Archived News Item

Stories about Sudanese experience in Australia

The Institute’s Specific Issues Committee, Asylum Seekers and Refugees are encouraging readers to reflect on a collection of “good news” stories about Sudanese people who have settled in various parts of Victoria and New South Wales. These grass-roots stories, from various Sisters of Mercy and their colleagues, communicate messages of courage, welcome, mutual respect, learning and inspiration.


Respecting cultural differences – acting out of cultural ignorance

The arrival of some 20 Sudanese families in Ballarat about two years ago meant that people in the rural city of about 80,000 in population, were for the first time seeing in the streets numbers of very dark, and very tall, dignified peoples. The numbers have further increased with the arrival of about 12 Togolese families.

Responsibility for the integration of these families into our Ballarat community has been helped by a number of us equipping ourselves as home tutors in English language or as a mentor to a particular family. I write this from my experience as a mentor to a Christian family consisting of mother, father, and six children, with an age range from 16 down to baby Jama, 14 months. I am “Auntie Rita” to the children, a title spontaneously given to me by Mary, the mother, after I had become a regular visitor to the home over a couple of months.

My awareness of cultural ignorance came after baby Jama’s birth. Mary was about four months pregnant when I was first assigned to the family by the Ballarat Regional Multicultural Centre. I went fortnightly to the clinic with Mary and helped her to understand, mostly by learning with her, the hospital system as it applied to her situation. It was at the time of Jama’s birth that I acted out of cultural ignorance. I had failed to talk enough, to learn something of the Sudanese tradition so that more respect could have been shown for cultural practices within an environment totally strange to her, although it was Mary’s sixth child.

Soon after Jama was born we brought the other children in, they sat around the mother’s bed, along with the father, and after asking the mother if it was okay, I took baby from the crib and held her for each of the children to nurse: four boys aged seven to sixteen, and also for Sowiti, five years old and the only sister.

Later, I discovered that the Sudanese practice is that for the first month of the life of a baby life continues as though baby is still in the womb; mother and baby are totally together with minimal contact with others, even family members. Baby sleeps with mother who wears only nightdress and gown day and night during the entire month. Visitors do not speak to mother or hold baby. It was not Mary who told me of the difference in cultural practice but it has been a warning to me about acting out of cultural ignorance. My “baby blunder” is now used by Mary and me as a yardstick by which we measure any future activities or plans for the family.

My experience is that our city has much to gain by the arrival of these families.  Many of them have lost property, stock and their homes and as Christians they have fled danger.  They are keen to take advantage of educational and other opportunities and to become involved in the local community.  They have much to offer us.  As Christians living in Ballarat they have been helped by a local lay preacher to worship and to find support as an African Community in the Church of Christ.  My observation on checking with people elsewhere is that whatever church community reaches out to them is the place where they settle. However, lately a family has moved to our Catholic parish community, they stated that Eucharist and the sacraments, for themselves but especially for their children, was essential to their faith life.


WORDS BY Cecelia Gleeson RSM
The Sudanese first came to Warrnambool in 2003 as a result of the Warrnambool City Council’s participation in a relocation plan for refugees. The first families were mainly Catholics and quickly settled in to the family groups within the parishes. This seems to be a very important factor in their ready acceptance and their immediately feeling at home. Once settled, they promptly began sponsoring their relatives directly from Egypt. For the children, this meant that they were not able to access the 12-month English language classes available in Melbourne. Children of primary school age have managed fairly well; it has been, and still is very difficult for the secondary school students with Arabic as their first language.

At present there are six students at Emmanuel College, ranging from Year 7 to Year 11. I have been involved in taking students, in a voluntary role, on a one-to-one basis to help with their English. These students are assisted in the provision of books and uniforms. The local TAFE College runs English classes which some students access part-time and we work in close contact with the teachers there.

