Since the mid-20th century, Blacktown City Local Government Area (LGA) in outer Western Sydney has become home to settlers from many parts of the world. Although people from Afghanistan, Iraq, Liberia, Iran and Sierra Leone have recently moved to the region, people with a Sudanese background represented more than half of Blacktown LGA’s ‘emerging community’ settlers between 2003 and 2008.
The Blacktown region is also the preferred destination for Sudanese settlers to the Sydney metropolitan area and most live centrally within the suburb of Blacktown, a hub for support services and amenities. Churches and organisations such as SydWest Multicultural Services Inc. have played a key role in helping often traumatised Sudanese refugees adjust to their radically different environment.
I come to migrant resource centre … to meet with others my age. And then close to church for praying and then close to family doctor too. That’s why I like Blacktown.
I love Blacktown because I don’t know any other place better … because the school is near. I am learning English and the place where I’m learning English is near my house.
Settling in a new place
The southern Sudanese community in Blacktown is highly diverse. Because of the ongoing civil war, many were born elsewhere such as Khartoum, Egypt, Kenya and Uganda. Languages spoken include Dinka, Arabic and Acholi and a variety of dialects. Over half of the Sudanese newcomers to Blacktown arrived as part of a family of three or more people and are aged 24 or younger.
Settling in Blacktown has brought many new challenges for Sudanese refugees. They need to find houses and jobs, learn a new language, gain work experience, learn new life skills such as driving and form-filling, settle into school or vocational study, develop new networks and relationships, adapt to vastly different cultural attitudes and lifestyles, including food, and learn about new rights and responsibilities. Blacktown’s Sudanese settlers have faced these challenges with enormous courage and resilience.
People who come from Kenya, Uganda, they have to have the time for someone to give them the knowledge for using the facilities … using gas cooking, telephone, [televisions] …
Some [Sudanese people], they don’t know how to control the money [because they never had any].
Many south Sudanese refugees have come to Blacktown because there is already an established Sudanese community in the area. Established Sudanese settlers have offered newcomers support and understanding; familiar faces – often people who have experienced similar traumatic displacement; shared languages, beliefs and humour; similar food and social life. In short, a sense of self.
… it is good to have somebody … the migration people were encouraging that. They found it better for somebody to go and stay with a person he knows very well than … go to a place where he is completely unknown.
Youth & education
School age children appear to adapt more easily, due in part to their participation in the education system.
The older people don’t come together, it’s hard for them. Younger ones they love it … My younger brother who came out with me, even his accent is different … He hangs out with ‘Australian’ children. I wish I could have come here when I was a child.
There are situations where children bring notes home from school and parents are unable to read them. Children learn language fast and don’t have trouble making friends.
However, sometimes tensions arise.
Life in Blacktown, it’s not so bad and it’s not very good. … There’s been … issues among young people and I think that’s due the reason of different cultures, different languages and misunderstanding and they don’t know how to communicate with one another.
(Mayor Makuei Chagai)
The broader Blacktown community has worked hard to alleviate these awkward situations. Study programs have helped students deal with different educational demands. Sporting events have become opportunities for Sudanese children to join in group activities and bond easily through joint endeavours with children from the diverse ethnic groups in the area.
Work & welfare
Some Sudanese adults find it harder to adapt. They are the income earners who seek new skills and qualifications. Many, who have been independent all their lives, find it difficult to be reliant on welfare benefits until they find work. Some feel their expertise is being lost. These challenges are faced while trying to fit in with a new way of living, establishing new contacts and relationships within the Sudanese and broader local community and paying the bills.
There has been a financial crisis in the house because the children are in school [and not working] and there was a time where the telephone was disconnected because of the lack of money.
Coming to Sydney wrecked my job opportunities. … As soon as I entered Australia my life changed from being reliant to being dependent. … I’m wasting potential knowledge.
(Hermann Androga Awola)
I can’t fit in [the city]. I’m not from a town. I’m from a village. You can’t change apples into onions. When I’m given appointments I can’t find out where to go. I hate being dependent on Centrelink [welfare agency]. You look for a job, there is none.
Many people in Blacktown’s Sudanese community accept both paid and volunteer work to help newcomers adjust to their changed life, often becoming involved in health care or social assistance.
I volunteer myself … and work with [the police] to see how people are interacting between the communities.
(Alam Mathiang Machot)
… I’ve been involved in like, encouraging other young people to not feel intimidated by other cultures or … misunderstand other people because of the way they are, the way of their cultures, the way of their languages. That’s part of my youth work.
(Mayor Makuei Chagai)
We [Sudanese people] support each other, we come together.
Freedom & respect
Many southern Sudanese people enjoy the stable, free and democratic society they have found in Blacktown. Most of the community participants interviewed for this project have little direct experience of racism but know of others who have.
Some people think that [Sudanese] people are not working … but that’s not the idea. … They are finished their job, they are coming there and socialising. This is part of our culture. It is not that we are idle … everyone has something to do.
There is some places where you can get a lot of stones thrown on you. Some people saying something which is not likeable to a human being in the world … but in Blacktown everybody is special to each other and that’s what we want.
(Charles Bak Chol Wol)
I have the opportunity to do the things [in Australia] that I like without anybody’s approval. I like that … I don’t have anybody tell me, ‘You have to stop working … it is not what women should do’.
(Abour (Grace) Jook)
Culture & traditions
Blacktown life has offered the community a chance to be part of a new culture while maintaining the traditions and identity of their Sudanese heritage.
We are all equal but we are in a different country. … Knowing where you came from is better than if you do not know where you came from.
(Charles Bak Chol Wol)
Different colour, but culture will be the same.
While southern Sudanese life is based on family and religious groups, Blacktown Sudanese life remains centred on the family and church through social gatherings, sport, shared meals using traditional cuisine and cultural events. A strong tradition of singing has enriched Blacktown’s cultural life.
Sometimes when there is an event or something taking place like Australia Day … I love to go there and watch …
Life in Blacktown is very good … I have friends in the Sudanese community where I can easily talk my language all day … I can get some traditional food … even community events … where we get some traditional dance … that is very exciting.
People still feel attachments to Sudan, but many also love their new lives. Most of the participants retain a special place in their hearts for the homeland they have lost and family and friends left behind, and look forward to the day southern Sudan gains independence.
One day we may love this land (Sudan) again.
(Makuei Ajak Ariik)
They also recognise the opportunity for a better life in Australia for themselves and their children.
Definitely [Australia] will be a positive future for the community, especially for the young generation.
(Charles Bak Chol Wol)
Our children will be free-minded here [in Australia]. Young Sudanese and young Australians together … Children bring peace.
Unfortunately for some, reality has not met expectation. There have been disappointments and not all Sudanese settlers have strong faith in a rosy future. However, solidarity and kinship is strong among the Sudanese and people want to pursue educational and working opportunities to maybe, one day, do something for their people – family, friends and fellow Sudanese – who are still in southern Sudan or the places where they have found some form of refuge.
I was studying at college level [in Blacktown]. I was thinking about where I could go to achieve something for my life and for people back home.
(Alam Mathiang Machot)
We came here to help each other, we came here to help our people.