices. Confined to the house and speaking little English, she soon grew lonely. Two years later her first child was born at Canterbury Hospital and it was during her time there that Souad felt the necessity of communicating in English.
“When I gave birth to my first child I was at first put in the same room as one of my relatives. I could not speak a word of English and so I relied on her to communicate with the doctors and nurses. After a couple of days we were put in separate rooms and every time I needed something I had to write it down on a piece of paper, the nurse would take it to my relative who interpreted. It was a terrible situation.”
Settling into Australia
Determined to learn the language, Souad spent whatever time she could watching television with an English/Arabic dictionary by her side, to take note of new words, and made friends with a friendly neighbour with whom she could practise conversing in English. However, it wasn’t until she had three children that she felt ready to move out of the confines of her home. Ramzi was reluctant at first, but she convinced him to let her go to work.
She worked for a year in factories around Peakhurst and Kingsgrove building her confidence in using English and moving about the community. However, when she became pregnant with her fourth child, she decided to give up work until her children grew up.
Lakemba in the 1960s and ’70s
In her early years in Lakemba, Souad missed being able to buy the ingredients so necessary for her way of cooking. The packages of nuts, spices and grains that she had brought with her from Lebanon lasted her a long time but there were no halal butcher shops in the area. She recalls that in the absence of fresh coriander she had to use dried coriander mixed with fresh parsley.
In the early 1960s Ramzi had helped raise funds to build the mosque at Lakemba. Souad and her family now worship at this mosque.
The mid 1970s saw large numbers of Lebanese people migrating to Australia. The prolonged civil war in Lebanon led the Australian Government to open up immigration to the people of Lebanon and large numbers of Lebanese Moslems gravitated to Lakemba because of the mosque. A group of Lebanese residents established the Tripoli el Mena Association.
Ramzi and Souad have been very active in the Association first as volunteers and now Souad is working part-time for the organisation.
Return to Lebanon
Souad had lived in Belmore for more than 10 years but she was still homesick. She wanted to go back to Lebanon and live among her family and community. In 1982, Souad and Ramzi took their children to Lebanon and began the task of reuniting with their family. The 19 months that the family spent in Tripoli were happy times for Souad but her children could not settle at school. It was with a heavy heart that the couple made the decision to return to Australia. They felt that their children would have a better life here.
A family living in two cultures
Souad and her family are no different to other Australians in many ways. They have similar kinds of achievements and life experiences. However, because they cherish their Muslim faith and traditions, they often find it a challenge to weave the two cultures in their lives. Accepting the ‘Australian’ expectations of the children has severely tested their traditional convictions. When her eldest daughter enrolled at Wollongong University, Souad initially had deep reservations about her daughter travelling such a long distance each day. Eventually she compromised and is now proud that her daughter holds an Economics degree and works as a manager with a banking corporation.
In a similar encounter between Lebanese Muslim and Australian cultures, her youngest son, a talented sportsman, was keen to participate in “after match” celebrations with his team mates. This presented a dilemma as going to the club is not usually within the boundaries of traditional Muslim behaviour. Souad and Ramzi decided that their son could join his team mates at the club as long as he did not drink alcohol or gamble, as these activities are forbidden to Muslims.
It has been very important for Souad that her children marry within the Muslim community. Souad has personally ensured that this would happen and all her children have married within the Muslim faith:
“For me, if a person is committed to their faith I think it is important to marry someone who shares that faith.”
Souad has taken on the traditional Lebanese mother’s role of guiding her children in their marriages. When the family felt that it was time for her eldest son to marry, Souad did what every mother in Lebanon does to help her son find a suitable match. She spent each week arranging visits to families with marriageable daughters within the community. Each Saturday, she would accompany her son to visit these girls and their families. Soon he found the right girl.
Souad feels her dedication to her children and their spiritual and social well-being has been rewarded with a growing number of precious grandchildren.
Life in the Canterbury community
As her children grew up and left home, Souad has taken on a bigger role in the community. She has worked as a volunteer with the local Arabic community on projects such as the Canterbury City Council-RTA Street Safe Project, the Sydney Water Customer Council and with the local police. Her work teaching scripture has allowed her to share her heritage and faith with fellow Muslims and Australians. Her most recent role as a volunteer at the Olympic Village in 2000 fills her with pride and a sense of the value of her identity as an Arabic Australian.
Souad’s achievements and those of her children are a source of great pride to her and her family. Her eldest daughter and two sons have been to university and work in their chosen professions. Her youngest daughter has a prospering business in the area.
After 35 years in Belmore, Souad is at peace with her Australian home. She is intensely involved with her local area and its diverse community.