The Egyptian couple providing a social outlet for lonely senior citizens in Melbourne

Like so many migrants before them, Raouf and Souria Youssef came to Australia to give their children a better future.

Landing in Melbourne from Egypt in 1978, the pair both got work on the trams, working opposite shifts so they could care for their three boys.

But working during different times of the day to one another was hard. The pair was new to Australia and still teaching themselves English.

Souria also often felt lonely.

“It is very hard when we leave our country and come to a new one,” she told SBS News.

“I didn’t have family here, just my husband and my children.”

Souria with old photos of the social club’s meetings and outings

SBS News/John Podolski

This experience – and her outgoing personality – prompted a lifelong volunteer mission to help other older Egyptian expats and other migrants.

She and her husband founded the El Hokama senior citizens social club at their local Coptic Orthodox church in Melbourne’s south-east, bringing together elderly Arabic speakers, many of whom are isolated due to language and cultural differences. 

Now, for their service to the Church in Victoria, the pair have been awarded Order of Australia medals.

“I feel very proud of this [award] but to be honest I am very shy to talk about it,” Souria said.

“When I did the work, I didn’t think I would be sitting in front of the camera talking about it.

“I like to work with people. This is my personality. I like to deal with people.”

The seniors group began as a way for members to socialise, eat together, and hold various cultural and educational events. The club, which now boasts some 120 members, meets every Saturday.

Souria also often takes people from the local Arabic community to doctor’s appointments and helps translate the information for them.

As such, she’s been nicknamed faragallah, which she says translates to “God’s relief”.

“It means I give them freedom on that day I take them out,” she said.

COVID-19 changes

Prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Raouf drove a bus to pick people up and Souria cooked traditional Egyptian food for everyone to eat. Every now and then, the group would also go on outings.

“The people, they miss our national food. My wife, she does the best for them, she cooks for them,” Raouf said.

“We take them out to Sydney, we take them to Lakes Entrance, Geelong, Ballarat – everywhere.”

Souria also believes the traditional food helps some of the group members living with dementia, saying their faces often light up when they smell it.

“I found it is good … for their memories,” she said.

Souria in her home kitchen

Souria in her home kitchen

SBS News/John Podolski

While the weekly in-person meetings have been put on hold due to COVID-19, the group now meets virtually over Zoom.

The socially-distant meetings even include exercise classes to make sure those who are not leaving their homes are still moving about.

“We start the Zoom at eleven o’clock,” Raouf said. “Everyone is very happy… everybody loves to see each other.”

“I can’t really explain how much they are happy about it,” Soria adds.

Souria and Raouf have continued the group's meetings during the pandemic over Zoom

Souria and Raouf have continued the group’s meetings during the pandemic over Zoom

SBS News/John Podolski

Raouf said he is “very happy” to be a part of what he and his wife have created, and there are no plans to stop any time soon.

“The older people [in the group], they can’t move, they can’t go anywhere, so we help them,” he said.

“One day, me and my wife will be the same and I believe if you do something good it comes back to you.”

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