Tuesday, 22 June 2021
Chaaya, Mr Youssef
Michelle Rowland (Greenway, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Communications) Share this | Link to this | Hansard source
In my contribution to the grievance debate this evening, I will be honest in saying that I am not precisely sure of the subject of my grievance. I could be grieving for a great man—a devout and loving husband, father, brother, uncle and grandfather—whose recent death has touched literally thousands of people in Australia and around the world, but I do not think that is the accurate description of my grievance. I think instead I grieve for those of us left behind by the passing of Mr Youssef Chaaya on the cold and stormy night of 8 June, two weeks ago. I knew Youssef Chaaya as Uncle Joe. Others knew him as Abu Elie, as Baba or as Jiddo. What fortune was mine to have married into the Chaaya family and to come to know this saint, for that is what we all know he is today.
I firstly want to acknowledge members of the Chaaya family and friends in Australia, Lebanon and Canada who are tuning into these proceedings, some of them in real time. I'm so pleased to have my very long-time friend the member for Oxley here, who knows the Chaaya family very well.
From the outset I thank on behalf of the Chaaya family the staff at Auburn Hospital and St Joseph's rehab in Auburn. In the words of Uncle Joe's daughter Juliet, they were above humane and always made him feel so loved, respected and honoured. To the paramedics who tended to him so quickly and to the staff of Westmead Hospital who made his final day and his farewell so respectful, I thank you.
I will also draw in my remarks this evening on the words of Claud Chaaya, his brother Michel and their niece Mia Chaaya, whose words following his funeral were so sincere and heartfelt that I want them to be recorded in the prosperity of this parliament.
Youssef Chaaya was an incredible man. There are only two Chaaya family branches in Australia: his and my father-in-law's, Sam Chaaya's, who came to Australia earlier than his brother. I must say, it was somewhat daunting more than 20 years ago marrying into this very respected Lebanese family. I would often go to Uncle Joe's house, and, even though it was a place where I didn't hear much English being spoken and I was quite young, the hospitality that was shown to me by that man by his family was something that I will never forget. I always felt that I was in a very safe place with Youssef Chaaya and his family. How to describe him? A loyal husband to Amira, a loving father, a caring brother and a true friend—these titles would not do the man justice. He had a different perspective on life that was moulded through decades of personal experience. He had a unique knowledge of what mattered and what didn't. This wisdom is reserved only for the few.
I will briefly summarise some key points in his life to help form a better picture of his true character and the experiences that helped shape him into the person that we came to know and love. He was born in a village in Lebanon in 1933 that had fewer than 50 people in it. At the age of seven, he was taught how to beg for food. He got his first pair of shoes when he was 10 years old, but he didn't wear them until he was 11 years old because he didn't want to damage or dirty them. He would take them out, polish them and put them back in the box. He was the eldest of seven children. He worked tirelessly, including by begging, to support and feed his parents and siblings. He found some of his brothers their first jobs. He learnt how to cut hair and became a barber. He married Amira, and his reception dinner comprised himself, his new bride and their driver at a restaurant. They'd never been to a restaurant before, and, because they didn't know any better, they didn't realise that you are actually served the food and the crockery in the restaurant and washed their own dishes afterwards.
They had many kids, several of whom died and six of whom are still alive. He lived through several wars, including World War II and the Lebanese Civil War, and he still kept his family fed. He moved countries at the age of 58, so he started again at 58. He gave learning a new language a go at an old age, and he was great at it. One of his sons became a priest. Father Sami, shout-out to you in Lebanon. He actually never had any enemies or anyone who didn't like him. He prayed, he had an amazing spiritual life and he thanked God for his blessings every day, and he did all of this with a year 3 education and not a single asset to his name.
His funeral was a testament to his deep and wide respect, with mourners who filled the church of St John the Beloved, officiated by the largest number of priests I've ever seen at a lay person's funeral, not to mention the three hours of condolences received by the family in the days before the funeral. His son, Michel Chaaya, tried to find what sort of word he would use to describe this man. Would it be a poet, a barber, a cook? The answer is 'ready'. This man was always ready. He was ready to go. He was ready to eat. He was ready to laugh. He was ready to serve. He was ready to greet. And I'm sure he was ready to die as well. He just loved being Youssef Chaaya, and I always had the sense he was just happy being alive and around people.
He was the biggest people person I ever knew. He loved it when people would taste the produce straight from his garden. I remember him pulling cucumbers from the cucumber vines and wanting you to snap them to see how crispy they were. If he had to bring a gift, he would bring a pot full of oregano, or zaatar as we say in Lebanese, to your home. I'm sure it can't possibly be the case, but I actually never saw him angry or display any malice towards anyone. He was the most gentle of men.
He loved playing cards. He loved playing backgammon. I remember asking once very early on why every family function needed to end with a card table coming out and him playing cards. These were Lebanese card games that I never really learned to play. Someone described it to me as: 'This is what you did in Lebanon. This was the only form of entertainment, especially during the civil war.' He was kidnapped during the civil war, and his wife, Amira, actually had to go and negotiate his release.
I do also remember when my second child, Aurelia, was born. She was born just near Christmas, so we really didn't have many visitors, which was fine, but of course Amira and Uncle Joe came to see us in hospital. It was one of those cases where you learn new things about people whom you've known for a long time, and with Claud's translation. I was there, holding this newborn baby, and Uncle Joe and Aunty Amira were telling me about their children who had died—about the number of miscarriages, stillbirths or children who'd died in their early years. And I remember being astounded. Not only does this man still believe in God—I mean, it would have been the end of me—he believes in God even more. It was unfathomable, the level of this man's faith.
So I say to the Chaaya family, to my cousins and, in particular, to my father-in-law, Sam, how lucky we were to have had him. As Mia Chaaya said: 'You touched the lives of hundreds of people and you will touch many more even from your place beyond this world, so saying you touched lives would mean little. You didn't touch our lives, because we can still feel you. You have imprinted your love and life on our souls. All of the angels, saints and souls in Heaven are lucky to now be in your presence, and it is unfortunate for us that we had to pay the price, but I think we would have been selfish to stop that.'
I say to the Chaaya family: how lucky are we to have had this man for such a short time, and the influence that he has had on us all. I think it was really a testament to the love in which he's held by not only his family but the wider community—the respect that was shown in his passing.
Lastly, I just say to my husband, Michael: I know he was like a second dad to you. In fact, at our wedding the father of the groom, Milton, was there. We had two speeches: one from Sam Chaaya and one from Uncle Joe, who gave it as poetry in Lebanese—the most beautiful poetry you can think of. These memories will, of course, survive well into our lifetimes.
Again, may you rest in peace, Youssef Chaaya. It was a privilege to have had you even for the briefest of periods.