A Life of Service
1 February 2016 at 9:27 am
A recipient of an Australia Day 2016 honour, Diana Abdel-Rahman has spent most of her life volunteering for the community. Abdel-Rahman is this week’s Changemaker. She spoke to Xavier Smerdon.
Diana Abdel-Rahman OAM was born in Queensland to Lebanese immigrants before moving to Canberra almost 30 years ago.
A passionate community volunteer, she is the woman behind the Canberra Multicultural Community Forum (CMCF) and Australian Muslim Voice.
On Australia Day this year she was recognised for her dedicated service when she was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia.
In this week’s Changemaker column she talks about filling a void in community service and the importance of empowering the next generation of volunteers.
Am I correct in saying you founded both the CMCF and Australian Muslim Voice?
Yes, both organisations. I’m currently the Chair of the CMCF, which is Canberra’s peak multicultural body. We represent approximately 123 multicultural organisations and we also run some programs for the multicultural community. I’m also President of Australian Muslim Voice.
What was your reason for starting both of these organisations?
With regard to Australian Muslim Voice, there was a need. Often there are Muslim organisations and their role is more theological, purely religious outlook in life. We decided there needed to be an organisation that looked also at the cultural and artistic side of things. Every year, for example, in the month of Ramadan we run a radio station out of my family home. We also have a festival at the end of the month of Ramadan that we run here in the ACT and in the past we have run concerts featuring music from the Muslim world. We get artists who play styles of music with origins in different parts of the Muslim world. We haven’t done that for a little while because we’re struggling funding wise. To run anything like that you need good funding sources, so even for our radio program we struggle a little bit.
With CMCF, there had been an organisation in the ACT prior to it that, like many organisations, simply couldn’t operate any more. They couldn’t provide the services they used to any more so we decided to fill the void. It’s been 10 years now since we decided to form the CMCF and we officially incorporated it on Harmony Day, 21 March.
How did it feel to receive an OAM on Australia Day?
It’s been amazing, because of course, even though I’ve set up the CMCF and I’m currently the President of Australian Muslim Voice, in those 25 years I’ve helped other organisations. I run many, many projects and programs for the community. So many that I’ve even lost count. You name it and I’ve probably been the instigator because I’m a person with ideas and I love to get them out there and get them done. So to get the recognition after 25 years is a real bonus. It’s a wonderful feeling. It’s a great acknowledgement and of course it just pulls everything together in such a way that helps me refocus for the future.
How much of your time would you say is spent volunteering?
Too much. I work in the federal public service as my full time job and I’m often taking calls at work or spending my lunch breaks at meetings or answering emails. When I come home from work I’m also on my laptop, making phone calls and taking part in meetings. I would spend many, many hours every week dedicated to community work.
That’s why dedicated this award win to my daughter. I’m a single mother so on top of everything else I was raising my daughter and at times going to university. I think I fit within that saying ‘if you want something done give it to a busy person’. I went to university as a mature age student while raising my daughter, doing different community work and working full time. I never in my life said I was bored, which is very important to me. I’ve had a lot to keep me going. My daughter had to persevere through those years when I was working particularly hard. That’s why I wanted her to share in this award with me.
Why do you continue to dedicate so much time to community work?
I think I’ve always been the person that was willing to pick up where others had left things, so that meant I was always doing a lot of work. Now there are a lot of younger people coming up who are willing to learn about things and want to work hard, so I’m hoping I can hand a few of my responsibilities over and sit back and enjoy things a bit more. It would be good to have some spare time, whatever that is.
What frustrates you about the present and makes you hopeful for the future?
What frustrates me is the inability at times for governments to really ensure that when they make decisions they actually consult the people that are going to be affected the most. I’m a public servant so I know how the government works and I know there are policy decision makers, research officers and government departments that go out and do the research, and mostly they do a great job, but at times I feel that the very high level decision makers need to remember that they need to go to grass root level and really consult the community. They need to ensure that their policies are tweaked to account for the people on the ground level. I feel that if we could get that right then we could get much better outcomes.
We need to go back to really strong multicultural policies. We just simply don’t have dedicated areas in the government departments that are putting up good multicultural policies. It’s left to divergent little groups to plod along and make our society cohesive. We’re a nation that invites people from all walks of life to come and be part of this wonderful country, but for us to get along with each other doesn’t happen because someone said it should. We actually need good policy to back that up. I feel there is a gap between those that want to call Australia home and those that are already here and feel that it’s their country and they don’t want anyone to come in and change it. We need to listen to both of those groups and consider what they’re saying and want they want to make sure that we move forward.
For the future, I think it’s important that we train the younger generations. It’s easy for an organisation like mine to be sitting at the top level doing all of the work, but we need to make sure that we leave a legacy behind. We also need to develop well trained people that can step up to the mark when needed. This is the push that I’m doing and I want other organisations to do the same. CMCF are setting up a mentoring program whereby we can impart some of our wisdom about the community, how to be a good volunteer, how to get the most out of the time you put into a task, onto the younger generations. We need to do this to ensure that the future of volunteering is bright.
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