Reeling from yet another unfair accusation; the beleaguered Sudanese community in Australia is in the media spotlight once again
By Deng M. Koch
October 5, 2007 — Sudan is by land mass the largest country in Africa. It was colonized by British, in collaboration with Egyptians under what was known as the Anglo-Egyptian condominium, until it was granted independence in January 1956. Since then the African continent’s largest country has been experiencing a lot of political crisis resulting from failing policies of the successive, Khartoum based oppressive governments. Neglect of visually almost all the regions outside the immediate surroundings of Khartoum the capital on the part of Islamist governments of Sudan has led to long, protracted civil wars waged by the marginalized masses of outlying regions against the central governments which have been firmly controlled by a minority clique whose ancestral lines stretches back to Middle East, hence their claim of being Arabs and nonetheless their ideological quest for Arabisation and Islamisation of the largely African Sudan.
The Southern part of the country, which is predominantly African and Christian, and which has out rightly resisted the advances of the forced Islam, has been a war theatre for most of these struggles which stretch back to pre-independence period; the first liberation movement started in August 1955 in the historic Southern town of Torit, and went on for 17 years until a peace accord was signed between the Government of Sudan and the South Sudan Liberation Movement/Army (SSLM/SSLA) in 1972 in the Ethiopian Capital Addis Ababa. However, the terms of this agreement were violated one decade later by the Sudanese government, resulting in a much popular uprising which unlike the first one shook the entire Sudanese territory. The Sudan People Liberation Movement and Army (SPLM/SPLA), in its long, determined struggle against the oppressive regimes of Sudan, expanded the frontlines to Nuba Mountains, South Blue Nile and Eastern Sudan, all of which are also badly marginalized regions. The SPLA vision of New Sudan, which emphasizes secular, democratic, united and politically inclusive Sudan in which citizenship or nationality determines one’s rights to liberty, protection and services; as opposed to the old, hegemonic Sudan in which religious affiliations and ethnicity plus other biased trends of social existence had been used to divide the national cake, thereby discriminating vast majority in the process.
The war waged by the SPLA against forces of Khartoum governments was long (22 years), vicious, relentlessly conventional and internationally of magnitude proportion. The African Sudanese in Darfur like their counter-parts in other marginalized regions of Sudan, having endured the harshest of conditions in the hands of security forces and government sponsored militant Arab tribes, also formally rebelled against the Sudanese government in 2003; just at a time when the ruling Junta was busy negotiating peace with the Sudan people Liberation Movement in Kenya under the auspices of the inter-governmental authority on drought and development (IGADD), a body that brings together countries from the horn and eastern Africa.
Given the ferociosity (about 2 millions people dead through war and war induced calamities), length of time and the geographical scope the war has covered, it is not surprising that about 4 millions Sudanese were displaced internally, while up to nearly one million more are refugees within the international borders. It is at this background that tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands were resettled into Western hemisphere or in the countries that comprises the ‘Western World’. These countries include the United States of America, Canada, and United Kingdom, the Scandinavian countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland, amongst others. A substantial number of Sudanese people are found in the Asian Pacific, mainly Australia and New Zealand. There is no doubt or argument about how the generous offer by these nations to resettle the Sudanese people within their borders, had helped the refugees in particular and the Sudanese nation in general; indeed millions of thanks to these governments and their subjects. This leads me to the heart of the topic, the Sudanese community in Australia and issues faced by them.
CHALLENGES FACED BY THE SUDANESE PEOPLE IN AUSTRALIA
Australia is a country inhabited by a very diverse group of people; almost all cultures found on the face of earth are represented in the country’s social stratum. Nevertheless majority people come from Anglo-Sexon countries and Asia, as well as from Italo-Spanish speaking countries. Since it is a country that acknowledges and boasts about its multicultural heritage, many people in Australia are friendly, generous and welcoming to the new arrivals. The Sudanese, Liberians, Siera-Leoneans, Congolese and many other Africans are the most recently arrived groups of people, in addition to those from Middle Eastern countries.
However, the Sudanese stands out among the other Africans! First of all they are the majority (about 25000 individuals) and secondly their physical structure – they are mostly strikingly tall and black. In addition to their physical traits, the Sudanese have their own various cultures and ways of life, of which they are always proud to emphasize, hence putting them at odd with some circles in the mainstream society. There are growing perceptions among many people who see Sudanese as “gangs” and all sorts of accusations has been leveled against the community. It is a universally known fact that the Sudanese people, whether from the north or south of their country, and in all their diversity, outside politics love one another and like hanging out in groups and in their houses you can often find dozens of people, males and females, sitting together and enjoying conversation over meals and tea or coffee.
