My speech in Parliament congratulating Despina Havelas and Walid Hanna on their Australia Day Citizenship Awards, 8th Feb, 2016

It was a great pleasure for me to congratulate two of my constituents who both recently received awards for their contribution to their local communities during our local council's Australia Day Citizenship Ceremonies. Firstly, congratulations to Despina Havelas, who received Brimbank City Council's Citizen of the Year award for her amazing work and contribution to children with autism and their families. Despina has been a passionate and hardworking advocate in the Keilor community and beyond for the past decade. Despina was inspired to take action after her own life experience of being a full-time carer for her autistic son, Kon.

Despina founded a non-profit organization in 2008 called Autism Angels, with the aim of continuing her advocacy work and providing support and services to children with autism and their carers. Through her organisation, Despina has helped develop many Autism services in the city of Brimbank, including early intervention workshops, cyber safety workshops and public events to raise awareness for autism, including the Autism Angels Teddy Bears picnic and dinner dance.

In addition to raising awareness and funds, an important objective for Despina is to advocate for the parents and families of autistic children by 'chasing the politicians'. She said:

Up to now, the focus, when we were talking about policies, was on the person with the disability; it is important for parents and carers to be included.

For Despina, it is important that law makers realise that all family members are affected when there is a child with autism in the family and, as Despina says, 'Families are part of the equation.' For this reason, much of the work of Autism Angels has been to create a support network for families and to provide assistance, advice and service referrals to parents and carers. As a direct result of Despina's successful lobbying, Autism Angels provides its very own drop-in centre for autistic children, for those times, in particular, of heightened strain and stress.


Despina was also paramount in creating the first 'all-abilities park' in the City of Brimbank. The park is an inclusive facility that allows children with disabilities to play safely and without constraint. Despina is also pivotal to the Brimbank Disability Expo; she is a member of the board of the Autism State Plan; and is chairperson of the Brimbank Disability Network Group.

Over the past 10 years, Despina's hard work has culminated in over $85,000 in funds being raised for families living with autism, and Autism Angels has received over $50,000 in government support in the last six years. It takes a strong and compassionate person to use their own experiences of adversity to help others. Heartfelt congratulations to Despina Havelas for her very well-deserved award and recognition for her tireless efforts for children with autism and their families.

I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate Mr Walid Hanna, a constituent and friend, who was acknowledged at the Hume City Council Australia Day awards for his commitment to achieving harmony and reconciliation in our local Australian-lraqi community through sport. Walid and the Iraqi Unity Cup team won Hume City Council's Event of the Year.

The Iraq Unity Cup is an annual soccer tournament that brings together various Australian-Iraqi communities, including Kurds, Arabs, Chaldeans and Assyrians. Many of these communities have experienced division and war in their home country of Iraq and, as we would all be aware, wars and displacements from afar can often have repercussions here in Australia. The Unity Cup, therefore, serves to avert potential divisions within the community by uniting Iraqis as one through the playing of soccer.

Walid and the broader Iraqi community have shown great strength and commitment to promoting a strong spirit of reconciliation, and it is to their great credit that they have won this award. The tournament, which began in 2012, was in response to the unrest in Iraq; Walid explains that it was 'something to try to bring the community together because a lot of them are divided in Iraq now because of the war since 2003.' For Walid the tournament is 'all about bringing these people together'.

Walid Hanna, the Iraq Unity Cup team, the Chaldean Federation and Father Maher from Our Lady of the Flowers Chaldean Catholic Church, as well as the whole Iraqi community, have become an integral and active part of our local community. My electorate has a large Iraqi population and initiatives like the Iraqi Unity Cup go a long way to promoting harmony, reconciliation and cohesion within the community.

Congratulations, therefore, to Walid Hanna and to Despina Havelas for being great advocates and role models for our local communities and for working so tirelessly for important causes within our community.