A tale of two very different Sydney teenagers

Before noon every Friday at Strathfield South High School, 17-year-old Shaukat Liaqat Ali and some of his classmates hold prayers. When the bell signals the end of another day, he laces on his soccer boots and heads to the local park.

Shaukat is a multicultural Australian success story. He has managed to assimilate while retaining his cultural and religious identity.

Since arriving in Australia four years ago from Afghanistan, Shaukat has managed to win over many in the community, raising funds for a football team, working hard at school, and even receiving a Strathfield Rotary Youth Achievement award for his work helping survivors of trauma through sport camps.

Abdulla Elmir is also 17. He was brought up just a few kilometres away from Strathfield South High School in Bankstown. Yet the difference couldn’t be more stark.

He left Sydney for Syria, and has since become known as the ‘Ginger Jihadist’, appearing in videos vilifying Australia and threatening attacks. The boy brought up in Australia now decries it, while the refugee has embraced everything this country has to offer.

So much so, that Shaukat wants to join the Australian Army and defend his new homeland.

“My thoughts on the 17-year-old boy from Bankstown who went to Syria to fight with IS is that he is stupid,” says Shaukat. “He has been given every opportunity in this country and he goes and throws it all away.”

Federal MP Craig Laundy, whose Reid constituency is one of the country’s most culturally diverse, said new Muslim migrants are talking to second- and third-generation Australian Muslims to explain what they would face in countries like Syria, in a bid to stop them being radicalised. He praised the work Shaukat is doing to help young Muslims.

“Here’s a new arrival who has been forced to flee his country and who is prepared to sign up and put himself in harm’s way to defend his new homeland because he values it so much.”

Strathfield South High School has an Islamic population that makes up 60 to 70 per cent of the student body. Naturally, the horror stories pouring from the Middle East cannot be overlooked.

“There is a lot of discussion in the school about the Islamic State (IS). The students have spoken about it and there are a few religious tiffs that happen on the playground.
We have more Sunnis than Shias, so sometimes it poses a problem,” Anette Bremer, Homework Centre and Welfare coordinator said.

“But it’s young men being young men. Generally, it is pretty peaceful. They seem to resolve it among themselves.”

Ms Bremer says Strathfield South High School works closely with the State Government to provide education programs for newly arrived migrants. She is instrumental in providing and organising programs and activities to ensure the community feels welcome.

 “We have a lot of students from Afghanistan, who make up the largest minority at the school. And then we have a range of students: Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Iraq. We also have Muslim students from India, Pakistan, Burma and the Philippines,” she said.

“The thing about terrorist organisations like IS is that they attract people who are isolated, people who feel like they don’t have a sense of belonging to their country. This is the complete opposite of what Strathfield South High School embodies. We make our students and their families feel welcome to this country.

“We celebrate their traditions, culture and the religion that they have brought with them from other parts of the world. We provide them with different options and ways to feel connected with the Australian community and values.”

Every year, the school holds an Iftar celebration for the students and their families –
a meal at the end of Ramadan which breaks the fast. The school also has a dedicated area for Muslim students who wish to pray every day.

The staff run programs for the parents of immigrants to help inform them about what’s going on with their children’s education.

Ms Bremer says it’s a way the school and staff acknowledge the importance of the cultural melting pot. Currently, she is running two new programs – Dare to Be Sensible, which targets migrant youths about crime prevention as well as alcohol and drug minimisation, and a job application scheme.

Shaukat’s story is not uncommon among
the student body. But his story of survival is remarkable, nonetheless. Born in Afghanistan, he was forced to flee to Pakistan, where he and his younger brother sought refuge from the Taliban. Shaukat’s parents were killed by fundamentalists. He has no memories of them. 

“Many kids share similar stories to my little brother and myself. Their parents are gone and they don’t remember them. So within our community, we reach out to those like us, especially the younger children. My soccer club helps them forget the bad times and reminds them that they now have a better life.”

Shaukat’s sister and brother-in-law, who were living in Australia, sponsored the two boys in 2010. Four years later, they are thriving in their new home. Shaukat has completed three subjects for the Higher School Certificate and hopes to join the Army when he finishes school.

“I don’t like sitting down and writing. I’m active and I like fitness which is one of the main reasons why I want to join the Army. But more importantly, the reason why I want to join the Army is to be able to give back to the country that has given me so many opportunities. These kids going to join IS don’t know how good they have it at home,” he said.

“Wanting to join the Army has given me something to work for. Many of my friends and cousins also want to join the Army or the police force. We want to protect Australia, the country which has sheltered us.”


How fantastic that we have committed, intelligent and generous teachers like Ms Bremer working in our public schools.

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