Muslims Down Under had the privilege to speak to Ali Faraj, a prominent young Muslim leader in Australia, and winner of the Australian Mental Health Prize – Community Hero award. As the General Manager Community of the AFL club, GWS Giants, Ali fosters unity and mental well-being in Western Sydney through diverse initiatives, particularly among youth. Recognised as ‘Case Worker of the Year’ by the Migration Council Australia in 2015, Ali’s collaborations with schools and government bodies emphasise social cohesion. During the COVID-19 lockdown, his leadership emerged through the GWS Giant Hand initiative, aiding over 15,000 vulnerable families and supporting their mental well-being. Ali’s commitment to suicide prevention and mental health is also evident through his role as the Board Chairman of Educaid Australia, a leading Mental Health not-for-profit organisation working with culturally and linguistically diverse and faith communities across Australia. He is an accredited Suicide Intervention trainer and presents often at local and national conferences, including recently being a keynote speaker at the Suicide Prevention Forum in Tasmania. His presence extends to being an adolescent expert featured on national TV on the ABC show ‘Old People’s Home For Teenagers’, embodying his dedication to combating loneliness and depression across generations.
This is an abridged transcript of this podcast.
Click below to listen to the full interview.
Bushra: Peace be upon you, Ali. Thank you so much for joining us today on our podcast. As many of our listeners may know, you’re a prominent Muslim leader and one of the four winners of the 2023 Australian Mental Health Prize. So, firstly, congratulations so much on that achievement.
Ali: No, thank you very much. I’m very humbled and honored to receive the award and also to be on your podcast. But I think the recognition is not only for myself, but it’s for everyone. And I’ve said it before, for everyone who’s been on the journey with me, for every person and I call them warriors, the grassroots warriors. For everyone out there that’s played a part, not only in what we do but in what they do as individuals or as not-for-profit organisations. They continuously give, and give, and never once ask for anything in return. So this is a reward recognising the efforts, the efforts of our Club as well, the GWS Giants. The efforts of everyone that helps the board, the staff, the players, the philanthropic donations from the Giants Foundation and all our partners and all our community organisations that support us, this award and recognition for the work and the support that they’ve given us over the years as well, so which is important.
Bushra: Absolutely. So you know, a lot of the work you do is around mental health advocacy, and this Community Hero award that you’ve received is around your exceptional leadership around mental health as well. So can you share with us some of your work in this space and exactly what you do?
Ali: Yes, so, I guess first and foremost, I also wanna recognise Ziyad Serhan and EducAid Australia for the nomination and the continuous support that they give not only myself but also the club. A few years ago we ran a program in schools around mental health. It was called the Giants Well-being Program, educating young people in schools in Western Sydney, just to become more aware, to have a conversation with them around what is mental health, what are some tools, and what to be aware of when it comes to mental health and for them to become a bit more confident to have conversations with others around them, if they are struggling or if someone around them is struggling. And from that we’ve also supported local organisations with mentoring, supporting young people who are at risk of disengaging from school or in trouble with the police.
At the same time, during COVID, it was alleviating the burden, by delivering meals to people who were sick at that time. And we had great support from the community and great support from the club. We delivered fifteen and a half thousand meals in 12 weeks in the South West and West of Sydney. We supported the fantastic organisation by the name of Addison Road, which delivered hampers throughout the whole process of COVID, we looked after the Southwest and Western Sydney families for them. That’s I guess snippets of what we do here at the club and we’re trying to engage more, and I said it in my talk at UNSW, I became a SafeTalk trainer and facilitator and I found that it was important.
Usually, coming from a Muslim background, we know that sometimes there’s a bit of a taboo there, a bit of a stigma on suicide. So I guess for us it’s how do we make people more alert? Because we’re not immune to it and we’re naive to think that it doesn’t exist in our community.
Bushra: Yes, that’s absolutely true, exactly what you’ve said. So with all of these initiatives that you just shared snippets of, I’m sure you do a lot more on the ground and it’s a lot of hard work that you’re doing. Can you share with us how they’ve actually led to some kind of meaningful impact on our youth? I guess that’s the real purpose of everything that you do in this space. Whether it’s to do with mental health or suicide prevention, increasing awareness, it’s about changing the lives of these individuals, and as we say, you’ve done the SafeTalk training as well, so even one life saved, it’s so impactful, it puts everything into perspective and it gives meaning to everything being done, I think as well. So can you share some insights into the impact your work has been having?
