Souria Youssef and her husband Raouf immigrated to Australia from Egypt in 1978 with the aim of giving their children a better life. Fast forward more than 30 years and they have not only achieved that goal but have enriched the lives of countless others along the way. Souria, 72, is this year’s recipient of the Seniors Promotion of Multiculturalism Award, which recognises her extraordinary volunteer contribution to the Egyptian and broader communities in Melbourne’s south east.
A secretary in Egypt, Souria took a job as a tram conductor, and Raouf became a tram driver, when they arrived in Melbourne as the shift work meant they could take it in turns to look after their young children. ‘We didn’t know anyone here, so we started from zero, even taught ourselves English,’ Souria says. It was 14 years later, when Souria left work to look after her newborn, that her passion for volunteering began.
A passion begins
Initially, she began delivering Meals on Wheels for the City of Kingston and joined the Community Visitors Scheme and helped with community transport. ‘Some older people in our groups don’t have cars or access to transport, so I take them to doctor and hospital appointments, even social outings or a simple coffee and chat,’ Souria says.
An excellent, and prolific cook, Souria also volunteered at an Italian seniors club in Clayton for five years, providing home-cooked Italian meals for between 110 to 120 people. She made and sold food to raise funds to help establish the Coptic Village Hostel, an aged care facility in Hallam with many Arabic-speaking residents. She regularly visits Coptic Village residents, arranging traditional meals, and also visits nearby Homewood Nursing Home to check up on their Arabic-speaking residents. ‘Social visits allow us to keep in touch with isolated elderly in our community, many reminisce on their childhood memories from the smell of traditional Egyptian cooking,’ she says. ‘I enjoy serving people. They love and desire a traditional home cooked meal.’
Founding the El Hokama Senior Citizens Group
After recognising that many in the community were feeling isolated from their language and culture, Souria founded the El Hokama Senior Citizens Group, which gets together every Saturday for a meal, socialising, cultural events and education sessions. ‘We now have up to 120 people, each week and I prepare meals from home,’ Souria says. Raouf frequently finds Souria in the kitchen cooking at one o’clock in the morning. ‘I like it. It doesn’t matter how long it takes because I don’t sleep well,’ she says. ‘My personality is to help people. I enjoy this. ‘Every month we celebrate the birthdays of those in the group, no matter whose. I try to mix pink and blue with the cake, so nobody complains, I’m very sensitive to these things,’ she laughs.
A vital bridge for the community
‘Every three weeks we try to have an outing. It is a mixed group; there are Arabic people, German people are coming, Syrian and Iraqi and Sudanese. It is open to anyone to come.’ As a volunteer with the Southern Migrant Refugee Centre’s (SMRC) Community Visitors Scheme, Souria visits older, isolated Arabic speakers who are unable to attend the social club. She regularly catches up with one couple where the husband is blind and at home caring for his wife who has dementia.
SMRC nominated Souria for the Seniors award, describing her as ‘a vital bridge for her community’ in a submission that stated, in part: ‘Through Souria’s years of service to her community, she has become, informally, like a spokesperson and advocate for isolated Egyptian seniors….she is also very supportive of other multicultural groups in the wider community.’
Souria says she was humbled to receive the Seniors Award, but also embarrassed, ‘because what I am doing is between me and God and you have no idea how much satisfaction I get from it…The people appreciate it. I could not do all my work without the support of other volunteers and those around me.’