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'It's not safe for us': South Sudanese-Australians weather 'African gangs' storm

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'It's not safe for us': South Sudanese-Australians weather 'African gangs' storm

'It’s not safe for us': South Sudanese-Australians weather 'African gangs' storm Australian immigration and asylum 'It’s not safe for us': South Sudanese-Australians weather 'African gangs' storm

Luke Henriques-Gomes visits west Melbourne shops, churches and sports clubs to hear how residents cope with complicated social issues amid an onslaught of negative attention

South Sudanese leader Biong Biong
South Sudanese leader Biong Biong says his community has been misunderstood. Photograph: Luke Henriques-Gomes for the Guardian

At the Victory Grace Church in Albion, 100 worshippers sing and sway with their eyes closed and their palms out.

Leading them is Pastor Nathan Kuku, dressed in a tan leather jacket. He bounds across the room, his arms jutting out at sharp angles as he gesticulates with an almost Mick Jagger-like energy.

The gospel music swells. Some women lose their footing and are guided to the front of the church â€" technically a Maltese community centre in Melbourne’s western suburbs. Kuku places his hand on the women’s foreheads, and they collapse again.

Worshippers at the Victory Grace church in Albion. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Worshippers at the Victory Grace church in Albion. Photograph: Luke Henriques-Gomes for t he Guardian

The people here, who are from Melbourne’s South Sudanese-Australian community, have come seeking togetherness.

“We feel like we don’t have any back-up in this country,” Kuku tells Guardian Australia after the service. “If even the prime minister uses us as a shield to win votes, who can we go to?”

Five days before the congregation meets at Victory Grace, Malcolm Turnbull had lent his voice to the escalating rhetoric warning of an “African gangs crisis” in Melbourne. The prime minister told 3AW radio host Neil Mitchell that there was “real concern about Sudanese gangs”.

Play Video 1:31
Malcolm Turnbull: Sudanese gangs a ‘real concern’ for Melbourne â€" video

Suggestions of an African or Sudanese gangs crisis are strongly disputed by Victoria police, who tell Guardian Australia that while young people of African backgrounds are overly represented in some high-harm crime, they only represent a small portion of offenders.

Soon after speaking to Mitchell, at a press conference with the Victorian Liberal opposition leader, Matthew Guy, Turnbull made the same point, but added: “No one is making any reflections about Sudanese migrants, Sudanese in general.”

It was an important qualification but, according to many members of Melbourne’s South Sudanese community, the damage was already done.

“Even as a priest I feel insecure,” says Father Daniel Gai Aleu, at Holy Apostles Anglican church in Sunshine, just a few kilometres down the road from Victory Grace.

Father Daniel Gai Aleu is the parish priest at Holy Apostles in Sunshine. He says he feels ‘insecure’ in Australia. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Father Daniel Gai Aleu is the parish priest at Holy Apostles in Sunshine. He says he feels ‘insecure’ in Australia. Photograph: Luke Henriques-Gomes for the Guardian

When he goes to the supermarket, Aleu says other shoppers will “call the security guy and say, ‘look, this is a Sudanese’, and they will follow me”.

“I can say I’m an Australian but my colour only betrays me,” he says. “What can I do?”

In the days after Turnbull’s intervention, Guardian Australia visited shops, churches, sports clubs, community centres and a studio where a weekly Sudanese radio show is broadcast and heard how the community was struggling to cope with the onslaught of negative attention.

At a community hall in Footscray, one father says that after Channel Seven’s Sunday Night ran a story recently about “African gangs”, his workmates told him, “you are the guys who are creatin g problems”.

Being an African person, you’re built with strong skin

Achol Marial

No one here mentions the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, who claimed in January that Melburnians were afraid to go out to dinner because of gangs. Dutton on Sunday also suggested the death of 19-year-old Laa Chol was evidence of a “law and order problem” in Victoria.

Instead, people here in Footscray blame Turnbull for fuelling the debate. It hurts more, they say, because he is their leader too. Across the table, a grandmother demands an apology. “Does the government know what we are going through?” she says. “We need to hear something from him. We are living in shame.”

For many, the November state election looms large. Earlier this month the Victorian Liberal opposition distributed flyers claiming it would “stop gangs hunting in packs”.

