Ali Najem; International Sports Star and Hero in Cronulla
Ten years after the Cronulla riots Ali Najem - a Muslim Australian ranked among the world’s top beach runners - has saved at least five lives as a member of the Shire’s Wanda Surf Lifesaving Club, but he thanks the club for saving his life.
Najem, 20, admitted he didn’t know what to expect when Jock Campbell, the former strength and conditioning coach for the Australian cricket team who became his running coach, encouraged him to join Wanda four years ago.
He wondered how his religious beliefs would be accepted as a result of any lingering hangover from the riot a decade ago when tensions between Muslims and locals flared.
However, Najem said he was pleased to eventually learn he was only ever judged by Campbell – and others at the club – for his worth as a person.
“When I joined I was kind of worried about all that stuff,” he said. “I was never worried about violence, more what people thought . . . but Jock never seemed to worry about it and that was good . . . but I found out he only realised I was a Muslim about four months into surf club.
“Once he realised I was more relaxed, but the fact it was something that hadn’t concerned him showed [religion] wasn’t an issue. Not one person was negative - all of them opened their arms – and to have that response, that it didn’t matter – made me want to work hard so if anyone did have a bad image of Islam they’d see I was leading by example and that the surf club means a lot to me.
“The older ironmen helped me with swimming training, board training, whatever I needed they’d get out there with me. Even the nippers’ parents encouraged me. You pay your fees to be a lifesaver but you get so much out of it.”
Najem, who added the silver medal for the 2km race along the sand at last year’s World Surf Life Saving Championships in France to the treasure trove he’s won at nationals and state, is described by Campbell as an “inspiration” for more than his world-class athletic prowess.
“He couldn’t swim properly and only scraped through his bronze medallion to become a member,” said Campbell, who runs Jock Athletic. “He’s done four or five rescues while off duty and one of them was particularly tough.
“It was 7pm, there was only four of us on the beach and we’d just completed a running set when we saw three kids caught in a rip.There was no surfers around and we realised the kids – brothers aged between 10-12 – were in trouble.
“Two of us sprinted to the clubhouse to get boards while Ali and a 16-year-old girl in our squad swam out and kept the kids afloat. Their mother, dressed in her burqa, was trying to get to the children even though it was obvious she couldn’t swim, so we told her to stay. It was tough and it received rescue of the month for Sydney Life Saving Branch.
“Another time Ali was coming back from a 1km rep and I said ‘well done mate, that’s 3mins 50′ and he kept running! He bolted 200m because he saw a girl in trouble and he pushed her up until the life guard - he was doing another rescue – could get to them.”
However, Najem - who gives his medals that he describes as “dust collectors” away to young kids to inspire them - says he owes Wanda, along with Campbell and Rob Saba, who gave him a job at the So Fresh Juice Bar, if not his life, then the life he enjoys.
“Jock saved me from being in a position where many of my friends are, a few have passed away from bad instances,” he said. “One mate was shot dead at the top of my street. Jock has saved my life, this surf club has saved my life . . . it really has.
Najem said he wasn’t fazed by the prospect of a rally – legal or otherwise – to note the 10-year “memorial” of the riot, adding the people who attend don’t represent the warmth and the acceptance he associates with Cronulla.
“I’m not fussed,” he said. “We’ll train at the sandhills in the morning, we’ll enjoy our day and then I’ll be at work juicing away. They’ll probably come past the juice bar and I’ll serve them their juice or smoothie.
“Funny thing is 90 per cent of them, if not 100 per cent, aren’t from Cronulla. They’re entitled to their opinion, but life is too short. I guess they don’t look at it like we do.”
Source: Sydney Morning Herald