'It's not safe for us': South Sudanese-Australians weather 'African gangs' storm
'Itâs not safe for us': South Sudanese-Australians weather 'African gangs' storm Australian immigration and asylum 'Itâs 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
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 Melbourneâs western suburbs. Kuku places his hand on the womenâs foreheads, and they collapse again.
The people here, who are from Melbourneâs South Sudanese-Australian community, have come seeking togetherness.
âWe feel like we donât have any back-up in this country,â Kuku tells Guardian Australia after the service. âIf even the prime minister uses us as a shield to win votes, who can we go to?â
Five days before the congregation meets at Victory Grace, Malcolm Turnbull had lent his voice to the escalating rhetoric warning of an âAfrican gangs crisisâ in Melbourne. The prime minister told 3AW radio host Neil Mitchell that there was âreal concern about Sudanese gangsâ.
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: âNo one is making any reflections about Sudanese migrants, Sudanese in general.â
It was an important qualification but, according to many members of Melbourneâs South Sudanese community, the damage was already done.
âEven as a priest I feel insecure,â says Father Daniel Gai Aleu, at Holy Apostles Anglican church in Sunshine, just a few kilometres down the road from Victory Grace.
When he goes to the supermarket, Aleu says other shoppers will âcall the security guy and say, âlook, this is a Sudaneseâ, and they will follow meâ.
âI can say Iâm an Australian but my colour only betrays me,â he says. âWhat can I do?â
In the days after Turnbullâs 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 Sevenâs Sunday Night ran a story recently about âAfrican gangsâ, his workmates told him, âyou are the guys who are creatin g problemsâ.
Being an African person, youâre built with strong skinAchol 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 âlaw and order problemâ 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. âDoes the government know what we are going through?â she says. âWe need to hear something from him. We are living in shame.â
For many, the November state election looms large. Earlier this month the Victorian Liberal opposition distributed flyers claiming it would âstop gangs hunting in packsâ.
âBeing a small minority, we can easily be used for political gam es,â 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 Melbourneâs fast-growing west, knows the next few months will be tough. âWe canât wait for this election to be over,â he says.
âWe acknowledge thereâs a problemâ
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 Melbourneâs 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.
âNo one has an issue saying thereâs an Irish gang co mmitting crime, or it was an Asian gang, or it was four Caucasian males committing the crime,â he says to Guardian Australia.
Wood lays part of the blame with the communityâs leadership, accusing them of a âhuge failureâ.
âIf I didnât call it out,â he says, âthey would never call it out themselves.âMalcolm Turnbull joins political brawl over 'gangs' but is he fair dinkum? | Katharine Murphy Read more
Victoriaâs crime statistics agency said in January that people from Sudan made up 0.1% of the stateâs 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.
âWe acknowledge thereâs a problem,â 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.
âWe 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.
âTo 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.â
Still, she remains positive, adding: âBeing an African person, youâre built with strong skin.â
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.
âThere are reasons why some of this behaviour is occurri ng,â 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 Melbourneâs 11,000-strong South Sudanese-Australian community lives in the cityâs 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.
Over cups of black tea, Garang and Flora Peter wonder aloud why the media refers to âSudaneseâ crimes. âThese kids are born here but theyâre South Sudanese,â Peter says. âWhat do you define as Australian? Do you need to be white with blonde hair?â
Garang calls over a relative who can explain âwhatâs happening with the kidsâ. 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 sometimesSantino Deng
Unprompted, some South Sudanese-Australian parents convey a sense of frustration at Australiaâs 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.
âMost of them withdraw from being more assertive in their parenting practices because they think they could get into trouble,â says Santino Deng, who did his graduate thesis on South Sudanese family dynamics and parenting practices. âFrom there, the freedom that the child has become more than freedom.â
At the community hall at St Johnâs 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.
âThere is a blame game here without understanding what is going on sometimes,â Deng tells Guardian Australia. âThat is what disappoints many of us.â
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 âscared every dayâ because of the abuse her eldest daughter, Aman, seven, receives at school.
âA few weeks ago, my daughter cam e and told me that me that a friend of hers called her a black dog,â she says, adding that the negative media attention makes things âso much worseâ.
Dau is not sure whether to offer her daughter a kind of false reassurance or the harsh reality that ânot everybody likes usâ, but she has opted for the latter. âTo whoever doesnât like us, we tell them âthank youâ,â she now says to her daughter.
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 âAfrican gangsâ debate hit its previous peak in January, the community âthought the media would learn one or two lessonsâ. Now, he is not so sure.
âItâs about time for all the South Sudanese, and Africans in general, to take extra steps to show people that weâre not what the media says,â 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, âTheyâre not going to want to go out, theyâre more likely to go home and watch Netflix.â
Mayen Mayen, 23, tells Guardian Australia he does not feel encumbered by the negative attention his community is receiving. More specifically, he does not âcare what the prime minister saidâ. 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.
âEven though back in Kakuma we didnât have everything, there was not a lot of food or water, we had love,â he says. âPeople accepted us for who we are.â
Mayen emphasises that he is âgrateful for Australiaâ. He graduated with a bachelorâs 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 âAfrican gangsâ 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 rÃ©sumÃ©. 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 heâs out in public, he tries to smile at everyone he can. Even if itâs a âfake smileâ.
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.
âItâs not safe for us,â he says. âWe feel rejected.âTopics
- Australian immigration and asylum
- Australian media
- Victorian politics
- Crime - Australia
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