Ali: It’s changing mindset and to be honest with you, sometimes people say to me, oh, what’s your ROI? What’s your return on investment? Everything they do, you know, sometimes when you’re dealing, for example with accounts, you can see a profit and loss statement, but I guess social work or community development work and especially in the space of mental health and depression and suicide it’s all about changing mindset. It’s about people being comfortable enough to have conversations. And I’ll give you a classic example I did a presentation at school recently and I’m going to a class of maybe 10 to 15 kids, and remember it’s optional. It’s not forced upon them. I had a group of close to 30 kids all wanting to do the training around SafeTalk. That’s when you start to see the impact that you’re having because people’s mindsets are starting to change around – I wanna do this. I wanna learn more about it. I want to become more aware of it. I wanna have conversations about it and people are now starting to, and what we’re tending to see is people start to reflect on their own mental health issues and how they can become more resilient or what tools to use.
The most important thing for us is how we create that awareness for them, then to seek support from organisations. I’m not saying here that I’m an expert in mental health. I’m not here to say that I’m a practitioner, psychologist, or anything like that. They are the experts. If I’m creating awareness where people are comfortable then to seek support then for me I’m doing something that is good and that’s the most important thing. What I don’t want is people to think I don’t really suffer from this or I suffer from that because especially for our community, you know, or I’ve got my faith.
Our faith is strong. Don’t get me wrong, and as you know, Allah Subhanahu wa Ta A’ala (Allah the Glorious and Exalted) is always there we can turn to Allah SubhanAllah Ta’ala all the time. If you need to seek professional support, then you need to seek professional support and we shouldn’t hinder the fact or stop the process of seeking support.
Sometimes you just need someone to chat with and in essence, that’s why I, with gratitude to Wesam Charkawi from Sydney Youth Connect, I did my counseling course in partnership with them. I went to his course. I trained and I got my Diploma of Counseling just recently just so I can equip myself with a bit more knowledge around the space on just listening because counseling is all about active listening. And that’s probably, the hardest thing for me was to actually actively listen and not have more input or tell someone about my own stories. So, then learning more about the space gives you an opportunity to actually support people more on the grassroots and you gotta understand sometimes when you’re in community and you’re on the grassroots, people are open to discuss things with you. You need to know what the pathways are for them to take when they are struggling with certain issues or certain topics and as I said to you, I’m a SafeTALK facilitator, I’m not someone who is going to help you through our journey through suicide or coming out of suicide from the back end. So there are professionals that can do that, so if I can put you in touch with that professional, then there’s a conduit there that you feel safe with and also you trust that they can put you on to the right person.
And there are fantastic people in our community who are doing things, like PsychCentral and Hanan Dover and there are plenty of others that are in that space where they can support Muslim kids and Muslim communities and also the wider community to understand mental health. And to be honest with you, the life skills is one where we try to dedicate a lot of time and teaching kids. It’s as simple as goal setting, how to be resilient, communication skills, and also career aspirations. All these sorts of life skills that I can implement, and for some it’s gonna make their life and their journey a bit easier. And I’m not here to say I’m a miracle worker. You can’t save every single person. No. I’ve gone to some places where I think to myself did they really listen or have they got a message?
And my main message to everyone that I present to is to take one thing, don’t take the whole thing. Take one thing that you can probably practice to make it better, to listen or that can help you in whatever struggle you’re going through. And don’t forget, look, we’re all young once as well. We went through our own struggles back then.
We probably didn’t have the terminology of what anxiety was and depression and things like that. But we went through them and I said at a talk once at Western Sydney Uni, I think I was in front of 1000 kids, they were all year 12 students finishing up their program and I said put your hand up if you’re feeling what I feel right now when you get up in front of a group and you get them bubbles and butterflies in your stomach and everything, more than half the room put their hands up because we all feel that still to now, but we’ve used the tools that we’ve gathered throughout our life to then combat that or cope with their butterflies and then have the confidence to get through whatever you need to do and that’s what we try to tell young people about. It’s what can they do and how can they seek professional support. Let’s go and do it. But also it’s the holistic approach of educating family. It’s educating mum and dad who sometimes have grown up in an environment where mental health wasn’t talked about and suicide was not real. And then breaking the assumptions. You know, that if you talk about suicide, then people will start thinking about suicide and then they might take their own life. If you go through the research of LivingWorks Australia, the research says if it’s not gonna make someone do it or think about it, or if you talk about it, which is important.
