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Five minutes with Arabic counsellor, Hoda Nahal


Hoda Nahal, photo: Ross Bird

Hoda Nahal has worked in different fields of welfare for nearly 20 years. Currently a senior counsellor with Arabic Welfare, she helps people from Arabic-speaking backgrounds who are experiencing harm from gambling, including families affected by gambling. She also educates communities about the damage gambling can do, and the support available.

Here she talks about the rewards of helping people find answers and get their lives back.

What is the general attitude towards gambling in Arabic-speaking communities?

Gambling is not allowed in most of our religions – for example, Muslim and Christian. Forms of gambling like poker machines do exist in our countries, but they’re not as easy to access as here. They’re usually just in tourist areas.

People may still gamble secretively. But if it becomes a problem, the stigma can be very strong. This can make matters worse, because people are too ashamed to tell anyone about it, or ask for help.

Research shows these communities have a high risk of developing gambling problems. Why?

When you come to a new country, there can be language difficulties and loneliness. People may also have experienced trauma, such as war. If they’ve got friends or family members here, they are often taken to the pokies or the casino for a night out, a bit of Australian culture. But unfortunately, if they’re vulnerable, they slowly get caught.

The machine doesn’t talk, so you don’t need the language to go to the pokies. It’s a bit of excitement and you’re very well-received at the venue – free meals, free this, free that. You can switch off all your problems while you’re on the machine.

How do you encourage people to seek help?

Arabic Welfare has a settlement program, which is mainly for new arrivals. We run education sessions and talk about the services available. I talk about the counselling process, including confidentiality.

The concept of counselling doesn’t exist in the Arabic culture. If there’s a problem, it normally stays in the family. People go to their parents, grandparents or someone like a priest or the sheikh, based on their religion.

When I present I focus on how you can get addicted, what happens to your body when you get the urge, and how you can have two sides of yourself fighting each other. People often find this amazing. So I’m engaging them and already building a relationship.

What happens when someone comes to a counselling session?

People often come for other reasons, and then when we talk to them and build trust, we find out a gambling issue caused the financial problems, for example, or the legal problems. But they often don’t say straightaway, ‘I’m here because I have a gambling issue.’ It’s easier for someone to say ‘I’m experiencing family violence’, than, ‘my husband is gambling’ or ‘I have a gambling problem’.

Some people think I’m going to tell them what to do, but this is false. I use an example of a car. ‘It’s your car, you’re driving your car. I’m going to be your instructor. I’m going to sit in the passenger seat, because I’m getting out. You’re going to continue’.

We talk about feelings, thoughts and behaviour. Sometimes people don’t know how to talk about feelings. I give them the emotional support to get their feelings out and think clearly. People know what they want: I’m just here to help them find the answer from their inner selves, their inner strength.

What are some other practical ways you can help?

Last month I saw a young man from Syria. He’s only been in the country for seven months and lives with his family. When he arrived, his friends took him to the pokies, then he started going regularly.

He came to see me because his dad gave him money to pay the rent and he blew it on the machines. It made him realise the pokies had become more than just fun.

I’d helped one of his friends self-exclude from pokies venues, so he asked me to help him self-exclude, too. Self-exclusion is like signing a contract with yourself. You select the venues you want it to apply to – they might be the ones in your local area. If you get the urge to go, the venue staff stop you, because you are on the system as ‘not allowed’. It’s a strategy to help while you’re in counselling.

Hoda speaks about her work helping people affected by gambling