WORDS BY Leah Brooks, a mother whose family has befriended a Sudanese boy.
Zac became friends with Mar during his kinder year. Mar was lucky to have a kinder teacher who is actually involved in the Warrnambool Sudanese migrating programme. Zac and Mar appeared to hit it off straight away. As Mar lived in our street I offered to pick him up for kinder or drop him off when needed.

This first year was a learning year for Mar’s family and mine! When Mar received his first invitation to a party it was all new to him. They didn’t realise you took a present which is the first thing noticed by children! So between the kinder teacher and me we were able to do some explaining. Mar is quite popular with other children and gets invited to many of parties.

The issues of time and language provide learnings for both families. I like to be punctual which is not so for this family. With language, when we go to Mar’s house, his Mum often speaks to him in their language and Zac then asks me what she said! Victoria (the mother) has taken advantage of the opportunity offered by the city council to assist her with English.
Fortunately, Mar began primary school at St Joseph’s and he and Zac were in P/1/2 together. This year they are in different rooms. There are two other Sudanese families in our school. Mar’s English has been quite good all along, although there has been another child who needed extra support in learning English so our reading recovery teacher has given that.
When I ask Zac if he’d like to have a friend over he likes to ask Mar who also has a younger brother in Grade 1 so sometimes they both come with us. He had a day with us at the caravan park over Christmas, which he enjoyed.

Overall, the Sudanese in Warrnambool have been very fortunate as the City Council runs many programmes with the help of grants. Mar and his brother have had swimming lessons, social gatherings are organised and the boys are involved in soccer.

WORDS BY D.M. Rooney
Maybe it was in 2004 or just after, or there again maybe just before 2004 that we personally became acquainted with members of the Sudanese community in Warrnambool.

It was also about this time that the Sudanese community became acquainted with the Warrnambool community.

It is amazing how an event becomes a catalyst for change. In my memory it was the incident of the TAMPA that focused people’s attention to the plight of the refugees, who at that time were mainly from the Middle East. Over 300 people in Warrnambool gathered at short notice to “do something” for those who were seeking refuge in Australia: the South West Action for Refugees was formed.

As events evolved there seemed also to evolve a general change in attitude within the community towards others, particularly those who were escaping from lives and situations that we could hardly imagine. Maybe it was a result of this attitudinal change that the Warrnambool City Council took part in an Immigration Department pilot programme which saw approximately 10 refugee families come into the area; the majority Sudanese.

Some of us met the families formally through organisations, others by just knocking on the door of a stranger and welcoming them into the community.

Not all the Sudanese families have come directly from overseas; some had been in Australia for a few years and were living in outer Melbourne. Many saw the opportunity to relocate to a country town as a step towards a more positive future particularly for their children. The casual jobs on offer in the district, particularly in meat packing, were seen as temporary hardships as they secured a better future for their families.

“The country is good for the kids, good for growing a family and for our future planning of further study and getting stable jobs”.

The presence of a university campus in Warrnambool had also been a positive reason for relocating here; many who came to Warrnambool had either completed or were in the process of completing university degrees or other tertiary studies. They see future opportunities for their children.

Contact with the Sudanese families has changed attitudes, we see good will and support from many sectors of society. As recently as last year over 3,000 people, 10 per cent of the city population, signed a petition requesting that the then Minister of Immigration review a visa application for a father to join his family in Warrnambool.

My father who has supported African children via the Plan project for over 25 years had the opportunity in his 90s to actually meet and become a great friend to the families in the community: he is known as “Uncle Rooney” and delights in the visits and the handshakes of children and adults alike.

There have been cultural adjustments and adaptations on all sides. Some examples:
We have adjusted to the etiquette of inquiring about all members of the family: a conversation begins with queries about all members of the family immediate and extended.

The Sudanese community are adjusting to sharing meals with both men and women, something unthinkable in their own community.

We are adjusting to the fact that the families will always bring very generous offerings of food with them when visiting, and we have learnt that this is an opportunity to share food with them, food that they can take to their homes.

