Samah Hadid: from Bankstown to the UN
Samah Hadid is a human rights advocate and Australia’s United Nations Youth Representative for 2010. She opens up to Miran Hosny about breaking stereotypes, the importance of grassroots organisations, and her role with the UN.
In a past life, she was a drummer. As a child, she was an evil stepmother. For years her face has loomed over the railway lines of her home suburb, often sporting an exaggeratedly thick graffiti-scrawled monobrow.
Posing for that ‘Faces of Bankstown’ mural many years ago is 22-year-old Samah Hadid’s biggest regret. So much so that the “natural poser” is by now quite happy to humorously describe the work of graffiti-ists as “a form of expression” – monobrow included.
But the human rights advocate from Western Sydney who claims to “bring the bogan” with her sense of style – tracksuit pants, a good coat and signature tattered, brown, cross-shoulder side bag, no brands, thank you – has come a long way since that particular picture. The girl whose passion for centre stage began with a kindergarten production of Snow White now has an international role to play. She is Australia’s United Nations Youth Representative for 2010, and she’s headed for the bright lights of New York.
For the self-dubbed Alpha girl, it all started at the age of 15 with a decision to volunteer at her local community NGO, the Muslim Women’s Association (MWA). Mentored by community leaders, she undertook leadership training, participated in community development, and worked with other volunteers to found women’s magazine Reflections.
“I felt as though my strength and capacity was definitely invested in by my own community’s organisations,” she reflects on that early start.
It was at MWA that her mentor Maha Abdo taught Samah the life lesson to which she still passionately adheres.
“That I have a voice and I shouldn’t be stifled – to just contribute as much as I can – that was my first real lesson. Not to be held back by the stereotypes surrounding my particular faith community or ethnic community. That I have a role to contribute and that my voice is important.”
Her hated first job as a telemarketer gave her plenty of scope for using her voice, but the domineering conversationalist knew that advocacy was her field. She became a member of the National Youth Roundtable, joined Bankstown Council’s Youth Advisory Committee, and took on a degree in government and international relations at University of Sydney.
It doesn’t stop there for the walking résumé. Samah was selected to participate at the 2020 Summit and then went on to complete a fellowship at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2009. Currently completing a Masters at the University of New South Wales in Human Rights Law and Policy, whilst also serving as a commissioner with the Community Relations Commission and co-chairing the Multicultural Youth Network, Samah’s list of involvements is exhaustive and she admits, exhausting.
So it is surprising that when asked what she is most proud of, Samah claims to have no contending moment yet. Her usually smiling, chatty voice takes on the solemn but passionate tone she uses when serious analysis is underway.
“Ask me that question in five years time,” she says finally. “I would have actually put into practice everything I’ve learnt, all the training I’ve undergone.”
Her drive to pursue knowledge is boundless, but her trigger is more than just a permanent caffeine high. The support of her family plays a large part in her academic pursuits.
“The best advice I have received was from my parents: seeking an education. Trying hard to achieve the best academic results I can. It has been my stepping stone for all my other achievements.”
So is there anything Samah Hadid cannot do?
“I can’t cook to save my life! Not even Masterchef could help me.”
Not even instant noodles?
“I could do that. Yes… Maybe?” Her infectious laugh rings clear.
Any other faults?
“I’ve got road rage. You don’t want me driving next to you on the road.”
But driving aside, nothing infuriates Samah more than talent that is wasted.
“What makes me angry is people who don’t try; who really have skills and abilities but are not inclined to put that into good use.”
It is understandable then, that the quality to bring a smile to her face is courage. People who go against the tide invite her admiration and it is such individuals who inspire the Youth Representative to pursue her advocacy.
“There is a Pakistani woman, Hina Jilani, who is one of the most respected female human rights activists and she has really risen above the patriarchal aspect of the community and pursued human rights causes.”
“And then someone like my friend, Merindah Donnelly, who is an indigenous woman from NSW – she is really just so passionate about bettering the conditions of her community; pursuing the best for her Aboriginal community. Those are the two women I highly admire.”
Keeping these two women in mind helped her stay resilient during the initial, difficult stages of her UN fellowship at the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“I was pigeonholed and polarised as a certain type of person that I wasn’t. And I managed to change their perceptions about who I am and what I stand for.”
Samah’s motivation for her work means she refuses to classify it as a conventional job.
“My goal and causes are not restricted to a career path. It is a way of life for me: activism is a lifestyle,” she declares.
Said lifestyle has had Samah touring Australia state by state to consult with the nation’s youth on the problems they face. It’s all part of arriving at the issues that need examining when the world’s youth delegates convene in New York in September to discuss and resolve them.
One of her more intriguing consultancies took place in NSW’s Juniperina Juvenile Centre, where one young girl’s enthusiasm for Samah’s cause had her volunteer to write to Prime Minister of the time, Kevin Rudd, and request sponsorship for Samah’s youth project.
And while she travels across Australia with her very heavy luggage (she likes to overcompensate for her low maintenance appearance, she jokes) and her never failing passion to make a difference and represent the unheard voices of the diverse Australian youth, Samah Hadid is just another young Aussie gal at heart. She might seem like a living trophy case, but all she wants is to party with an amusingly moody Bob Dylan.
Oh, and she’s damn keen to be reincarnated as a drummer.
“I’d rock it!”