Geoffrey Lee & Bilel Jideh

© The Sydney Morning Herald, Good Weekend
May 6, 2006

two of us
Geoffrey Lee & Bilel Jideh
Interviews by Greg Bearup

I had this vague idea I wanted to go to uni, but I didn’t know how I could achieve it. Geoff showed me the way.”

Geoffrey Lee, 55, was 12 when he came to Australia, where he worked in his uncle’s fruit shop while he put himself through school. Today he owns a grocery shop and a café in Ermington, in Sydney’s west.

We always had three or four kids helping out in the café shop after school; washing dishes; peeling potatoes, sweeping the floors and refilling the fridges. They were mainly the kids of poor migrant families, looking for a bit of pocket money – some parents would come and ask me to give their kid a job, just to keep them on the straight and narrow.

Bill started working for us in about fifth class. Because of my own experiences, I always encouraged the kids to study and to read, read, read. My own education was hampered by my poor English skills and I didn’t want to see that happen to other kids. When things were quiet, or after work, I would sit down with them and go through their homework. Some of the kids might not be too good at school, and I would try and teach them how to run a business. I tried to encourage them to do what they were good at.

When Bill first started working for me, to be honest I didn’t think there was much hope for him. He was a nice kid from a good Muslim family, but his communication skills were very poor: he spoke only Arabic at home and I couldn’t get him to read anything. The best hope for him, I thought, would be an apprenticeship as a panel beater.

I have two daughters and both of them are very bright and both went to a selective high school. One of them topped the state in two subjects and went straight into medicine at university. Bill came to me one day, when he was in year 9, and said he wanted to become a doctor, like my daughter. I said I would help, but that it was probably too late for him to become a doctor. He brought in his reports: second last in every subject, and he was at one of the worst schools in Sydney. He asked me how much he needed to read each day- was one page enough? I told him my daughter read many books each week.

He was a bit shocked, but he was so keen. I got him to read everything from newspapers and magazines to novels. He began reading one page a day, then three, then ten, then 150. He would do this every day, without fail.

He had a book and would write down all the words he didn’t know, and then learn them to improve his vocabulary. At night we would sit in the shop and go through his homework. On the weekends the shop was closed, but I would have to sort through the tomatoes to refrigerate the ripe ones. Bill would sit with his books; it was easier to study there because there were so many people living in his small house.

The school he went to was so bad, he had to virtually teach himself. It was a disgrace really. But his determination was amazing. At the end of year 9 he won a prize for most improved. At the end of year 10 he came first in a couple of subjects. In years 11 and 12 he came first in every single subject and was dux of the school. I was so proud of him and thought he might get a [university entry score] of 85. When he rang me and told me he got 96, I couldn’t believe it, it was like a miracle. I cried.

He just missed out on medicine, but he did a medical science degree and then honours; he had a high distinction average but even that was not enough to get into post-graduate medicine the first time. But he never gave up. He did some tutoring at the university, travelled overseas to Lebanon and then came back to drive a water truck while waiting to get into medicine. It was a Neverfail water truck and I used to think, ‘That’s appropriate for Bill because he’s the never-fail man.

Bilel Jideh, 23, a son of Lebanese immigrants, worked in Lee’s café while at school, and is now studying medicine.

It was a very eccentric café, an old-style Aussie café serving hamburgers with beetroot. There were lots of young wog kids like me working behind the counter and mopping the floors, and this lovely Chinese bloke who just wanted everyone to study.

When I first started working for him I had no idea what he was on about, with his talk of books. All my mates ever talked about were cars and girls- it was my prime ambition then to get into a gang, the Auburn Boys.

Geoff was just so persistent, in a very nice way, with all the kids who worked there. He would talk to me about what I wanted to do and how I would get there. He would invite us over to his house for dinner, or take us to the Easter Show with his family. Everyone loved and respected him and his family.

I had this vague idea that I wanted to go to university, but I didn’t have any concept of what that meant and how I could achieve it. My parents were loving and caring- beautiful people- but they come from a very poor background and had no education. They never checked my reports, or made me do my homework. I was never read to as a child- my friends at university can’t comprehend that.

It took a few years of Geoff’s persistence before things started to sink in. Two things influenced me. One was that my sister married an engineer, someone who had been to university! He showed me people like us could go to university. I was also inspired by what Geoff’s daughters had done. One of his daughters invited me to her birthday party when she had finished school. She had gone to James Ruse [a top selective high school] and there were all these really smart kids there. One had actually got a score of 100, the perfect score. All of them were so encouraging.

But I could not have achieved any of it without Geoff: he showed me the way. I still have my log book, with all my words that I could not understand written in it. I would write words in red and the meaning in blue- it was Geoff’s idea.

Granville Boys High was a really rough and hard school- only a few boys from each form ever got into university. Very few kids wanted to learn. I had 10 different maths teachers for the HSC and no permanent physics or chemistry teacher- there was such a big turnover. Geoff, and his daughters, taught me how I could teach myself. I would print off the syllabus and learn everything I could and only go to the teachers when I needed help. Geoff would tell me not to waste their time with stuff I could figure out myself. They had a tough job and were only too willing to help wherever they could. One, an English teacher called Miss O’Brien, took time off in her school holidays to help with my English. You never forget things like that. And I will never forget what Geoff did. He’s gone from being my mentor to my friend.

My parents were so proud when I got into university- I am the first one from my entire extended family ever to go to university. You should have seen the feasts here, and in Lebanon! But Geoff was just as proud- he couldn’t stop grinning for days.