South Sudan's Unlikely Ally: The Aussies
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Down Under deserves some big ups.
By Nathan Siegel
For Yuang Thuong, the civil war that has engulfed his home country of South Sudan has exacted a terrible toll — he has lost his mother, father and uncle in the fighting. “I was born and grew up in war,” he says flatly. But while the conflict rages on, four years after his country gained independence from the north, the 40-year-old law student has found hope in an unlikely place: Australia.
It’s Down Under, where Thuong now lives, where a few thousand fellow refugees have forged one of the more unusual refugee-related organizations in the world for South Sudanese, uniting some 65 local communities under a single umbrella organization. Still in the early stages, the South Sudanese Unification Committee is focused on the needs of outsiders to a strange country — from employment to education — while nurturing the dream shared by the diaspora of any war-torn country: by coming together in a foreign land, they will help unite their people some 7,000 miles away who have been wracked by violence for decades.
The group could consult on current East Africa peace talks by explaining how they worked out their differences in Australia.
As it turns out, Australia is home to more than 19,000 Sudan-born residents (from both the north and south), according to the 2011 census, making it a leading destination for Sudanese refugees. In fact, after South Sudan gained independence in 2011, visitors to the Melbourne suburb of Clayton would have encountered throngs of South Sudanese and Aussies dancing at a community center, enjoying lamb kabobs and, at one point, listening to a speech via teleconference from South Sudanese president Salva Kiir. The thinking behind the new unified group is that by serving as a road map to negotiation among refugees, the same idea can be used abroad, says Moses Lado, secretary of SSUC.
Many Sudanese families first arrived in Australia around the second civil war in the late 1990s and early ’00s. Why, exactly? Because even if the Aussie government maintained fairly strict immigration policies, they resettled more refugees than almost anywhere else in the world — about 13,000 annually. In fact, Australia has provided substantial support in the form of education and short-term accommodation for incoming refugees, says Tanya Lyons, president of the African Studies Association of Australasia and the Pacific. On its own, of course, state support isn’t enough, which is where established communities of South Sudanese come in — to help newcomers, like Thuong, find jobs and deal with culture shock, language barriers and more, says Lyons.
Recently, however, Australia’s immigration laws have tightened while divisions in South Sudan have worsened — until the region erupted once again in civil war in 2013. The violence in South Sudan left at least 50,000 dead and 2 million displaced, with a broken cease-fire last year stoking tensions among the diaspora, particularly between the Dinka and Nuer tribes.
In light of the hostilities back home, it seems surprising that community leaders in Australia would choose this time to call for negotiations. But periods of conflict carry the greatest potential for hammering out a resolution between rival tribes, says Lado. The result was a weekendlong forum where almost every South Sudanese community leader in Victoria met face to face to birth an umbrella organization, which already has a constitution and elected leaders mid-April.
For now, local issues are the committee’s top priority, says Kot Monoah, 33, the group’s newly elected chairman. Unemployment among Sudan-born Australians hovers around 25 percent — five times the national average — and crime rates are high among Sudanese in Victoria. To alleviate these and other problems, having one central point of contact into the community “makes less work for the Victoria police while making sure every South Sudanese has a voice,” says Ron Gardner, community engagement officer for the Victoria Police.
In the same way, a single committee’s voice could make it easier to push Australia’s foreign policy makers toward negotiations in South Sudan, says Gardner. Or the group itself could consult on current peace talks in East Africa, according to Monoah and Lado’s vision, by sharing insights on how they successfully worked out their differences in Australia. “We’re going to have great influence,” Lado says confidently.
Of course, it’s naive to think the Australian government will automatically step in and help, even if a few thousand South Sudanese can bend the foreign minister’s ear. And with so much calling for attention in their new home, the committee may not get to its international agenda for some time, says Monoah. But South Sudanese throughout Australia have taken notice of the group and are eager to see what can be done. “I’ve gotten calls from all over saying, ‘We’re watching,’” says Lado. They aren’t the only ones.