30 September 2022

Big shot to diddly squat and back to the top - how volunteering changed Bassem's life

| Dione David
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Bassem Mekhael had it made in Egypt, but the lure of a better future for his children brought him to Canberra. Photo: Liv Cameron.

By all measures, Bassem Mekhael was a success in his native Egypt.

As the regional creative director for big multinational communications and marketing agencies, he looked after the Middle East and North Africa.

His advice was sought after and valued by industry bigwigs and for the long days and late nights in the office, he was very well remunerated.

So his decision to relocate to Australia raised a few eyebrows.

“Some people described me as crazy, giving up an important position, a high salary and stability to start from scratch ‘down under’, where nobody knew a thing about me,” he says.

“It was a hard decision, but I made it. I wanted a better life for my children.”

Bassem was under no illusion he would easily secure work in his field in a new country.

“When you work in communications you need to know your target audience, all the demographics and the psychographics around them,” he says.

“It’s not like engineering or medicine where your skills transfer seamlessly. It’s a science but it’s a social science. Knowing people, their behaviour, their interests, habits, customs, backgrounds is pivotal – you need to really know your customers in order to market to them.”

Bassem moved with his wife and two children in the summer of 2015.

READ ALSO Woden Community Services volunteers give the gift of communication

Though his skilled migrant visa initially landed him in Canberra, the companies he had worked for in Egypt had offices in Sydney and Melbourne.

“I knew I could work for any of them. Their clients were global and I knew I could find them here in Australia. I already knew their systems, their customers; it would be a smooth transition for me,” Bassem says.

“I told my immigration officer of my intention to relocate to Sydney or Melbourne. I rented a furnished apartment. I had no intention of staying.”

Bassem got in touch with a big recruitment firm in Sydney but his agent informed him that the upcoming festive season dampened the job market, and advised him to use the period to relocate.

But he couldn’t shake the disconnect from his new country, and the notion that it would prevent him from succeeding in his field.

“Australia is so different to Egypt. There it’s one nation, one people, one culture, one language. There are no big differences between Egyptians,” he explains.

“Australia is a multicultural community with diverse cultural backgrounds, dialects and languages, religions and customs.

“I thought nobody would hire me without any local experience or insights. So I told myself maybe I’ll try volunteering in any marketing department – maybe that would make my transition smoother.”

An opportunity at Woden Community Service would be a turning point for Bassem. Photo: Liv Cameron.

As it happened, one of Bassem’s friends was an admin at Woden Community Service (WCS) and offered to bring his CV to the organisation’s marketing manager. Soon after, he began volunteering with the organisation.

Volunteering with WCS was like an orientation for Bassem. It was an introduction to the country’s work systems and environments, the dynamics involved in getting to know people in Australia and, a revelation – the work-life balance.

“In Egypt I was working 18-hour days; I was like a machine,” he says.

“It’s not like that in Canberra. While volunteering for WCS I tasted this notion of work-life balance. I learned these principles of ‘family first’ and that your mental health is important. That if you’re sick or feeling unwell, it’s alright not to come to work.

“I socialised as well. I would grab lunch or coffee with the people and get to know their habits and behaviours. It gave me confidence when it eventually came to interviewing.”

It wasn’t long before his recruiter put Bassem in touch with a Canberra marketing firm that had taken an interest in his CV. Though they didn’t have any vacancies, his considerable experience compelled them to create a position on the spot as executive creative director.

It put a spanner in the spokes of his relocation plans. But though his paycheck would have been considerably higher in a big city, Bassem’s priorities had shifted.

“I had already been to Sydney as a tourist. It’s crowded and busy like Cairo. Driving past the ACT landscapes on the other hand, I have the impression I’m part of one of those impossibly beautiful Microsoft Windows screensavers,” he laughs.

“I told my wife, ‘Maybe we need to change our lifestyles. Instead of spending a quarter of my life commuting to and from work I could be there in 20 minutes. The kids are growing up, we don’t have family and friends here so they’ll need us more, this way we could spend more time together as a family’. She agreed with me and I accepted the contract.”

READ ALSO Woden Community Service stands up for Canberra’s youth

Over the past seven years Bassem has made a career out of sharing his considerable knowledge in various senior roles across Canberra’s private and public sectors.

“I found that for many agencies, their understanding of a brand was the logo, colours and fonts. They lacked the bigger thinking and conceptualisation behind building a brand,” he said.

“I began teaching my colleagues that a brand is much more. It’s discovering the why and purpose, writing manifestos and developing strategic communications. It’s about coming up with creative concepts and understanding how to slap your audience in the face with an idea.”

It led to teaching gigs at the University of Canberra, the Australian Graphic Design Association and beyond, where Bassem works to elevate Canberra’s marketing and communications capabilities through the next generation.

Though he is now the senior visual designer for the Clean Energy Regulator, this is where his passion lies. But he has never forgotten where it all began.

“I owe WCS in many ways,” he says.

“They were the first to open their arms to me in Canberra.”

Find out more about Woden Community Service volunteering opportunities here.

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