Bushra: Yes, so I’ve been one of those researchers working with LivingWorks, I’ve been working with LivingWorks for about 6-7 years in the past, and with Professor Maree Toombs, who was also another prize winner as well. So, yeah, there’s some amazing work and research being done in that space. As a suicide intervention trainer, you obviously know and understand the nuances of suicide intervention and how difficult it can be to, sometimes just ask the question, are you doing OK? Are you thinking of suicide? And as you’ve been talking, it is kind of a taboo and untouched subject, especially in our older generations within our communities.
So, as a Muslim, but also someone who’s had this training and has those skills now and working actively within our communities, keeping our communities suicide safe, LivingWorks, they use the term suicide first aid, which as you’ve said is just keeping that person safe for now, and then making sure then they’ve got that support they need for follow up and further psychological or mental health support, whatever it is that they need. For someone who hasn’t had that kind of training or hasn’t gone through those courses what kind of practical advice can you give to our listeners on how they can keep each other safe in our communities? What kind of actions they can take practically if they do come across another person, whether it is their own children, other youth, friends, family, or whoever it is, to keep them safe and to give them the support they need?
Ali: To be honest with you, I encourage everyone to do the course. Recently we did it at a local mosque and we had all the teachers there, male and female, myself and another lady, we delivered the program there. And for me, I had never asked a question before the course, I would never even think of asking the question. And then after doing the course, I said to myself, why haven’t I asked the question, and to be honest with you, more people need to know how to read the signs and also as we call them in LivingWorks, we need to ‘accept the invitations’. Once we accept the invitations, then we can start to listen and we’ll get through the framework. But it’s knowing who’s there to support these young people, which is important, and for anyone out there who has someone that’s struggling, know where your networks are, if it’s Lifeline or if it’s a Muslim hotline or if it’s a local counselor at the school.
You can build a network for your child – if it’s a psychologist that you can talk to. If it’s a safe house, know where they are. I didn’t know what a safe house was before researching, but it’s also about educating yourself more about tools that you can use with your own child, or with your community, or with your extended family, whatever it is. But it’s not about just sitting there saying, oh, we got a problem, don’t do anything about it and we don’t educate ourselves about it. And to be honest, it’s actually sparked a bit more in me. So I did this course as well, obviously, the suicide first aid ASSIST, I did the two-day program. I will do the five-day training as well to become a suicide training facilitator, which is important. It’s important for me. Why? Because once you’re out in community, you’ve got the networks for you. Then to relate information. So it’s important that anyone that has a community organisation that deals with people for them to become equipped with the knowledge, but also equipped with the tools and the frameworks that allows them to push people towards the right people.
And the more we can encourage young people to take up a career in health or in psychology, whatever it is that can support the social ills of society, the better it is for us. Because we need, like we always say, we need our young people from all walks of life, and this is not only for the Muslim community. We need kids in the First Nations community as well, who become practitioners in health, and psychology, and mental health, and in medicine as well. We want these young kids to aspire to do something that will not only be the same as everyone else in your family. They can be different and don’t be shy to be different. Aim to be something that no one in your family has done before and don’t be shy to say that you want to do it and that’s the key to our messaging. Our messaging is not only about, just doing what you gotta do and getting through your life. No, no. But if you want to be different, do it. But you might be challenged.
And the challenge sometimes might come from the people that actually are with you right now, they’re the ones that might say no, don’t worry about that, don’t ever think of becoming that, why do you wanna do that for? But if you’ve got a passion for it, then do it. If you know that it can help our community and our wider society. And you, for example, as an individual, wanna become an active citizen of your community, then do it. That’s the key.
But the key message is knowledge of where you can go and for me, I’ve got the networks. So, for example, I’ll reach out straight away and say hey, I’ve got a young kid and I’ve got a family that’s reached out to me and said to me, hey, we’ve got this young kid. He’s suffering from this or he’s got this sort of issue. Where can I take him or where can she go to? Who can she see, is that a comfortable and trustworthy environment for them to feel safe? Yes, and parents to reach out. And I know some people will say we work from 8:00 till 4:00 or 8:00 to 9:00. Our phones don’t turn off. I’ve got a friend of mine. A colleague, this Indian who’s been working for the police for a long period of time. His phone doesn’t turn off. If we need to support a young person. We’ll support him. But it’s about knowing who you can go to, and I think the key for us is, as well, I know educators are working on it and maybe yourself as well, how do we modify content for specific communities. I know Doctor Maree Toombs has done it for First Nations. How do we make a Muslim version of, for example, the SafeTalk? Or the ASSIST program that can be content-ready for them to feel like it’s relevant? They get the concept, they understand it, and from an Islamic perspective where does suicide sit? From a first aid perspective, we do physical first aid, CPR, doctor ABCD, and all that sort of stuff. But why haven’t we educated ourselves to become suicide first aid trainers? How come we’re not becoming alert on someone who’s maybe thinking of taking their own life? Can we read the invitations? Can we read the signs? The more we can send to and know about programs to send people to, the better it is for everyone.
