Honours 2018: The businessman who arrived in someone else's shoes

For the past 40 years, Joseph Assaf has been championing multiculturalism, showcasing the stories of migrants and how they’ve helped build Australia.

This profile is part of a series recognising those named in the 2018 Queen's Birthday Honours.

Not many people can boast about having journeyed a mile in someone else’s shoes.

But Joseph Assaf did just that when he travelled almost 9,000 miles from Lebanon to Australia in another man's footwear.

In 1967, Mr Assaf was about to make the journey from Lebanon to Australia, holding a new pair of shoes at the airport as part of an Australian biosecurity requirement.

He removed his old ones at the airport and wore the new pair before checking in, only to discover his flight was cancelled.

He returned the next day wearing the same pair, prompting the ire of the authorities who told him he needed another new pair in order to board the flight.

“I was devastated,” Mr Assaf told SBS News. “All my dreams were shattered.”

But an officer at the airport took pity on him and found him a new pair, double his size.

“He gave them to me and said 'Put them on and get on board immediately’. And I did,” Mr Assaf said.

“I landed in Australia in someone else's shoes.”

Joseph Assaf's passport photo
Source: Supplied

That became the title of his subsequent autobiography – and the ethos of a successful business venture he’d soon launch in Australia.

'A suitcase full of dreams'

At 25 years old, Mr Assaf was studying for a Bachelor of Arts degree while working nights in a factory.

Seven years later, in 1977, he established what is believed to be the world’s first communications and PR agency for the multicultural community, based in Sydney. 

The agency helped bridge communication barriers between corporations, governments and ethnic communities.

“When I first arrived I wanted to tell people what can I do and I did not have the linguistic ability," Mr Assaf said.

“I used to say, ‘I wish they can understand what I can do,’ because of that I thought I’d better start something where I can help people, not to assimilate but to integrate, and to learn first of all how to communicate.

“We need to understand other people’s cultures and after that we have to put ourselves in their shoes.”

Mr Assaf (first from left).
Source: Supplied

Mr Assaf is also the founder of the Ethnic Business Awards which will celebrate its 30th anniversary this year.

The awards recognise the achievements of migrant entrepreneurs in Australia.

He says the aim has always been to create role models out of migrants for other migrants to emulate.

“Most migrants arrive on these shores of Australia with an empty suitcase but I often say the empty suitcase is full of dreams.”

It’s for these reasons Mr Assaf has been bestowed a Queen’s birthday honour by being appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia. 

It adds to his Member of the Order of Australia which he received in 2010.

But Mr Assaf is reluctant to take full credit for the latest achievement.

Joseph Assaf and his wife.
Source: Supplied

“The award is every migrant’s awards,” he says.

“I could not have been in this business if it wasn’t for the migrants who achieved so many things.

“I thought the best thing is to tell their story: a positive story without arguing with anyone and trying to prove that migrants are good for the country.

“The award that I received is an award for migration, because without migration Australia wouldn’t have been where Australia is.” 

Published 11 June 2018 at 4:12am, updated 11 June 2018 at 4:22am
By Rashida Yosufzai