SYDNEY, Australia – A team of Muslim lifeguards — including a woman dressed in a modest "burquini" — began patrols this week on a Sydney beach that was the scene of frenzied race riots between Australia's Caucasian majority and its Middle Eastern minority in late 2005.
The violence erupted in the popular beachside neighborhood of Cronulla, when around 5,000 mostly male, Caucasian youths launched an alcohol-fueled rampage against anyone who looked Middle Eastern. They were spurred by rumors that a group of Lebanese-Australians had attacked two white lifeguards.
The Cronulla riot touched off two nights of retaliatory attacks by carloads of Middle Eastern youths, shocking this city of 4 million that had prided itself on being a successful multiracial melting pot.
Earlier this week, the national lifeguard association, Surf Life Saving Australia, certified a team of Muslim guards in a bid to overcome the stereotype of the bronzed, blond rescuer and promote racial unity.
With more than 15,000 miles of coastline, Australia has an extensive network of paid and volunteer lifeguards — easily identifiable in their regulation yellow and red uniforms.
The Muslim lifesavers were recruited from a sporting club in the Lebanese-dominated suburb of Lakemba, in southwestern Sydney, with help from a $624,000 federal grant.
"We were prejudiced ourselves because we always believed that Surf Life Saving, as an organization, was a closed shop, mainly for fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blond-haired Aussies," Rifi said.
Similarly, Rifi said the presence of 17 volunteer lifesavers from Sydney's Lebanese community had also helped break down the perception that Muslims are disengaged from mainstream Australian society.
"Through this project, we changed our view and they changed their views, and now there is a lot of friendship," he said.
Surf Life Saving Chief Executive Brett Williamson agreed, saying the new recruits and others in the pipeline would be "the best advocates for surf safety and beach harmony in their communities."
Mecca Laa Laa, a 20-year-old Muslim student, said the program had changed her life.
Because her religious convictions bar her from wearing the swimsuit typically worn by Australia's female lifeguards, Laa Laa made her debut in a specially designed two-piece suit called a "burquini" — a play on the burqa, the head-to-toe robe worn by some Muslim women.
Laa Laa said the burquini — a pair of red Lycra leggings worn under a loose-fitting yellow tunic — had allowed her to swim freely for the first time in her life.
"The burquini has allowed me to participate in activities at a level I had never previously expected," she said.
Muslims make up around 2 percent of Australia's 20 million population, and until now, very few have become qualified lifeguards, which involves a grueling selection process and 100 hours of intense physical training.
Rifi said he hopes the presence of Lebanese-Australian lifeguards on Cronulla beaches will ensure that such race-based riots are never repeated.
"It has helped, and I reckon the racist element in the society, they had their glory, their one day of glory in December 2005 and they will never have that day of glory again," he said.