Some changes and adaptations occur naturally, while others occur through formal education. Within the community there have been numerous workshops organised to help families, in particular to mothers, so they can learn about the customs that impact on their children. After a mother learnt of the custom of the “tooth fairy”, her young daughter said with delight when it was suggested that she spend her $2, “No, I’m taking it to school to show that the tooth fairy DOES come to black kids!”

Many people in the community have supported and continue to support the Warrnambool Sudanese in their endeavours to make new lives for themselves and their families, in particular through driving lessons, car loans, babysitting, gardening and language lessons.

There is so much that is different in their society, so much that is  so absolutely foreign about us, and so much that makes their adjustment difficult. But it is happening and we are adapting together.

We have shared the sorrows of hardship and death, the joy of births and reunions. And we have sung, danced and laughed together.

That’s the “good news” story, but then unfortunately, there’s the other side of the story too.

The Mamre Project – Southern Sudanese Programme

WORDS BY Mary-Louise Petro RSM
In St Marys in Western Sydney there is a wonderful example of Mercy in action. The Mamre Project has now included in its work for disadvantaged people, a programme for around 40 newly settled Sudanese families from the surrounding areas.

The hard work of transforming a rustic workshop into fine classrooms and the furnishing of a beautiful crèche culminated in an opening ceremony in April 2007. The building refurbishment was funded by the Federal Government Regional Development Programme, GROW, and many business and personal donations. Now, in 2008, they can hardly keep up with the requests from Sudanese families to be part of the programme.

This programme is a wonderful example of Sisters of Mercy working in conjunction with other institutions, such as Sydney West Area Health, Penrith Women’s Health, the University of Western Sydney, the local TAFE, Nepean Migrant Access and several other partners, to provide a much needed community service. Of course, this programme would not be possible except for a very generous group of volunteers who assist in numerous ways through donations, bus drivers, crèche assistants, early childhood education teachers, English language tutors and general hospitality.

At the Official Opening Akun Dut and Deng Athum, a husband and wife who have taken a leadership role in the community, spoke these words:

“We want to keep our culture and contact with each other and Mamre is a place where this is possible. It is a beautiful place… it reminds me of home, of the farms I remember from Sudan. Mamre has become a haven of safety and freedom in the difficult transition to life in Australia.” Akun Dut

“After nine years in Australia in May, my wife will have our sixth child. These kids will not suffer as we have suffered. They will have a good life and they will use their talents to help Australia. This place is a blessing” Deng Athum

If you live near St Marys, perhaps you might like to contribute in some way to this great initiative for Sudanese families.

Classes are held four days a week at Mamre, with the opportunity for the women to engage in Living Skills Programmes at the Nepean Migrant Access on Fridays. English Language classes are offered three days a week and English and Information Technology (IT) classes on two evenings. Other programmes include child care and development, health and nutrition, road safety, women’s health, computer literacy and cleaning.

The evening classes for men and women provide IT skills and a TAFE outreach course in cleaning and housekeeping for the hospitality industry. Five of the men have been assisted into employment and a new partnership with a Job Network provider is being formed to assist with employment issues.

The crèche provides a wonderful service to complement the programme. Indeed, the women would not be able to attend without this facility. Approximately 30 children attend each day and in addition to the socialisation and other skills development offered to the children, there is also a pre school program to help with school readiness. The joy of the Sudanese women as they meet each day is very obvious as is the delight of the children as they run to greet their teachers. As the women become more fluent in English, they interact more and more with the other staff and volunteers at Mamre.

The other side of the sudanese story

WORDS BY Maureen Keady CSB and Mary-Louise Petro RSM
Even though Mamre is able to give such wonderful help to Sudanese families, we are constrained by a lack of resources and can’t help all who ask us for help. In Mt Druitt, there are four mothers with small children who would like to come to Mamre, but the distance to the train is too much for them to push their prams, and we don’t have another bus and volunteer driver to collect them. The best we can do in this instance is for a volunteer to give them an English lesson once a week at home.

