The famous Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea had some special guests in June this year, as a group of Muslim-Australian schoolgirls from Melbourne’s North walked the trail. Gokhan Ozkan, Pastoral Care Director at Sirius College in Broadmeadows accompanied the girls and says “it was a life-changing experience for the girls.”
Most Sirius College students are Muslim but the school is a mixed-gender, non-denominational independent school. The ten girls from nine to 11 years and six staff, traveled to PNG in late June and completed the 96-kilometre trail in eight days.
The Sirius College students who walked the track are from Sri Lankan, Pakistani, Iraqi, Turkish, Australian, Chinese and Syrian backgrounds. They trained for the trip in Australia for seven months including all-day hiking trips across Victoria carrying 15-20 kilogram packs.
Teacher Nicole Ware, who also accompanied the girls, says she was tentative about the trip to begin with.
“I was a little bit hesitant and scared for them wondering how they were going to cope with such a different dynamic and environment… But their coping mechanisms showed their resilience and it was amazing. I didn’t know what they were capable of achieving. They showed me another side of themselves.”
Another teacher Scott Westray says it was a deeply rewarding experience for the girls.
“Taking a group of young ladies to give them an experience a little bit outside their comfort zone – it was just a phenomenal experience.”
He says it was the first Muslim group he and others knew of to tackle the Kokoda Track.
“It was very good to see the interaction between our girls and the locals and staff, just to open up eyes both ways – for locals to know more about Islam as a faith and for our girls and staff to learn more about Presbyterian and Lutheran faiths. Our track master said at the end we all believe in same God, we just go different ways. There was a level of respect that was built as a result.”
Student Elifnur Furgan agrees and describes her conversation with the track leader as a “bonding moment” where the pair discussed faith, religion and life in general.
The trip was Umamah Raza’s first time away from her family, and she says she learned many things about history and culture on the trip, but also about herself.
“It was a very good path for us to acknowledge what our soldiers went through,” she says.
“There were a few times some of the students or staff came close to being evacuated due to health issues,” Westray says. “But they were able to get through the challenges.”
Elifnur Furgan was happy to make it home after some very challenging days.
“There were hygiene issues. I was so grateful when I came home,” she says.
Fellow student Zeliha Kus had some trouble convincing her understandably protective mum to let her go.
“Mum didn’t want me to travel PNG. I had to cry a couple of times. She was telling me even at the last minute that maybe I shouldn’t go,” she says.
Asked why there were no boys in the group, Batool Zehra giggles and says, “they were scared.”
Pastoral Care Director Gokhan Ozkan came to Australia from Turkey seven years ago and says he sees Kokoda as a WW2 counterpart to Gallipoli, telling SBS Turkish the trip gave him a feel for what Australian soldiers may have felt during the war.
“It was very significant for me to feel Australian,” he says. “The trip created a connection with being Australian for all of us. We linked ourselves to Australia’s past.”