“Being a small minority, we can easily be used for political gam es,” says Biong Deng Biong, who was separated from his parents at the age of nine and grew up in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

Is Melbourne in the grip of African crime gangs? The facts behind the lurid headlines Read more

Biong, who now heads a social service organisation for refugees in Truganina, on the outskirts of Melbourne’s fast-growing west, knows the next few months will be tough. “We can’t wait for this election to be over,” he says.

‘We acknowledge there’s a problem’

Many politicians have rejected the notion that calling out the Sudanese-Australian community by name is unfair.

Jason Wood, the federal Liberal member for La Trobe in Melbourne’s outer south-east and a former policeman, attributes the renewed focus on this group to a what he claims is a rise in the number of wild parties and brawls at short-stay rental properties around Melbourne.

“No one has an issue saying there’s an Irish gang co mmitting crime, or it was an Asian gang, or it was four Caucasian males committing the crime,” he says to Guardian Australia.

Wood lays part of the blame with the community’s leadership, accusing them of a “huge failure”.

“If I didn’t call it out,” he says, “they would never call it out themselves.”

Malcolm Turnbull joins political brawl over 'gangs' but is he fair dinkum? | Katharine Murphy Read more

Victoria’s crime statistics agency said in January that people from Sudan made up 0.1% of the state’s population. For crimes committed in the year ending September 2017, Sudanese people comprised 1.0% of the offender population. There were 846 offenders last year and, according to the same statistics, young Sudanese-born people committed 3% of serious assaults, 5% of car thefts and 8.6% of aggravated burglaries.

Australian-born people in Victoria made up 71.7% of the offender population.

The South Su danese-Australians Guardian Australia spoke to say they abhor the focus on their ethnicity but one of the most hurtful accusations directed at their community, they say, is that they are in denial.

Achol Marial and Nyuol Garang from the South Sudanese Community Association reject suggestions the community is in denial. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Achol Marial and Nyuol Garang from the South Sudanese Community Association reject suggestions the community is in denial. Photograph: Luke Henriques-Gomes for the Guardian

“We acknowledge there’s a problem,” says Achol Marial, the youth affairs officer at the South Sudanese Community Association in Victoria. Marial repeatedly refuted the suggestion of a ga ngs crisis but said there were issues with a minority of young people getting into trouble.

“We are trying to look after our youth, by visiting them in jails, at the parks, representing them in court, writing referral letters and support letters to help their cases and finding ways to get them into rehabilitation and community work.

“To keep seeing the same thing [media attention] repeated continuously on a weekly basis or a monthly basis is just not helping. It makes it look like the community is ignorant to the situation.”

Still, she remains positive, adding: “Being an African person, you’re built with strong skin.”

Many African community leaders point to high levels of unemployment as a key factor for problems affecting this small minority of young people. The unemployment rate for Sudan-born people above the age of 15 is 25.4%, according to the Department of Social Services.

“There are reasons why some of this behaviour is occurri ng,” says 21-year-old Somali-Australian Ahmed Hassan, who is the creator of the early intervention program Youth Activating Youth.

Working to bridge two cultures

The majority of Melbourne’s 11,000-strong South Sudanese-Australian community lives in the city’s working-class suburbs in the west and south-east.

Across the road from Noble Park train station, Suzi Garang is pottering about inside her variety store. The Douglas Street shop is called The Happy African and sells groceries, perfume, clothes and hair extensions.

The Happy African is one of a number of African stores near Douglas Street, Noble Park. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
The Happy African is one of a number of African stores near Douglas S treet, Noble Park. Photograph: Luke Henriques-Gomes for the Guardian

Over cups of black tea, Garang and Flora Peter wonder aloud why the media refers to “Sudanese” crimes. “These kids are born here but they’re South Sudanese,” Peter says. “What do you define as Australian? Do you need to be white with blonde hair?”

Garang calls over a relative who can explain “what’s happening with the kids”. The woman in an elegant bright pink coat who appears from the back of the shop does not want to give her name, but she opens up about the time her 17-year-old son left home and did not return for 14 days. She turns to an issue that Guardian Australia hears of repeatedly throughout the week.

There is a blame game here without understanding what is going on sometimes

Santino Deng

Unprompted, some South Sudanese-Australian parents convey a sense of frustration at Australia’s attitudes to d iscipline. They say they are used to disciplining their children their own way â€" in part an allusion to smacking â€" and that cultural differences and expectations here come as a shock, leaving them feeling confused and helpless.