Young people usually hang out together and in a group of up to 30 individuals, they can swarm one place at any particular time; Sudanese people too, talk, laugh or crack jokes loudly, there is nothing wrong with that, at least within the context of their cultures, it is all fine and healthy. Many cultures of Sudan, particularly those bigger communities, do not tolerate acts of thugery, theft, conspiracy to commit crimes or any form of criminal behavior; this is because it is unacceptable within the norms and values of their society. Sudanese people’s principles of social integrity, like in most of the third world communities, revolves around the circle of courage phenomenon, to borrow Martin Brokenleg’s theory of “Native Wisdom on Belonging”. According to Mr. Brokenleg’s study of American Indians, he suggested that the social values of the American Indians are based on four key principles: Belonging, Mastery, Independence and Generosity. It simply therefore means that belonging to a specific community means a lot in the African cultures, just as it is the case with the American Indians, hence the Sudanese usually discourage individuals from behaving in any way that bring shame and damage to the image of the community. Then what are all these talks about Sudanese “misbehavior” in Australia?
First of all the Sudanese people are not unique among the human race, hence there are individuals bound to acts contrary to the set values and norms, whether in a social sense or in criminology point of view. Like in any 21 century society, there are drink drivers, unlicensed drivers and other petty anti-social behavior issues, the main things of which the Sudanese have been accused of doing in Australia. In other words there are petty criminals among Sudanese people just as there are in other societies; but is the criminality most ferocious in the Sudanese community than any other community? Absolutely no! Then where does the notion of Sudanese being referred to as “gangs” stem from? This perception is mainly derived from two areas, the fact that many Sudanese people, particularly the youths, like standing in groups as they exchange greetings and pleasantries in public arenas, such as libraries, shopping centres, and bus or train stations. To them the Sudanese, such behaviors are never a problem, but to some Aussies, it is a serious problem as it causes some “inconveninces”. The other area is that the Sudanese are singled out by some people, not because of anything wrong they do, but because of pure paranoism, xenophobia and racism.
Looking at these aspects and contrast it to other major issues of concern in the post September 11 era, one can safely conclude that the Sudanese people pose no threat whatsoever, to the security, political or social establishment in Australia; thus the growing xenophobia is merely a trampling and stepping upon the toes of people who are helpless and whom the smearers, particularly the media, know will not fight back hard – they have become a damping ground on which any naïve analysts, along with the marauding media, can parrot anything on without expecting meaningful repercussions.
Unlike the usual parroting of unfounded accusations against the Sudanese people in the Australian media, the recent comments from the Australian Immigration Minister, Honorable Kevin Andrews, have been noted by the community with particular concerns. In his comments, the Honorable Minister stated: “Sudanese refugees generally have low level of education and have spent up to ten years in refugee camps, making them finding it difficult to adjust to live in Australia.” True indeed those are facts but what is wrong with that? The Honorable Minister emphasized: “Some groups don’t seem to be settling and adjusting into the Australian life as quickly as we would hope”. So the whole idea is to “integrate” the refugee groups into Australian life as quickly as possible; fine there is nothing wrong with that but don’t the Sudanese deserve to be allowed time to do so, just as the Greeks, Italians, Ethiopians etc did? The timing of the Honorable Minister’s comments in itself is very unfortunate, because it came a day or two after the fatal bashing of a Sudanese teenager. This prompted the Chairman of the African Think Tank, Dr. Berhan Ahmed, who lashed out at the Minister’s comments saying it was inconceivable that a murdered Sudanese refugee has been linked to a cut in African refugee intake. Actually the Hon. Minister is not to blame for coming to such a conclusion, simply because the media and some circles in the wider Australian society have been feeding the public with all sorts of unfounded allegations and charges against the entire Sudanese community; oftentimes not distinguishing individuals’ criminal behavior from the entire community. For example, whenever a Sudanese person is found driving without a license or drank, it becomes an acts committed by the whole community!! But when an Aussie is found the same way, it is treated as an individual mistake or crime, call whatever you may like! Already there have been at least three fatalities in the Sudanese community, all relating to criminal assault and bashing of the victims, yet the media don’t make noise.
Since the Sudanese community in Australia is largely citizens of Australia, one would expect to see any individual criminals or law breakers treated first and foremost, as Australian citizens, not as Sudanese; secondly one expects people in authority to verify facts before going public with ill-advised information, to avoid misperceptions about the given community in the wider public. Nevertheless, the Sudanese who are citizens of Australia have every opportunity to exercise their democratic rights of voting! This year is an election year in Australia, hence the tens of thousands Sudanese Australians, not mentioning other Africans, can swing the balance of power to either party of the two main Political parties, depending on which party is seen as willing to listen and address the issues facing the besieged community.
The author is a qualified Sociologist and a concerned member of the Sudanese community in Australia. He is the former Chairman of the Bhar El Ghazal and Upper Nile Youth Association (BUYA) of Western Australia and is the Gurtong Peace Trust Correspondent in the West Coast of Australia.