Bushra: Yeah, and I absolutely agree with you 100% and would love to come up with like a Muslim version of ASSIST. As you said, it’s so much of a gap at this point in time. And often I think we don’t realise in the general community how much of an issue it is becoming, especially after COVID. With the research that I’ve been doing, it’s just alarming to see the rates of current suicide that’s taking place. And often we don’t hear about it, you know, on the news or mainstream media because it is as you would know categorised as a car accident or something else. And we don’t know how much of it is actually happening in the background. And just like you said, we pay attention, a lot of attention to our physical illnesses, but we often don’t pay that same kind of attention to our mental health and well-being. Especially, I think within our eastern communities. It’s not seen as something important or that needs attention or something we need to look after and nurture.
I think as a Muslim, in the religion of Islam, we have been blessed with many fundamental aspects of our faith that if we do follow it helps us maintain good mental health. We get an opportunity to disconnect from the world around us, from our stresses and challenges, work, whatever it is, that might be troubling us, five times a day when we connect with our Creator and know our God, we believe is a living God, so when we can connect with God through prayer, we can speak to God, to share our problems, seek guidance and get that peace of mind. And you know it’s not an easy journey to achieve that, even for a Muslim as well. So, as a Muslim yourself working in this mental health space and suicide prevention space, knowing exactly what’s happening on the ground with our youth especially, how has your faith empowered you to do the work that you do and supported you through this journey because even as someone who is keeping our community safe from suicide and working in the mental health space, it takes a big toll on yourself, like all other individuals who are actually doing this work as well. How do you keep yourself in good mental health and continue the work that you’re doing?
Ali: Yeah, to be honest with you and I’ll say this, and I’m grateful and I say Alhamdolillah (All praise belongs to Allah) all the time. One should always be clear his intention or her intention. And the intention is purely that we do (things) for goodness and also we do for the sake of God. But also there’s no monetary factor to why I want to do it or why I want to become educated. And the intention to always be clear in that. Also if you’re doing it for recognition from people, you’re gonna be out of this industry in the next one hour. You know what I mean? Because to be honest with you people, if you do it in that way, you’re gonna be upset because someone might not say thank you and someone might not say, mate, that’s fantastic, you just helped me or you supported me in that. Some people don’t like that. And I’ll say to a lot of young people who are trying to do community development work or social work, like I said know what your intention is.
Clear your heart before doing something good and especially from the Islamic perspective we don’t know that if you do an action of good, if it’s for someone, then you’re going to reap that reward from that person, you’re not going to reap it from God. Same reason why we pray. If you’re praying to impress someone. Allah is going to go and tell you to go and get your rewards from that person, we know that. But the most important thing is that we should always go back to the fundamentals of Islam around gratitude.
Allah Subhanahu wa Ta A’ala has given us another day and we believe that every time we go to sleep we’re in the matter of death. And then Allah subhanAllaha-tala, when we wake up, we make the prayer….Allah has given us another chance, put us back in our body to rise. And then when we rise, we thank Allah Subhanahu wa Ta A’ala for giving us another day. But the most important thing is, that we assess everything in our life, if we set goals, we should set goals for your spiritual selves because as a Sheikh once told us, he said every individual has two hearts, and when we get taught this, there’s a physical heart that we do the physical exercise for. So, for example, I’m on a bit of a challenge now, it’s on my mental health, it’s that I drop weight because sometimes, as you might know, this yourself, but sometimes you can emotionally eat because you know why, I’ve had enough of everything that day and I’m just gonna eat whatever I want to eat. And then you gain weight. And then now the physical heart needs a bit of exercise, needs you to start running, start walking and you give that attention to your physical body.
But the individual, especially a Muslim as well, the individual needs to give his spiritual self some work. And that spiritual self, it’s your five prayers. It’s your connection with your local mosque. It’s your connection where you sit down and you only ponder on the greatness of Allah Subhanahu wa Ta A’ala. You look at the trees. You look at the oceans and you give yourself that spiritual time, you disconnect from everything that’s in front of you. And when you disconnect from everything that’s in front of you, then you realise that I’m just only one being in this whole world, and at the end of the day for me as an individual, this is not my ending. It’s not my be-all, end-all, this world. We are all travelers. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said that we’re just travelers. We’re just meeting like a person on a horse who sits down and rests underneath a tree and gets back up. It’s at that moment of rest, that is like the life of a person in this world.
