Akuch Kuol Anyieth: “When you grow up in chaos, you have no choice but to be strong” | Australian books

Akuch Kuol Anyieth always had in mind that she would write the story of her life and that of her family and friends. She wanted to record an honest account of refugee life and resettlement in Australia. Her family wept as she read each draft chapter to them, but she knew her task was important; a form of advocacy for a better understanding of the mental illness suffered by traumatized refugees who have gone through war.

“In a word, you bring yourself with you,” she says. “We welcome them as refugees, yes; we understand that they come from countries facing war or political disagreements…we are very focused on providing services and a material level, [but] not at the level of “what happened to you”: let’s talk about your story, your journey that made you move to Australia. »

Having completed her first master’s degree at 25, Anyieth is researching for a doctorate on the effect of domestic violence intervention orders on the South Sudanese community in Australia. “Are they really stopping the violence? she says. “I’m not so sure.”

Fleeing at the age of five with her mother, Mary, and siblings in a refugee camp while her father fought in the civil war, Anyieth, now 31, escaped tribal conflict. She would encounter more violence in this supposed sanctuary in the form of an older brother.

In Kakuma camp in the arid and isolated northwest of northwest Kenya, where she would shelter with her family until her teenage years, this brother, renaming himself Dragon, threatened and assaulted three generations of the family,” writes Anyieth with compassion and raw honesty. in his memoirs Unknown: A Refugee’s Story.

Akuch Kuol Anyieth
Anyieth’s family fled South Sudan when she was five years old. Photograph: Alana Holmberg/The Guardian

Dragon – struggling with his past trauma, drug addiction and moving to a foreign country – continued to physically attack his sisters and their mother even after they arrived in Melbourne in 2005. These assaults prompted Victoria police to issue domestic violence intervention orders against Dragon. He was jailed for breaking orders, but Anyieth says the family had little understanding of what the orders actually meant. She and her mother would scour the parks for Dragon to check on his welfare and bring him food, shocked to find him “seeming to have been homeless for months,” Anyieth writes.

One of the most emotional passages in her memoir occurs after Dragon suffered severe brain damage when he was hit by a train, and she and her sister Atong “burst into silent tears” near her. hospital bed. Despite his past attacks, she still loves him and can see the good in him. Anyieth writes that Dragon is a different man today: married, a “wonderful husband” and a “practical father”, with a good relationship with his mother and sisters. “He is no longer violent towards anyone,” she wrote.

Why are the women in his family so strong and forgiving? “When you grow up in chaos, you have no choice but to be strong,” says Anyieith, a gold Christian cross hanging around her neck.

“Especially after growing up in Kakuma in the refugee camp, life there is very difficult. Most of the men would go to war, and some of the boys [too] …and when you leave the responsibility of the whole family to one woman, she automatically has to be strong, otherwise the children will not survive, otherwise the family will fall apart.

Life in his new country would require such strength. Anyieth writes that she is grateful to have left the “diret of desperation” and to have come to a better place, but “doesn’t remember ever feeling truly free in Australia”. “Racism and discrimination still prevent us as a community from fully experiencing freedom and becoming fully Australian.”

Akuch Kuol Anyieth
“Racism and discrimination still prevent us as a community from fully experiencing freedom and becoming fully Australians.” Photograph: Alana Holmberg/The Guardian

Marginalization and the media

Anyieth’s memoir delves deeply into media portrayals of young African men in Australia, particularly Melbourne: “Nobody wants to condone criminal activity, but we’ve all heard that ‘boys will be boys’. Well, the leniency, the forgiveness implicit in that expression was never exercised when it came to the African boys I knew, especially the South Sudanese boys. The saying might as well have been “white boys will be white boys”.

Apart from Olympian Peter Bol, we rarely hear of the successful members of the South Sudanese diaspora in Australia who have gone on to become lawyers, writers, doctors and engineers, she says.

To what extent does Anyieth think that negative media stereotypes of South Sudanese boys and men as “lawless gangs and thugs”, as she writes, contribute to structural racism and stereotyping races of young African men in Australia?

“The role of the media in society is so important,” she says, because it “shapes community thinking and opinions towards this particular group. The media is partly to blame because some of the stories have been very sensational.

“Although there are sometimes elements of truth in their stories – there is a level of criminal behavior and offence, yes, among some members of the African or South Sudanese community – [but] often with these young people there are deeper issues that they go through in their individual lives, their communities and within their families.

Anyieth acknowledges that Victoria Police have undertaken more cultural awareness training, but says the force’s relationship with the South Sudanese community has been damaged by “over-policing” and “racial profiling”. There was therefore “little support” from young South Sudanese when they joined the police.

“We would like to see our young men and young women join the Victoria Police Force, but if we don’t rebuild that relationship then it’s very difficult for young people to put up their hands and say, ‘I want to be an officer. from police’.”

Anyieth writes that traditionally in her culture – the family is Dinka – the parental punishment of ‘beating’ them or being ‘tied to a tree’ is not seen as abuse, but as discipline. His memoir examines how many South Sudanese fathers feel marginalized by having Australian culture take away their authority to instill such discipline.

But these parents, she cautiously writes, fail to “look within themselves, inside their own families, to understand how some of their traditional beliefs and practices were contributing to the breakdown of their family units.” .

Akuch Kuol Anyieth
Anyieth sees “a very bright future” for South Sudan. Photograph: Alana Holmberg/The Guardian

Meanwhile, her mother’s pride in her daughter’s academic achievements and advocacy for the South Sudanese community in Australia is also laced with a dose of traditional, albeit mild, aspiration.

Anyieth laughs that her mother prays to God “to provide Akuch with a good man, a good husband” before family dinners: “My sister just looks at me like, ‘Here we go again, just find the man already so that line can be deleted. prayers’.

Anyieth and Mary recently visited South Sudan for a vacation, 12 years after the country’s independence and more than 25 years after fleeing. She has seen rapid infrastructure development, but “politically, I’m not so sure”.

“Hopefully, if there are no more civil wars, then we see a very bright future for the country to develop and ensure there are no more displaced people.

“Right now there’s so much diversity, in terms of people coming back from the west or other countries in Africa, and that could be a beautiful thing, because people bring different elements of the world and can really contribute to overall development.”

This raises the question of whether Anyieth, who writes that her priorities are “my work in academia and my activism for non-violent family units and for community trauma healing”, has any desire to return to South Sudan. for longer periods to be part of this development.

Unknown: A Refugee's Story by Akuch Kuol Anyieth cover image
Unknown: A Refugee’s Story by Akuch Kuol Anyieth, published by Text Publishing. Photography: Text publication

“There are so many needs and demands in South Sudan because it is a very young country,” she says now. “It’s growing and developing very quickly and people like me who learned something in the West should bring it home.”

Once Anyieth gets her PhD, she will consider what is on offer here in Australia in terms of employment, or if there is a trip to the motherland coming up.

“South Sudan will always be our home, so will Kenya, Australia too. I feel incredibly lucky and so lucky to be able to be part of three different societies. All three countries will always be my home no matter which one in which I decide to settle down.

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