Clean Cut, Clean Start
15 February 2016 at 11:08 am
Nasir Sobhani has become known for offering free haircuts to homeless and disadvantaged people in Melbourne’s west, earning him the title of The Streets Barber. Sobhani is this week’s Changemaker. He spoke to Xavier Smerdon.
His formative years were spent moving with his parents to various countries before his life became consumed by a debilitating drug addiction.
His love of hairdressing helped him turn his life around, a passion he uses to help bring joy to the life of others.
On his skateboard and with a bag of hairdressing equipment, he rides through the streets of Melbourne, predominantly Footscray in Melbourne’s west, offering his services for free to those who need them most.
As this week’s Changemaker he shares his journey from a drug addict to an agent of social change and reveals his plans for the future, including his wish to start his own Not for Profit.
Tell me a bit about your background. How did you get into hairdressing?
I was born and raised in Japan, however my parents are both from Iraq. They left pre-revolution to go to the Philippines and they met there funnily enough before they moved to Japan. The reason for constantly travelling and being nomadic parents was because as Baha’is they were encouraged to surrender their services in any way shape or form and adapt to any culture around the world. That’s why they moved to Japan and they settled there for about 25 years and my brothers and I were all born there. I lived there for six years and then we moved to Canada.
In Canada I grew up until I was 19 years old and then I moved to Vanuatu to work with kids and that’s when I decided I wanted to be a teacher. I almost became a teacher, I came back to Canada and studied for three and a half years at university, but during that time I suffered with addiction a lot. It started off smoking weed and then other hallucinogens before I got into cocaine and opiates. It got really, really, really bad and I had to drop out of university and go to a rehab centre.
Right before the rehab centre my family sat me down and they were trying to get me to reevaluate my life. I had to do many interventions but during one of the conversations there was a very encouraging and loving moment where my family sat me down and said “Nas, we think you have a passion and an eye and a potential talent for cutting hair. Why don’t you think about doing that?”
Throughout the years during highschool I would bring my friends around and they would ask for a beard trim or a quick haircut and it became a thing that I was known for. I never had any real training I just had the eye for it. For many years my friends and family told me to get into hairdressing but I always said I wanted to do something more respected. I was really insecure about how people would view me so I didn’t want to be just another hairdresser. I don’t know why, but after four or five years of my family and friends telling me, when my family sat down collectively and they talked to me about this it really struck me and I thought “yeah, maybe it’s a reality, maybe I can actually do it”. Since then I took it seriously and then when I went to rehab it reconfirmed how much I actually wanted to do it. My confirmation was in rehab.
When did you come to Melbourne?
Three and a half years ago. I went to rehab in Canada, sobered up and spent a few months in Vancouver to make sure I wasn’t going to relapse. Eventually it shifted and I felt confident enough to be on my own again. My oldest brother was living in Melbourne doing his Masters at the time, he’s now doing his PhD, and he just kept raving about this place. He told me I would love it and the people were cool here, so I applied for a visa, came down with a one way ticket and started a life here.
Why did you decide to work in Footscray?
I don’t just go to Footscray, I go all around the city, but I predominantly target Footscray because it’s real. There isn’t much of a show or a squatting culture in Footscray. Everyone really is down in the dumps, but they’re all down in the dumps collectively. If I’m in the city some of the homeless people will be there trying to raise some money and I feel like it’s more of a job for them there, so I don’t want to be negatively affecting the brief period that they might make a few dollars. Footscray’s just authentic and it’s my favourite part of the city because it’s so real. Nobody really has anyone to prove to, everyone is so raw. Every suburb in Melbourne seems to have a facade or a look that the people need to fulfil, but Footscray is just full of refugees for the most part who are bringing their culture with them and not caring about anything else.
How did you decide to start offering free haircuts for homeless people?
I mentioned that my family is from the Baha’i faith and that’s something that I started practicing more as I became sober. I began to follow the idea of rendering services in any way to help humanity, not necessarily in the name of god, but just to help out to be compassionate. It also emphasises using your talents in whatever shape or form you can to allow these service opportunities to take place. These service opportunities were open to whatever way I could come up with of helping someone else.
To me the Baha’i faith really confirmed that I could be a barber and I could be good at it. It didn’t matter what I was doing, if I was respected in society, who cares. If I could use my talents to help someone else out, then that’s accepted in god’s eyes. That’s the most important thing to me rather than trying to impress someone on Facebook.