So, we need to always understand that that’s our purpose. Our purpose is to give back to people. The heart and the spiritual heart that you have will only receive when you give. It’s not when you’re taking, it’s an outward arrow. Once you give people, when you give, and you give, then your own heart will be content. Remember the most, most important thing is never look for the recognition from a person, but rather know that Allah Subhanahu wa Ta A’ala is the one who will give you that reward for that thing that you do or that action that you do, or that support that you do.
And I want to make this clear to the wider public. We’ve been given values and we’ve been given characteristics of our beloved Prophet peace be upon him, that will serve the whole of humanity, not only Muslims. Your neighbour, who’s non-Muslim doesn’t mean that you don’t service them or help them. We support everyone. We need to be active citizens in our community, for the wider community, for all faiths, for all backgrounds, for all people, and that’s why we get involved in things like this because we don’t wanna see more people taking their own lives. We don’t want depression. We don’t wanna see people suffering from anxiety. We don’t wanna see more people suffering from mental health issues. We want people to be happy. See, that’s why when we wake up, we smile. That’s why there is the blessing and smiling at someone.
That’s why everything that we do, everything that we do should be in a sense of gratitude that I’ve been given this ability to do it. And the more that I can do, the better it is for me and my hereafter, which is important. And self-care, in a situation where you know that for example, this gonna take a toll on you especially mentally, and emotionally as well. Then you need to debrief with someone. You need to have someone that you can actually go and have a chat with. And that’s one thing I’ve done throughout my whole life. I’ve got people in my network that I can go back and have a chat and say, you know, have a debrief and then get whatever you need to get off your chest with that person, and just to have that support. The same ways I use to support someone else, you need the support. Because at the end of the day, what you don’t want to do is burn yourself out. Then you can’t support anyone, which is important, and people need to know that. Because sometimes, growing up, I had a lot of passion. You gotta be smart on how you can control that passion and control it in a way that you’re not actually burning yourself out and there’s going to be times where you need to say no. Because sometimes you do need that self-time, and you need that self-care, but you gotta maximise the whole day. If you’re not gonna maximise the whole day, you’re gonna be stuck for time. Which is important.
Bushra: Yeah, absolutely. And yeah, you’ve just explained it so well, so many good things that you’ve mentioned, being grateful and keeping that connection with your community as well. I belong to the Ahmadiyya Muslim community and my Caliph, His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad (may Allah be his Helper), he often talks about this, especially with youth, maintaining that connection and how it’s so important to maintain that good mental health. And yes, if you do have mental health disorders that require further medical attention, go and seek the help that you need. And it’s necessary that you do that. But for your day-to-day mental health and well-being, to maintain that connection with your communities, with your mosque, and with the people around you, and as someone who’s working in this space, you can kind of understand how Islam actually nurtures that sort of social connection with the way it’s done. You know, we’re asked to go to the Mosque five times a day and maintain that connection by observing our prayers.
So, there are so many different things where I think that our faith can and does empower us to keep that good mental health and well-being. But it’s a constant journey. As you said, it’s not easy. It’s so important to look after yourself as well. At the end, again, thank you so much for your time today. I’ve really loved talking to you and discussing this topic because it is something I’m very passionate about as well in my day-to-day work and research. Before we end, is there anything else you’d like to share with our listeners today while we’ve got you here on the podcast?
Ali: No. Look, just be happy and don’t be shy to connect with people. To be honest with you, battle through assumptions. And lend a hand to anyone you can lend a hand to. It doesn’t matter how small. And if it’s a donation that you wanna give, don’t be shy. If it’s even $0.50. If it’s a helping hand where you can go and support by taking someone somewhere or picking up groceries for someone – do it.
It doesn’t matter how small the action is. Don’t, and like I said, don’t be looking for accolades and social media posts or claps or likes or whatever it is. Know your purpose, and know your why and get it done. Don’t sit back and say I can’t give enough, so I’m not gonna do nothing. Maybe it’s better than nothing. Which is most important.
Bushra: Absolutely. Thank you so much for joining us, Ali. We really do appreciate all the work that you’re already doing in the communities and thank you also for joining us in the podcast today. Thank you so much. It was lovely to speak to you today.