Samir Mohtadi, aka Sheikh Abu Hamza, tries to keep a straight face as he makes another joke.
His smile is infectious and it’s easy to see why the Sheikh, who helps run one of Melbourne’s larger mosques, is a driving force in his community – injecting life and laughter through his hard work.
Such is Abu Hamza’s nature. A man who juggles the serious messages he delivers to his congregation with an endearing playfulness that makes him popular with the younger members of his community.
MyCentre, the mosque, childcare and community centre Sheikh Abu Hamza helps run in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, has been a beacon of hope for many years and even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic this year.
Known as a man determined to keep the kids in his community off the streets and out of trouble, the respected Sheikh got with the times very quickly when COVID-19 began causing disruption.
He was instrumental in bolstering the voices of health professionals and concerned community members while doing his best to speak out against those that denied the virus existed at all.
And, after Al-Taqwa College was hit by a COVID-19 outbreak, MyCentre organised sessions at the school with students, parents and teachers to check in on how they were coping and offering any help they needed to make it through a challenging time.
During the height of Victoria’s COVID crisis, the Sheikh was vital in setting up a testing facility at MyCentre, offering support to the community and convincing people to get tested.
“It was only there for a day but the point was to show everyone that we stood by the facts and wanted everyone to follow the rules,” the Sheikh said.
MyCentre put together a volunteer team to go door-to-door to educate people on where and how to get tested. They also distributed vital information in several languages to the local community.
On top of that, an emergency food relief operation swung into action, to help people who suddenly found themselves struggling.
The hard work paid off, and as Victoria entered a third “double doughnut” week of zero new cases and zero deaths in November, Sheikh Abu Hamza sat in the MyCentre Restaurant looking optimistic and energetic.
He talked about the initiatives he helped set up – the special episode of the MyVoice video podcast interviewing a prominent Muslim doctor, the partnerships with other organisations, the average of eight sermons per Friday to accommodate for the long line of worshippers, the swift responses to suicidal community members and mental health checkups – and we wonder how he remains awake, let alone optimistic.
Sheikh Abu Hamza and the MyCentre team might be known for preventing some kids from protesting, but they should be known for so much more.
As his guests, he looks upon us with severity as our lunch is brought to our table of four, fit to feed twice that number.
“You’re expected to finish every bite!” he says.
The laughter comes quickly this time.