Cutting hair for me was about finding out how I could make people feel good. It just seemed so clear to me. People would come into my barber shop when I was learning how to cut hair and these guys would be so mundane and boring in the beginning. While I was cutting their hair we would have a chat and by the end they would be a completely different person, not just in looks but in personality. They’re joking and smiling and it made me think that if a person who can afford to have a haircut feels this good afterwards, imagine how much someone who isn’t feeling clean, happy or good about themselves is going to feel after being groomed by a barber.
I used to look in the mirror and I hated myself. I would just bawl my eyes out when I was a drug addict. I would say “I hate myself, what am I doing with my life, I’m so ugly, I’m so horrible”. I definitely find that a lot of my homeless clients tend to be experiencing the same thing. Their photos show that. After they’ve had a haircut they’re smiling and happy but before that they just look like a trainwreck. They really are on completely different wavelengths before and after the haircut.
Do you have a lot of regular clients now?
I’ve got regular clients who look and wait for me now. It’s not really easy to get in touch with some of my clients, some of them have phones but some of them don’t. Also, I don’t actually single out homeless people specifically. I look for people who seem to be down on their luck, having a rough time or just need some companionship. I’ve opened it up to that because I never want to dictate to someone that they don’t deserve a free haircut because they don’t fit the stereotype of a homeless person or just because they’ve found some accommodation.
What is the best part of the whole experience for you?
Their smile and their confidence, man. There’s nothing better than the feeling of knowing someone else feels good because of something you did. It’s not the fact that they’re happy because of me, I think that’s pretty conceited. Seeing them being happy around me is the real joy. It’s so humbling to know that something I’m getting equal, if not greater joy out of, is affecting others in a positive way. There’s nothing more that I want to do in this life than cut hair essentially. If I get to do something that I love, I get to have fun, I get to learn and I get to make someone look beautiful while they’re getting joy out of it, that’s a win-win for sure.
I loved it man to be honest. In the beginning I was so excited that people were showing me love but then it got overwhelming as hell. Forget the fact that people were noticing me on the streets, I loved that, especially when they recognised me when I was hanging out with my friends. That was all fun and games. The overwhelming part was the amazing amount of encouragement and support I’ve been receiving from people locally, nationally and internationally. People wanted to to do interviews with me and speak to me about different things all the time and it got to a point where it was so overwhelming where I didn’t know what to do. I just let all the requests pile up and I had to start making a real effort to respond to people as much as possible. I had to hire a scribe who could answer interview questions for me because I just had too many requests from people.
I wouldn’t say it’s been bittersweet, but it’s been different. It’s cool to be recognised for trying to help people rather than just being known for a stupid crime or a song. It still freaks me out when people come up to me and say I’m an inspiration to them. No I’m not. I’m just a barber and I do what I do. It’s definitely fun when people come up and show me so much love though. It’s inspiring and humbling and that’s why I love it.
How far do you want to take this idea?
I’m starting up a Not for Profit. I’ve got a team of lawyers on it and my dream is to have a Not for Profit which is going to be able to fund stuff. I want to travel the world doing this, that’s my life’s dream. Each city and country that I go to I want to set up a team of street barbers. One day a week they can go out and offer haircuts to people that need it. I want to have an international team of street barbers, that’s my dream. When you feel clean hopefully you can act clean and that’s why I want to start a Not for Profit called Clean Cut Clean Start. There’s a lot that comes with just feeling clean.
How important would you say it is to treat homeless or disadvantaged people as equal members of society?
It’s the most important thing in the world. The moment you don’t start treating people equally you’re projecting yourself higher than them and that’s feeding your ego. The second you feed your ego you’re screwed because then you feel like you are better than other people and you can’t come back from that.
That’s why I pray every morning because I want to humble myself before something that’s greater than me just to keep me grounded. Everyone has a story, everyone has the right to a second chance. Shit, I’ve had 50 second chances, so who am I to say that I’m better than someone when I was taking coke of the floor of McDonald’s bathrooms? We’ve all got a story and we’re all imperfect beings. It doesn’t matter if you make one mistake or 1,000 mistakes the key word is mistakes and we all make them. You’ve just got to be grounded because the best way to exalt humility amongst humanity is by knowing that we’re all equal.