Grew up in Kyabram, North East Victoria, but now calls Istanbul home.
Put simply, Soraya Lennie was anything but your ordinary farmer’s daughter growing up in Kyabram, North East Victoria, through the 1980s and 90s.
For one thing, she didn’t do-the-done-thing, by trotting onto the netball court each weekend like most of her female peers.
Instead, she was busy in the paddock, doing burn-outs in her Dad’s ute or trying to build small projects – whatever took her fancy.
By her own admission, she was a bit of a tomboy – a bit brooding or ‘emo’, as she calls it.
And perhaps the most ‘normal’ part of her rural identity was that she did enjoy a spot of football, as a passionate Essendon supporter.
But on reflection – now, at age 35 – Soraya says what clearly set her apart from most girls growing up in the Kyabram district was her Middle Eastern heritage, which is where we pick up our chat with our latest Victorian Rural Inspire Mentor for 2018.
Soraya, tell us about where you grew up?
I grew up in Kyabram on a dairy farm and I went to primary school in Girgarre. At that time, Girgarre had a population of 300 people and the school, probably 70 students. But once the Heinz factory closed down and the drought hit, the population dropped dramatically. I then went on to high school at Kyabram Secondary.
What was it like? Did you ‘fit in’?
Sometimes growing up in a country town is suffocating if you don’t fit into the mould or a particular popular clique. I am the daughter of a Middle Eastern immigrant and a dairy farmer. Neither of my parents were part of school social circles and my friendship circle was more ‘the misfits’. I wasn’t really interested in the hobbies that everyone else was, either.
I feel it wasn’t just students who formed cliques, it was also some teachers, sometimes. It seemed that the more I struggled in certain classes, the more some teachers held it against me and focused their attention on kids they knew socially. It was a frustrating time.
So, your Mum was an immigrant from Iran – what was that like for you as a kid in a small country town?
It was tough. When I was five I went to school and stood up in front of the class to show everyone how I could count in Farsi (Persian language). My mother had been teaching me to read and write numbers on a blackboard in our kitchen. But all the attention from my classmates made me so embarrassed I went home and told her I didn’t want anything to do with being Iranian.
I refused to speak my mother's language until I was in my 20s. I did everything I could not to stand out, even forsaking part of my own heritage. My name and appearance already marked me apart, so I didn't want to do anything that made it more obvious that I was ‘different’. But, inevitably, I grew up and realised my true identity was more important than the small-minded people who had a problem with it.
My mother was and is the strongest force in my life and always told me to be proud of our heritage, no matter what. Once I had matured, I was drawn to understanding her and where she came from, especially because Iran always seemed to be in the news, in such a negative way and I knew that the portrayal was not accurate. This negative media portrayal impacted us directly as this was how classmates, neighbours and anyone else began to view my mum’s homeland. It was tough for her and the rest of us. And this absolutely played a major part in the road my life and career took.
So, where are you now? What career path did you take and how did you get there?
I’m a correspondent now so I spend most of my time traveling. In the past year I’ve been to Iraq, Israel/Palestine, all over Europe and everywhere in between. It took a lot of work and hustle. At an early point in my career, I was sick of knocking on doors so I decided to (figuratively) kick one in. At the time, 2011, I was working as a regional reporter with Win News in Ballarat – I took annual leave and flew to the other side of the world where I managed to network my way into an interview with Al Jazeera English. I took a gamble, backed myself and it paid off. The very next week I resigned from my position in Ballarat and moved to the Middle East.
Was this what you always wanted to do? At what point did you realise you wanted to be a journalist?
I had toyed with the idea in my teenage years, but still had not given-up my dream of being a famous rock star married to James Hird. I was probably about 17 when I realised that wasn’t going to happen and, instead, found myself drawn to international events and journalism. It was probably a good thing.
Did you attend university to study journalism?
Initially, I actually studied Spanish at Monash University and then moved into a Bachelor of Communications at the University of Griffith; I’d describe it as a two-year course that could have been taught in six months, really. I’m currently doing a Masters in International Diplomacy, Middle East North Africa at the University of London, School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS).
Tracking back, before university, what kind of student were you at school in Kyabram?
I basically only did well in subjects I liked, such as English and History. I really struggled with Maths and Science.
If you could give one piece of advice to your teenage self, what would it be?
Don’t be so emo – things will get better.
And what would you say to current teenagers – to the high-achievers and to those who are finding it tough?
To the high-achievers I genuinely say, well done and good for you. But I will also say that outside of high school, in the real world, no one cares who you were back then or what you did in school.
To the disadvantaged, I say keep hustling. Hard work pays off and if you can’t get in through the front door, find a window!
What are your thoughts on the pressure placed upon Year 12 school-leavers to achieve a top ATAR score and head off to university?
There is far too much emphasis on the score. I think you can’t really put a score on the most valuable life lessons. I didn’t do very well in Year 12 for a number of reasons, but now I have a great job, make lots of money, travel the world and was (somehow) this year accepted into a very well-respected Masters program (SOAS).
When you reflect on your childhood growing up and being educated in rural Victoria, do you think it was an advantage or a disadvantage?
Both. Growing up in the country means you often lack the opportunities people in the city have; it’s a fact. But this means you have to work harder and be better. In my experience, sometimes you’re discriminated against because you aren’t from the city, especially if you’re going for city media jobs but in the end you succeed just the same, if you work hard enough.
The advantage is that growing up in the country can make you pretty tough and I think that means you’ve always got an edge over city kids.
So, you’re proud of your rural upbringing?
I wouldn’t swap it for anything. Growing up in the country made me tougher and more determined. I think it also taught me a sense of humanity and community that is really a hallmark of a decent person.