Meet our Get set. 60 winners – Aunty Beryl and Yousef Ammar

Retirement? Aunty Beryl Van-Oploo and Yousef Ammar haven’t heard of it. As they tell it, they’re busier than ever: Aunty Beryl, a Kamilaroi elder and chef, runs classes and mentors Aboriginal youth; while Yousef, a case manager and master gardener, heads up a bountiful community garden at Mt Druitt Ethnic Communities Agency (MECA). As winners of Get set. 60, it goes without saying that they’re making the most of life over 60, contrary to the stereotypes that persist. But there is another common thread that links them and lights both their fires: their passion for building and contributing to their communities. After working together to prepare a lunch for their communities, with Yousef’s produce and Beryl’s culinary skills, we sat down with them to explore what they each give and get from their community connections.

First, get to know Aunty Beryl and Yousef...

Growing up in Margaret, New South Wales, Aunty Beryl developed her passion for cooking by helping feed her large family, harnessing bush tucker and the river’s bounty. After attending East Sydney TAFE to become a chef, Aunty Beryl has had an illustrious career that’s seen her help popularize Aboriginal cooking and bush tucker nationally and internationally, launch her own catering company, and even cook for members of the royal family. Her proudest accomplishment, however, is helping educate the community and inspire young people, with a particular focus on improving Aboriginal health.”

Yousef Ammar is a Syrian migrant, who upon moving to Australia found himself navigating a very different kind of society. To help centre himself, and support other migrants looking for community connections, he helped found the MECA community garden in 2019. Among the tomato vines, lettuce beds and many other kinds of organic produce, Yousef’s built a program where migrant Australians of different backgrounds can find a sense of belonging, build connections with each other, practise their English, and unwind in nature.

Q: How have each of your relationships with your communities changed over the years?

AUNTY BERYL: It's getting stronger. I mentor both the younger and older generations, including those who come to work at the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence (NCIE). I'm always here to support them, even if they just need somebody to have a chat with.

YOUSEF: When you are a role model in your community, you just try to give what you can. I try to guide people who have lost their way. Sometimes a single word can make a big impact on their lives.

AUNTY BERYL: You're right. That's what happens with me. At the end of the day, I say to people, “look at your journey and look how far you've come”. I've had people who’ve come to me from very dark places, and I’ve seen them turn their lives around. If someone isn't ready to help themselves yet, I tell them that my door is always open and that they should come back when they're ready to take a step forward. You have to be strong to do that.

Q: You both give so much back to your community. What advice would you give to people who want to contribute, but aren’t sure where to start?

YOUSEF: Everyone has a strong aspect in their personality, even if they haven't discovered it yet. Be proud of yourself and what you can give. You can support others just by standing by them. It’s like when you build a wall - each brick is weak by itself, but together they make a strong wall.

AUNTY BERYL: Everybody has something to contribute. We all have some sort of skill. It might be painting, art, looking sharp. You might be a doctor or dentist, or you might just be sweeping the streets and keeping them clean. Everyone’s got something to contribute, and you have to find what that is for you.

Q: Do you stay in touch with people you’ve helped through your community work?

AUNTY BERYL: Yesterday, one of my ex-students came in for a visit. I hadn't seen her in a while, and she had been in a dark space. But now she’s had a job for three months and is looking so lovely. I was so proud, so happy for her. It made my day. Even though I was running around doing dishes, I just stopped and said, “Come on, we'll have a cup of coffee.”

YOUSEF: That’s happened to me many times. Some of my clients start crying while I’m helping them with their problems. I remember a lady who was going through a divorce at the age of 24. Now, she’s working as a tutor at one of the institutes. When I saw her, she said to me, "I’ll never forget the support you gave me."

AUNTY BERYL: I once taught a student in a disability class and when I was at the cinema recently, I heard someone singing out to me. I wondered who was calling me “Miss” because they used to call me "Miss" in class. It was my old student and his mum! I found out that he got a job on the wharfs and has been working there for 30 years. His mum was so proud of him, and it made my day too.

Q: Do you think people over 60 withdraw from the community as they get older?

YOUSEF: Personally, I couldn’t be doing more than I am at the moment. I have the power to give back to others, so why wouldn’t I do all I can to be involved with the community?

AUNTY BERYL: I think a lot of people know that there are people like you out here, who will be there for them. They’ll find you, and when they find the support you offer, they’ll feel comfortable with it. That’s the same as with me.

Building and being part of their communities seems to be a common thread that runs through Aunty Beryl and Yousef’s lives. The continued pursuit of their lifelong passions lies at the heart of what Apia’s “Get set. 60” is all about. We love to see people who paint a more realistic, three-dimensional picture of life beyond 60 than the stereotypes depict. Aunty Beryl and Yousef are exceptional for their dedication to giving back, and they also represent how many people in the over-60 community are truly living life to the fullest. Our Get set. 60 winners are role models for all – no matter which side of 60 they find themselves on.

Discover more about our other Get set. 60 winners, where seabird rescuer Mary Walsh and birdlife artist Nicky Shelton bust the myths of life over 60.

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