“Most of them withdraw from being more assertive in their parenting practices because they think they could get into trouble,” says Santino Deng, who did his graduate thesis on South Sudanese family dynamics and parenting practices. “From there, the freedom that the child has become more than freedom.”

At the community hall at St John’s Anglican Church in Footscray, Deng engages the group in a discussion that melds parenting techniques with the challenges faced by migrants. Some of those gathered are grandparents and, in this context, this pilot program is a radical step forward. In Sudanese culture, it is unheard of for a younger man like Deng to give his elders advice on how to parent their children, his colleague Matoc Achol exp lains.

Matoc Achol hosts a Sudanese radio program on the Melbourne multicultural station 3ZZZ. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Matoc Achol hosts a Sudanese radio program on the Melbourne multicultural station 3ZZZ. Photograph: Luke Henriques-Gomes for the Guardian

“There is a blame game here without understanding what is going on sometimes,” Deng tells Guardian Australia. “That is what disappoints many of us.”

As the class turns its attention to the big pots of food that have emerged from the kitchen, mother-of-two Elizabeth Dau approaches. She says she is “scared every day” because of the abuse her eldest daughter, Aman, seven, receives at school.

“A few weeks ago, my daughter cam e and told me that me that a friend of hers called her a black dog,” she says, adding that the negative media attention makes things “so much worse”.

Dau is not sure whether to offer her daughter a kind of false reassurance or the harsh reality that “not everybody likes us”, but she has opted for the latter. “To whoever doesn’t like us, we tell them ‘thank you’,” she now says to her daughter.

Nelson Deng says it’s time for his community to present its positive stories to the public. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Nelson Deng says it’s time for his community to present its positive stories to the public. Photograph: Luke Henriques-Gomes for the Guardian

Fighting to clear their name

Nelson Deng, a criminology graduate who now works with an employment service program helping South Sudanese-Australian youths find jobs, says that when the “African gangs” debate hit its previous peak in January, the community “thought the media would learn one or two lessons”. Now, he is not so sure.

“It’s about time for all the South Sudanese, and Africans in general, to take extra steps to show people that we’re not what the media says,” he argues.

On Saturday nights, Deng pulls on his soccer boots to join about 25 young men for a scratch match in Albion. It is the second game of the day for many of the boys, so there are some heavy legs when they finally trudge off the field.

Western Tigers coach Jacob Thuch, who works as a nurse at a Melbourne hospital, reasons that if the young men are tired, “They’re not going to want to go out, they’re more likely to go home and watch Netflix.”

Western Tigers c   oach Jacob Thuch says weekend training sessions help keep kids out of trouble. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Western Tigers coach Jacob Thuch says weekend training sessions help keep kids out of trouble. Photograph: Luke Henriques-Gomes for the Guardian

Mayen Mayen, 23, tells Guardian Australia he does not feel encumbered by the negative attention his community is receiving. More specifically, he does not “care what the prime minister said”. But, sitting in the change rooms, he likens the overall feeling of the situation to a child being told they are not longer wanted at home.

When Mayen came to Australia in 2006, he did not see his mother for 10 years while he waited for her make it over from the refugee camp.

“Even though back in Kakuma we didn’t have everything, there was not a lot of food or water, we had love,” he says. “People accepted us for who we are.”

Mayen emphasises that he is “grateful for Australia”. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and dreams of being employed in that field. Right now, he is working in a factory to help support his mother and sister. When she saw him at the airport two years ago, she cried.

Tennant Creek and ‘African gangs’ expose the hypocrisy of white Australia | Jack Latimore Read more

The following day at Victory Grace, one woman tells Guardian Australia she no longer uses her Sudanese name on her résumé. The woman never used to get a callback but now she has two jobs working in aged care.

As the congregation spills out into the car park, the pastor, Kuku, confesses that when he’s out in public, he tries to smile at everyone he can. Even if it’s a “fake smile”.

T hese days he feels uneasy on the street, and like he is being watched when he is at the supermarket. His two teenage boys are not allowed to go to the shops without him.

“It’s not safe for us,” he says. “We feel rejected.”

Topics
  • Australian immigration and asylum
  • Melbourne
  • Australian media
  • Victoria
  • Victorian politics
  • Crime - Australia
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Source: Google Australia | Netizen 24 Australia

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