Various other situations come to our attention and sometimes we can be of assistance. For example, Eva needs a procedure involving day surgery, and the appointment her doctor made for her was at Parramatta hospital at 9:00 am on a Saturday morning. She is a single mother with five young children living in the Penrith area, and could not possibly get there. As well, the doctor didn’t bulk bill! In this case we were able to arrange an appointment for local doctors who bulk bill.

Anna’s husband has accumulated a mobile phone bill for $2,000, because he got involved in a scheme which promised him “free calls”. Mobiles that are not pre paid are a constant problem.

Driving without a license is acceptable in Sudan, and Sudanese men take some convincing about the consequences if they do it here in Australia.

Alma (name changed), has been in Australia for a few years. She came with her four children. Her husband was presumed dead in the Sudan. She came with no English language and few skills. She has been coming to Mamre for four years and in that time has lurched from one disaster to the next. She doesn’t appear to know how to keep house and has had to change rental accommodation on several occasions. The last time it took her, and others helping her, months to find somewhere that would take her. She is a lovely lady but the cultural differences appear to be beyond her.

In the midst of this, her husband was found alive but dying in Sudan and died a short time later. She then was begging money to have a proper funeral for him in Australia even though he was in Sudan. A local high school gave her $2,000 for this purpose. It was a requirement of the Sudanese culture. She has a child by a partner in Australia but lacks the skills to raise him in Australia.
She struggles with budgeting and often can’t pay bills. Much help has been offered by case workers and supporters but she can’t cope at all. Because of the culture, she is like many of the widowed women here, seen to be beneath the married couples. She is isolated and has no other family with her for support. Her mother is still alive in the Sudan and she misses her enormously. I would say she is quite powerless to have control over her life. She wants work but would never get work or be able to keep it if she did – time management, reliability and lack of organisation being the main reasons.

There is so much working against her it will take her much longer than others settle and life will be a struggle for her for a long time.

These are a few examples of how different life is here for Sudanese people. Arriving in a land that seems relatively affluent after the squalor and poverty of the refugee camps, they can fall into many traps, financial and otherwise. They are a proud people and, of course, do not like to be “managed”, but appreciate the friendship of Australians, and advice when they ask for it.

WORDS BY Sally Bradley RSM

  • As you read these very moving stories what images come to mind?
  • What aspects of these stories speak to your heart?
  • How do they encourage you in your own faith journey?

As I reflect on these moving stories of courage, welcome, mutual respect, learning and inspiration I am reminded of various themes and passages from scripture.

As Rita shares her growing awareness of the Sudanese custom of mother and baby spending the first precious month of life so totally together, this beautiful image reminds me of Psalm 139: “It was you who created my inmost self, and put me together in my mother’s womb; for all these mysteries I thank you: for the wonder of myself, for the wonder of your works …”    

In all the stories as communities make space for each other and give and receive hospitality, the call in Isaiah 54:2 becomes an encouraging reality: “Widen the space of your tent, stretch out your hangings freely, lengthen your ropes, make your pegs firm.” And again, in all stories, the Gospel call to “welcome the stranger” (cf. Matthew 25) is lived out in practical and empowering ways.

When I acknowledge the “other side of the story”, among the Mamre stories from Western Sydney, I am reminded of the stark reality of the Ballad of the Exiles at the beginning of Psalm 137: “By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept at the memory of Zion…” In the midst of each refugee story is also the grief, the loss and the struggle to relocate in a foreign culture, a foreign land.

From: Specific Issues Committee, Asylum Seekers and Refugees (Sisters Sally Bradley, Claudette Cusack, Geraldine Mugavin and Lorraine Phelan). The Committee warmly invites your response to the article or the issue.
Contact: Carmel Heagerty RSM, Institute Justice Co-ordinator