18 February 2023

The Wagga School Leaders Program was transformative for Barzan

| Dione David
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Committee 4 Wagga member Adam Drummond with Mount Austin High School student Barzan Smoqi

Barzan Smoqi (right) with his Wagga School Leaders Program mentor Adam Drummond. Photos: Jackie Cooper / Jack of Hearts.

Even as Barzan Smoqi’s palms went slick and his stomach filled with butterflies, he approached the mic on the stage.

If you’d told the Wagga Wagga school kid six months prior that he would be public speaking in any form, he would not have believed you.

Growing up in Iraq, Barzan’s childhood days were filled with school studies, soccer with mates or volleyball on a makeshift “court” that was little more than a dusty clearing. Holidays were spent helping his parents on their farm.

In 2014, when Barzan was about 10, his family joined the droves heading north to flee conflict.

“Everyone was leaving our community,” he said.

“I remember on the way out, we went to a village to try and get some gas and there were terrorists blocking the road, which was so frightening.

“We were lucky that they got distracted by something and left the road. We escaped.”

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They lived in a refugee camp in northern Iraq for a time, getting by with help from UNICEF and other charitable organisations. Life was hard, to say the least.

By 2016 they had scratched together the resources to start a small business selling chickens in Sulaymaniyah, a city not far from the Iran–Iraq border.

In October 2018 at age 15, Barzan and his family moved again to Turkey where they lived for over a year. Barzan’s childhood to this point was something of a blur but the next thing he remembers clearly.

“On the 12th of February 2020, we arrived in Australia,” he said.

“My dad and mum were overjoyed. They had sacrificed a lot to bring us somewhere safe and make a future for us.

“It was such a bright moment for us all.”

Of the four options they were presented with, they chose to live in Wagga Wagga where a sprinkling of family friends had already settled.

Now aged 17, Barzan was given two options for his education – TAFE or high school.

Given the years of disruption to his schooling and his very basic English, he opted for the latter, starting in a six-month intensive EAL/D (English as an additional language/dialect) course before progressing to Year 10 at Mount Austin High School.

Not wanting to squander the opportunity, he studied hard and eventually, thrived. But between the language barrier and the havoc of his early years, he lacked confidence.

That was until a trusted guidance counsellor encouraged him to join the Wagga School Leaders Program.

Mount Austin High School student Barzan Smoqi in camouflage gear and an orange helmet

One Wagga School Leaders Program module at Kapooka Army Recruit Training Centre centred on conquering fears. Photo: Committee 4 Wagga.

Run by the Committee 4 Wagga (C4W) and supported by local businesses, Charles Sturt University and the New South Wales Government, the Wagga School Leaders Program is a leadership-based program offered to three Year 11 students in each of Wagga’s seven high schools.

Participants attend seven modules over seven days across the course of the year.

C4W executive Michelle Ford said the program helped develop the individual leadership skills of the city’s future leaders through a range of activities and experiences designed to promote social, ethical, emotional, physical and cognitive competencies.

“The program assists students to analyse their strengths and areas of development, enabling them to set personal and vocational goals,” she said.

“It engages students in a series of challenging exercises including workshops, lectures, regional industry excursions, physical activities and mentoring sessions to develop their capacity to become successful leaders and community representatives.”

Michelle said students could put the skills they learnt into practice upon returning to school, sporting clubs and work environments.

“At the completion of the program the students have developed a better understanding of the city they live in and are able to move forward as ambassadors of Wagga Wagga, with knowledge and confidence,” she said.

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Barzan completed the program, taking on things he never thought he could such as interviewing and public speaking.

“Each module improved a different skill, like being able to control your nervousness and stress and being healthy and taking care of yourself and others,” he said.

“There was even a module in Kapooka about conquering your biggest fears.

“It’s a great opportunity for students to learn and develop their language and communication skills, it teaches socialisation and confidence.”

At the end, Barzan went on stage and delivered a speech about his experience in the program to an audience of his peers, teachers and mentors.

Now a Year 12 student, Barzan has aspirations in design and helps teach English to his parents, who never got to go to school.

He is also a Wagga School Leaders Program ambassador.

“I was so proud of myself for overcoming all the challenges throughout the program as someone from another culture with English being my second language,” he said.

“I think it was just the beginning of a great journey.”

Visit the Wagga School Leaders webpage for more information.

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