Since South Sudan gained independence in July 2011 many south Sudanese Australians have returned to their homeland.
And whether it’s because of a love for their country, cultural ties, or a sense of duty of it’s been a very challenging experience of many of them.
By Santilla Chingaipe, SBS
On July 9th, 2011, I was fortunate enough to cover the Melbourne celebrations of South Sudan’s independence. Even though many of the South Sudanese Australians at the celebrations were thousands of kilometres away from their homeland, it was just as significant celebrating here as it must have been in the capital Juba. The pride that filled them all as they sang their national anthem in public for the first time, waved their flag and could finally – as it seemed at the time — identify with a particular place. No longer were they just refugees who’d fled the war, they now had a place they could proudly call home. Many of the South Sudanese Australians I spoke to told me about their need to go back and help build the new nation.
A few months later, in January of this year, I travelled to South Sudan and met some of them that had indeed gone back after independence. What I later discovered was just how complex Australia’s South Sudanese community is. Despite being just nine months independent, many still struggle with their ‘identity’. Some were not even born in Sudan, but instead in refugee camps around East and North Africa. To some, calling Australia home added an even more confusing and often confronting view of what it means to be a South Sudanese living in the diaspora.
One man I met in South Sudan, Akoc Manheim, moved there just before independence to witness the occasion first hand. He is the former director of the Lost Boys Association in Australia and left behind his family in Melbourne to work at the Passport and Nationality office in Juba. He said it was a dream of his to come back and help his people, and he found that he was more ‘useful’ in South Sudan than in Australia. He talked about the frustrations he faced after moving back to South Sudan and how difficult the first few months were transitioning back to life there. But in spite of this, he strongly believed that if he didn’t go back and help, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself. I asked him if even with the small salary he received (he told me it was around $200), was it still worth making such a commitment? He said he believed he was doing the right thing. He has plans of coming back to Melbourne and considers Australia to be his second home.
I met Gabriell Agur and Awan Kwet by chance while grabbing a coffee after meeting with Akoc. They were both friends from Melbourne who had come back to South Sudan for the first time in many years. Gabriell said that he couldn’t stay back for so long after independence without seeing his new country. He also came to see his brothers and sisters who had stayed behind during the war. Thirty-seven-year-old Awan Kwet also said that he came back to see his family, including his mother whom he hadn’t seen in 21 years! They both expressed their views of returning again and helping their country build from the ground up.
In Melbourne, I met a Nyadol Nyuol, a young woman studying law at Melbourne University. She expressed her frustrations with aspects of her culture and identity that make her question who she really is. Unlike most of those I spoke to, Nyadol was born in Ethiopia, and as a result of the war there in the early 90s, she was forced to flee to Kenya were she sought refuge until coming to Australia in 2005. She said she felt she had a complicated relationship with South Sudan. Although she’s returned a few times, she said she felt more Australian than she did South Sudanese. Perhaps her biggest frustration with her culture was with what she believes are certain standards and expectations that are required of women within the South Sudanese community. She said because of this, she didn’t really feel like she would ‘fit in’ in South Sudan because her views on some of the traditions were completely different to what was expected.
David Vincent works at the Brotherhood of Saint Laurence in Melbourne’s Fitzroy suburb, where he oversees programs mainly dealing with migrants and refugees settling in the community. He fled with his father to Ethiopia at the age of seven, and when the war broke out in Ethiopia, he was forced to return to Sudan. Upon returning, he joined the army at a young age to fight in the war. He wasn’t conscripted, but says it was what happened at the time, when most people were fighting for an independent state. When the war broke out again, he fled to Kenya were he stayed before being granted a humanitarian visa. He said he felt more Australian than he did South Sudanese simply because of the privileges Australia has afforded him. However, he says he won’t be abandoning Australia and does travel back to assist in many areas.
Archangelo Madut Nyuol Paul also lives in Melbourne and he’s the father of two little girls. He said he plans to move back permanently to South Sudan later this year, and his young family will join him at a later stage. He said after what he experienced as a child soldier and what he witnessed during the war, seeing people being killed, women raped, villages razed, a part of him strongly feels and obligation to give back to his homeland and he could not live with the guilt of knowing that he hasn’t at least tried to make a difference in South Sudan.
Adut Akec is a 20-year-old woman from Geelong. She was born in Egypt and has never been to Sudan or now, South Sudan. She does however have plans to visit South Sudan later this year. Tradition and culture are very important to her and going back to see South Sudan for herself is significant.
Despite the complexity, and often times harrowing accounts of these South Sudanese Australians experiences during the war and what they went to, what was interesting to see was how they’ve all managed to carve their own idea of what being South Sudanese means — which has at times not been by choice. After many years of associating themselves with an ethnic group, to suddenly having a national identity brought many questions into focus. Some continue to travel back to find these answers, others choose to stay. But whatever the decision, the journey of being a South Sudanese Australia is more than skin deep.
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