When community comes first: a new home in Wagga Wagga

When community comes first: a new home in Wagga Wagga

Shahab from Wagga Wagga in New South Wales only arrived in Australia 12 months ago from war torn Iraq where he was a physicist. Finding work in his specialist area has not been easy, however, he is already stepping up in a variety of ways to help his new community here in Australia. His role took on added importance as he helped his community navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. 


When Saddam Hussein was president of Iraq, before 2003, the life of the Yazidi people was very hard because the government took our rights away and saw us as weaker people. We did not get an education because we had to work on a farm which was about 2 hours from our village.

 In 2003 I was in year 6, when America attacked Iraq and circumstances for Yazidi people changed for the better. My father then got a teaching job and the pay was good and many more people in the village got paying jobs. Children like me then were able to continue their education.

My dream was to become a Maths teacher like my father. I completed secondary school and moved to the north of Iraq where there was a university (in Kurdistan). This university did not have a place for me in Maths so I chose to study Physics. First, second and third year I was the best student in the class (number 1). 

In 2014 I finished my third year in July and returned to my village for the holidays. Then on the 3rd of August ISIS attacked our village. Most people weren’t sure what to expect. Some fled to the mountains, like my family and I, and some stayed. The soldiers of Kurdistan had promised to protect our village but when ISIS arrived the soldiers had disappeared in the night without a trace. Then when ISIS came they kidnapped many people, killed the men and forced the women to marry ISIS fighters (many were raped). Children were trained to become suicide bombers. 

Life in the mountains was very hard. We were surrounded by ISIS and had no food or water and it was summer, so very hot. After seven days a route opened up for us to escape to Kurdistan. The people of Kurdistan fed us and gave us clothes. They were very good to us. My family and I went to a camp for refugees in Kurdistan, which had been used for Syrian refugees. My family, 8 people, got 1 tent which was 2 meters by 3, so very small. We were lucky though because all my family survived. 

At that time I was 22. I missed my friends from University, especially my roommate. I decided to be strong and to complete my university studies. In October the colleges started and I went to the department of that college to complete the last year of Uni. I graduated and had great results, even though studying was very hard because of the times and the things that had happened to friends. It wasn’t a very happy time, but I was number 2 in the class. I became a university teacher.

My sister, who was married at the time, went to a camp in Turkey. She was there for 1 year and was then allowed to come to Australia. She then applied for her family, my parents, brothers and I, to come to Australia and we arrived in 2019.

I was surprised when I looked out of the plane at how many trees there were here. Everybody was so friendly and always smiling and welcoming, we didn’t feel alone. We really felt like we were beginning a new life. 

After a month my younger brother and sister went to high school and they love it. This has made us happier because in Iraq there would not have been an education for them. After that my mother and father went to TAFE to learn English and my brother Amer and I went to TAFE to prepare for university. This course gives a chance to continue our education.

Now I’m a support worker to help refugee or immigrant students get aligned with mainstream students and I am a support teacher in language. I studied an online course about trauma in refugee and immigrant students and the course was really beneficial.


Sometimes we have some students, sometimes they are crying or angry so when I ask them what happened they speak about how they remember a painful memory of their friend in Iraq who was killed and it can make them feel lonely. I try and encourage them to be positive and not negative. Sometimes the teacher will be talking about one topic that reminds them of when they were in Iraq before the genocide so they get sad again and it can be hard to deal with. So, all of them, I try to support and encourage them.


When  COVID-19 hit  we couldn’t be with the people in our community so we recorded a video about our community to tell them how to wash hands and to stay at home, isolation and social distance in their own language. 


Also, I am working as a translator for people in the community. If someone is having problems communicating in English they call us and ask what the topic means because they didn’t understand. For example, a friend had a problem with his internet so he called the provider and got me to talk with them and I was telling them what he was telling me. 


The thing is, my job in Iraq wasn’t language or interpreting or social services, it was science. I was a physics scientist – electrons, atoms, nuclear – now I am doing things far from that. I told myself for now my community needs my help so I will help them and maybe 2 or 3 years after they will get better, the people, the students, elders, so there are more people to help them and I will go to doing things for myself like my study. 


I am lucky to do these things for my community. We will stay in Wagga forever. We love it, it has given us a new beautiful life!!