For decades the bronzed, blond and blue-eyed lifesaver has been an Australian icon. Now the face of the Australian lifesaving is changing drastically, thanks to a concerted effort to broaden the membership base. In the wake of the Cronulla race riots in Sydney in December 2005 Muslims are being encouraged to join up. Muslim girls can wear specially designed outfits called burqini, a play on the words bikini and burqa. The outfit preserves modesty but is light enough to enable freedom to maneuver to rescue troubled bathers. Phil Mercer reports from Cronulla Beach.
REPORTER: "Just explain the costume you have on. We understand it's called the burqini.
MECCA: The 'burqini, yep, and it's just a swimming outfit that's just extended to cover my hair and just long and it enables me to swim freely within the water."
Mecca Laalaa is one of a pioneering group of young Muslims training to become lifeguards in the name of racial harmony. The burqini is her two-piece outfit of stretchy material which covers her hair, as some Muslims wish, and exposes only her hands, feet and face.
"Because I'm Australian and my parents are Lebanese so I'm hopefully trying to integrate both of them together," she explains.
The race riots that erupted here at Cronulla just over a year ago showed how far apart sections of the Middle Eastern community are from mainstream Australian society. Groups of Lebanese men fought running battles with gangs of young white Australians.
This lifesaving program is all about building bridges after that shocking time.
Another young Lebanese-Australian Malaak Mourad is happy to do her bit.
"This riot had to happen for people to see that there are problems between different nationalities and different cultures," he said. "It's not so much a good thing that it happened but it's let people understand that there is tension and it has to be resolved. It's a good feeling to know that you're helping and breaking these stereotypes and these barriers between the cultures."
The mistrust that caused the Cronulla disturbances still remains. Back then, young Muslims who came to the beach from other parts of Sydney were often seen as trouble-makers and some locals are unhappy to see them volunteering as lifeguards.
Other beachgoers welcome the new lifesaving recruitment.
"I think it's great. I think it's good that everyone is embracing the Australian culture and I think that we should all work harder to embrace each other's culture."
Suheil is a young Palestinian student who moved to Australia seven years ago. He loves being a trainee lifesaver but some of his Arabic friends and relatives have reservations.
"There's been different sort of reactions to it," she says. "Other people are like, you know, 'oh, why are you going over there to help them for.' You know, that sort of attitude, but it's more the previous generation not sort of our age, but as far as the Arabic community - yeah - just mixed and people don't think that they're allowed to come in."
Trainees with a Lebanese, Egyptian, Syrian and Palestinian heritage have all been involved in this unique plan.
Islamic community leader Dr. Jamal Rifi believes the program can foster greater harmony.
"First of all we, as Australian Muslims suffer from being superficially labeled as extremist or terrorist-lovers or even ideologically hard-liners," he says. " At [the] same time the Cronulla community has been labeled as being racist, separatist and insular. Through this project we are hoping to actually dislodge that image."
As for the training, these recruits from Middle Eastern families have to pass the same physical and first aid tests as everyone else. When they qualify they will be able to wear the lifesavers' distinctive red and yellow uniform - one of Australia's most iconic and respected symbols.