Home | Comment & Analysis    Wednesday 4 December 2019

The cries of South Sudanese women in Australia


Biong Deng Biong

Amidst Melbourne’s African youth crime saga and its associated political chaos, a quiet cohort watch events unfold, weary and grim-faced. They are the struggling mothers of the South-Sudanese community, family-minded women, once optimistic of a peaceful new life after decades of war and upheaval. Now, they say, each day is a battle. Many are barely coping from the turmoil surrounding their teens, and complex issues arising from the long-term settlement have deeply shaken their resilience.

The youth crisis is compounded by alarming numbers of suicides and stress-related deaths in the South-Sudanese community, with mental illness, unemployment, family breakdown, and constant threats of homelessness, financial pressures and more impacting the community in Victoria. Mothers, in particular, have carried much of these burdens. Their silent sufferings have been overshadowed by the youth, and this stoic but exhausted army of women contend with feelings of hopelessness, regret, discontent with the legal system, and the crushing sense of not belonging. These are my immediate observations when I engage with these affected mothers. Many of them express sorrow about their initial decision to resettle into the country, lamenting that “we were better off in a warzone or a refugee camp than being in Australia”. Statements such as these are commonplace in my conversations with South-Sudanese women. And so, the question must be asked: if a mother can prefer life in a warzone over the world’s most liveable city, where did it all go so horrifically wrong?

When the South Sudanese first received their visas to permanently settle into Australia, myself included, it felt like the gates of Heaven had been opened. A second chance in life after years of war, displacement, trauma and uncertainty in refugee camps. Many mothers immediately had great hope for their children, a new generation that could be assured of safety, peace, health and endless opportunities in a land of abundance. In particular, however, they had a fervent desire for their children to gain a quality education. They longed for their offspring to enjoy what they could not, and for their families and community to immerse themselves fully into Australian life.

Indeed, the first few years of settling into Australia exceeded expectations; life was good, safety and freedom were enjoyed, and many obtained paid employment. The locals were friendly and welcoming. Families could enrol children in their school of choice without discrimination and healthcare was accessible. Over the years, however, cracks began to appear as issues began to emerge in the community. These same parents, once happy and hopeful, now wish they had never come to Australia.

Every mother’s dreams, regardless of her colour, religion or ethnic background, rest with her children. A parent goes to any length to ensure their children are safe, healthy and successful. South Sudanese mothers, of course, are no exception. I have vivid memories of the women in war-torn South Sudan, running through gun crossfire to bring their children to safety. They used their bodies to shield their children from bullets or danger. They foraged for days for food and water from the desert, preferring to starve to death so long as their children were fed, and they walked thousands of miles to find safety and shelter for their precious little ones.

This burning love continued upon their arrival in Australia. Holding nothing back, they dedicated their entire life for their children. A single mother with minimal language skills and support does whatever it takes to meet the needs of her family. South-Sudanese mothers ceased their own development to give more to their children. As their infants grew, they thrived, showing great promise in Australia. Small successes in their early years and primary education were celebrated and mothers continued to strive for their children to prosper. In the years that followed, however, something shifted, and as their children became adolescents, the first signs of youth crime began to appear.

It began slowly, with isolated incidences. A mother who had previously never heard anything negative about her child, to her dismay, would receive a call from the police that her child had committed a crime or had been detained. Parents received this news with disbelief and often questioned the motives or the cause, perplexed as to what might have pushed them to commit such unimaginable acts. As the incidences amplified, parents became increasingly concerned. They doubled their efforts to ensure their children were avoiding trouble. For some families, the extra vigilance worked, but for many others, it had no effect. Young people were having dealings with the law more frequently. Though the magnitude of the incidences was small, the media and some politicians were quick to place young Africans in the limelight.

Suddenly names and labels were splashed across the news, like African gangs, Apex thugs, and later, specifically naming the South Sudanese. Youth crime occurs all over Australia across all nationalities and ethnicities, however, politicians and powerful media figures felt it was necessary to single out the South-Sudanese youth. The issue soon escalated to an unprecedented scale.

Over the past few years, the media chaos has taken a great toll on the mothers. It did not help matters that a small group of young people fuelled the situation by committing stupid crimes, which only confirmed their perceived status as so-called “outcasts, rebels, gangs and criminals”. The awful acts of a few supported the frenzied campaign against them and the game went on for some time. Currently, South Sudanese youth are over-represented in juvenile detention, leaving parents heartbroken and confused, regretting their resettlement into Australia.

