Muslim community leader and GP named Australian Father of the Year

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Muslim community leader Dr Jamal Rifi has been named Australian Father of the Year.

He is an influential voice of the Muslim community and a beloved GP in western Sydney, and now Dr Jamal Rifi is also Australia's top dad.

The father-of-five has been named this year's Australian Father of the Year.

Dr Rifi received the good news on his 56th birthday and said he could not think of “a better surprise.”

Listen: Lydia Feng speaks with Jamal Rifi.

No stranger to awards, Dr Rifi has won The Australian newspaper’s Australian of the Year, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Award and the Pride of Australia Fair Go Medal, but said this accolade was "the greatest honour of them all”.

For nearly 20 years, Dr Rifi has been a prominent figure uniting and fortifying Australian Muslims.

He first caught the media’s attention with his stance against the small but violent gang activity in the Lebanese community during the mid 1990s and was a defiant voice during the Cronulla riots in 2005.

Recently, he has publicly denounced the barbarity of the so-called Islamic State. It was a decision that wasn’t easy.

"I did question my role as a father last year when me and my family received death threats for my public stand against the so-called Islamic State," he said.

“I felt that I did put my family at risk but now as much as then, I knew as a matter of fact I wasn’t putting their lives at risk; I was protecting them so they will not be seen in any shape or form as condoning such a brutal ideology.”

From father to father, he has helped other families whose children have been in danger of being radicalised.

"Unfortunately, some vulnerable people have been under the influence of the so-called Islamic State propaganda,” he said. “[But] We were able to network within our community to talk some common sense into them by telling them that their action of even thinking of joining such an ideology is wrong in every aspect of life." 

When he’s not under the media spotlight, Dr Rifi is busy treating patients at his medical clinic in Belmore, and even does the occasional home call.

Tough beginnings

As a young boy, Dr Rifi vowed to become a doctor after losing his younger brother from an anaphylactic reaction to a penicillin shot.

Growing up in the middle of Lebanon's civil war, he was forced to pursue his studies in medicine in Romania.

He later moved to Australia to marry his wife Lana and completed his medical degree, graduating from the University of Sydney.

Despite his tireless work as a doctor and community leader, family remains the centre of Dr Rifi’s focus.

"The nucleus of any society is family and fathers have a vital role to play," he said.

More than just a father, he is an inspiration to his children.

"He’s achieved a lot but you know family is always number one for him. Everything he has done has been for the community...but also for us growing up so we don’t have to face these barriers," his eldest son, Faisal, said.

"He’s always taught us that you should never be scared and just to go for it. Don’t fear these people because what he’s done is helping the younger generation,” his youngest son, Jihad, said.

Community work

Friend, patient and Labor MP Jihad Dib has known Dr Rifi for years. They conquered the Kokada Track together alongside politicians Scott Morrison and Jason Clare in 2009.

"Jamal is a community activist… but he’s a person who’s got a real social conscious and he’s a real powerhouse within the community," he said. "In the absence of a father, a lot of people go and speak to Jamal and he’s there standing with them."

"Everything he has done has been for the community...but also for us growing up so we don’t have to face these barriers."

Determined to ameliorate the relationship between Muslim and non-Muslim communities, Dr Rifi has been the driving force behind many initiatives to build harmony in Australian society.

He is the founding member of Australian Muslim Doctors against Violence and organised the Muslims 4 Australia barbecue attended by thousands in the community last year.

As president of the Lakemba Sports Club - affectionately known as the “Lakembaroos” - he’s used sport as a social tool to channel physical energy into positive activities. He developed the idea to train young people from southwest Sydney to be pool guards, and young Muslim men and women to become Cronulla surf lifesavers.

“It gives them the acumen where they can use whatever they learn on the sporting field and bring it into their day-to-day life,” he said.

Watch the full story tonight on SBS World News at 6.30

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