The broader impact of this negative campaign against the South Sudanese community is not widely documented. Not only the youth but any person of similar appearance has experienced some sort of discrimination or harassment. Young people are committing suicide and mental illness has greatly increased amongst both youth and women. Depression and anxiety are common, unemployment as a result of discrimination has increased, and a new trend of homelessness is beginning to emerge. A growing rate of young people are re-offending, utterly disengaged from school and entirely lacking in hope or direction for the future.

In the midst of all this, the Victorian government has shown great generosity to the South Sudanese and African Community. Through service provision, funding and other means, the government has offered much support, including significant collaboration with community leaders. The development of the Africa Action Plan and Community Support Group funding are a few examples of government-supported initiatives that have positively affected the community. However, the issue still exists, and as the mothers can testify, the fallout has been enormous. With their children incarcerated, mentally unwell, suicidal, disengaged, abusing substances or having already died, their hopelessness is at a critical level. For the mothers, they have lost everything they lived for.

So what else can be done to help resolve the issue?
Albert Einstein once retorted “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about the solution.” This statement clearly identifies that more time needs to be invested in studying the problem- investigating its roots- to achieve a lasting solution. I believe we need to reconceptualise the issue and challenge the assumptions we initially had. Einstein also suggested that we cannot solve problems with the same thinking that created them, and thus we need to reassess our approach and the current solutions in place.

The following are some suggested approaches in tackling the youth crisis in Victoria:
? We need to look at the problem from the parents’ perspective. Providing parents with tools to support their children could strengthen family ties, empower communities and create a sustainable outcome. This may include capacity-building training and education, targeted community support and access to opportunities and resources
? Politicians, in particular, those with a negative view about the South Sudanese or the African community at large, need to collaborate with parents and work with them toward a lasting solution.
? Service provision needs to be reviewed. There is a need for a rights-based approach instead of a charity or needs-based approach. Else, we are creating a culture of dependency which will eventually drive people into poverty.
? The rate of re-offending is overwhelming. There is a need to review rehabilitation activities or programs delivered at the juvenile level as well as laws governing parole and re-offending. The likelihood of most minors re-offending after serving time in juvenile detention is alarmingly high, with the nature of criminal activity increasing in its intensity. This strongly indicates that a radical overhaul of the detention model is urgently required.
? Anti-racial and discrimination laws need to be tightened or reviewed
? The media needs to take moral responsibility for their actions and genuinely report with fairness. The social and political consequence of fearmongering is significant, and this must be avoided at all costs.
? Efforts need to double in delivering the early intervention. There must be a renewed focus on children staying in school. Those who have completed Year 12 have a far greater chance of success and a significantly lowered risk of offending than those who have dropped out in earlier years. Appropriate educational and vocational pathways must be accessible to all young people.
? In their desperation, some parents have asked authorities to give their children a second chance by allowing parents to take their children overseas for rehabilitation. This approach needs to be considered.
? The South Sudanese community, especially leaders, need to do their part in changing public perception about their community.

In the storm of negativity, however, there are seeds of hope. Although most South Sudanese keep a low profile because of the reputation of their community, many prosper and continuously thank God and the Australian people for offering them a second chance for resettlement. There many stories of success, and these, if reported, could easily change public perception. Even among young people, the majority are doing the best they can despite the unsettling climate around them.

To conclude, mothers have been so devastated by the teen crisis to the point of regretting their resettlement to Australia. The community has received multiple blows, and the aftermath has led to stress-related death, mental illness, long-term unemployment, and intergenerational hopelessness on a grand scale. Despite enormous efforts by the Victorian government, the South Sudanese leaders, schools and community organisations, the issue has increased in its magnitude. Therefore, there is a great need to view the problem from a different lens and consider new strategies. Though there are good news stories amongst the bad, a house is only as strong as its weakest room.

In the end, we are all Australian. On some level, what affects one community affect us all, and a collective, holistic approach is crucial to ensuring a strong and united Australian people.

The author is an Executive Officer with Edmund Rice Services Ltd Australia. He currently resides in Melbourne, Australia.

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