John’s Story – I will just say it’s bad and good

Contributed by Dr Rosemary Suliman, College of Arts, Education and Social Sciences School of Humanities and Languages Bankstown Campus, University of Western Sydney. This story is based on an interview with a UWS student. The names have been changed, for confidentiality.

Place of Birth: Madi in South Sudan small town on the border between Sudan and Uganda
Cultural background: Southern Sudanese
Date of arrival: 2003

John was born in Sudan. When the Second Sudanese Civil War broke out, he and his family ran through bullets to reach the Ugandan border. James spent six years in a UN refugee camp, where he completed his primary education, on desks he built from stones and at night by lamplight. In 1995, he earned a scholarship to a Ugandan boarding school where he completed his secondary education, returning one week every three months to the refugee camp where his family still lived. In 2003, John was granted a humanitarian visa and came to Australia, where he immediately began his tertiary education. After TAFE courses in computing and English, he was accepted into an applied sciences degree at the University of Western Sydney. John works with people dealing with disability and speaks four languages.

John was born in 1978 in Eastern Equatorial Sudan, in a small town called Nimule near the border between Sudan and Uganda. His family was large, with eight children; six boys and two girls.

His memory of place and sense of belonging run deep.

Before we left Sudan, he says, we were at home.

And his sense of home is bound up with his memories of his family, and, though less directly, to memories of his early education.

You are with your family, and everyone is there. And you live at home very peaceful.

Your parents are there. They drop you to school every day in the morning. Then you come back home by yourself.

In this way, John’s family gave him an ongoing sense of stability, even when they were geographically inconstant.

My father was working in the local government as an accountant. In 1983 he moved to their regional headquarters in Tori and I started primary school there.

But John’s education, and his life with his family were not independent of the broader life of the nation.

In 1984 the war started cutting away in the small town.

In 1985 we left Tori and we moved back to my home town, Nimule.

There was no school in Nimule because of the war. Teachers could not access schools and schools were just stopped.

From 1985 to 1989, when I left Sudan, I didn’t go to school.

Soon after, John’s father was called away by the government to work in Juba. He left, and James’ eldest brother went with him.

James did not see his father again.

We didn’t know what happened with him. They just sent information that my father is dead.

In Nimule, the violence that had forestalled John’s education came clearly into his view.

The SPLA started coming to Nimule. The Sudanese People Liberation Army.

When the war started, we knew. The SPLA… sent information. They were going to be there at least by three pm, so everyone should be ready. There is going to be fighting.

There was.

It was really serious action, you know… the bullets.

My mom
decided to escape with us
through the bullets

We survived. We went to a small town called Nemi.

We walked
while we were running
we were having some few households items.

We came with food
and clothing
of course we couldn’t manage.
We were only young boys.

It took us nearly four hours to run to cross the border, to escape, to run to the extent where the bullets cannot reach.

And then we slept because we couldn’t continue.

When we moved out of the town we were a big group of people. But when the fighting started everyone was running and hiding on his own.
But me and my other brother, we were together.
my younger brother,
he just disappeared
and ran with other relatives.
We couldn’t find him for three days.

We found him with our relatives. They were in a small town at the border in Sudan.

So, in the midst of the violence that was overwhelming their country, James and his family became refugees. But this deeply traumatic transition was not easy.

We wanted to cross [the border] early on, but the government said that there was no evidence that the people were coming; there was no firing, no exchange of bullets so we have to wait. It’s very hard. Then these people come and start firing.

It was only when, in response to the gunfire, the people waiting to cross the border massed towards it, that the government finally let them through.

And though the arrival of UN forces carrying clothes, food, and tents offered some hope, life did not immediately improve.

We were brought to Uganda.

We came to the camp.


Life became just  unbelievably hard

Life in the camp was harsh. For John, the sense of dislocation was intense.

Life was very different, he says.

You entirely depend on food that is given to you by the UN. No proper accommodation. There were not places to sleep. There was nothing.

But, in the absence of all else, John was at least able to resume the education that he had been denied in war torn Sudan.

The UN opened schools so I started again my primary school. I went to primary three and I did very well and I continued studying from that year up to when I start my primary seven in 1994. The UN was very supportive. They were giving books and other materials.

Nevertheless, the UN support had its limits, and John’s educational experience in the camp was full of difficulty.

“Where did you study?”

It was really very hard.

When we are in the school compound we have logs, rocks. We dig holes; you put them down and you make yourself a seat. Sometimes you can stack stones together as a table so you put your books and write.

At home you just sit on the ground and read, or maybe put a lamp. You can have a gasoline lamp but you have to pay for gasoline. You have to walk for over fifty kilometres to buy gasoline.

John found strength in his family.

Because of my family, I was standing.

My mom didn’t go to school but she knew very well how education can benefit somebody, because she’s seen how easy life was when she was with her husband before the war. She was encouraging us to study very hard.

The support of the refugee community in the camp, and their efforts in helping to teach the children there, were also crucial to John’s capacity to continue his education in these immensely difficult circumstances.

And we had friends who were teachers bringing us books so you read the books and take it up to them. They were in a camp you know, (but) they organized private teachings. Every day you go two hours after school. It was free. It was to keep you busy and to help students, to keep their skills from going.

Perhaps focussing on his studies helped James to cope with life in the camp. Certainly his recollections of the time are focussed on his educational experiences and achievements.

I stayed in the camp until 94 or 95, when I finished my primary. In 1995 I sat for Uganda National Examination. In English. I passed very well.

But if James’ studies afforded him some hope, some sense of achievement, or at least a distraction from the conditions in which he and his family were living, they also afforded him a more concrete escape from life in the camp.

I got a scholarship. The UN sent me to one of the government schools.

And then I was out of the camp.


There’s electricity…  there is a cable !

High school represented a particularly significant change in John’s situation.

I was in a boarding school. We have three months then we have one week holiday. I came and see my family for one week and then I just go back.

As well as allowing him distance from the camp while maintaining his relationship with his family, John’s high school experience allowed him to study without building his desk each day from stones.

Life was good when I came to my high school. There in the boarding school, everything is there. There’s electricity. You don’t have to use the lamp. There’s a cable.

Though he was still living and studying in far from ideal conditions, these improved educational opportunities allowed him to finish high school, which he did in 2000. Soon after, he set his sight on other goals. Once again, the support of his family was crucial.

My brother was already here in Australia. He also escaped from Sudan. He went to Ethiopia and after Ethiopia he came to Australia in 1998. In 2000 he sent me an application form to fill. In 2003 my visa has been approved. My brother was responsible for my flight.

I think he didn’t have any help. He paid for everything.

John came to Australia as a refugee, under the Special Humanitarian Program, reserved for people who have been identified as being of significant risk of substantial violation of their human rights.

You see a lot of things in people’s lives…

Nothing that I’m seeing is very difficult.

When John first arrived in Australia, he threw himself wholeheartedly into continuing his education.

In 2003 I got to Australia. I couldn’t go to school that very year.

I just went and did a bit of computer class; the whole purpose of it was to keep me busy and to introduce me to the life of the academic system here.

At the beginning of 2004 I went to TAFE full time. I did TESOL preparation certificate three. I passed the certificate I got an offer to UWS and fortunately enough I got my first offer that is bachelor of Applied Science.

While he studied, John worked to pay for the education to which he was so dedicated.

When I finished my bridging course in TAFE I started working.  I was working fulltime so I saved a bit of money so I can buy all my scholastic materials.

During… uni breaks I had a job… I go and work many hours in a week and save a bit of money.

His choice of jobs reflects his commitment to, and love of, his continuing eduction.

When I was in first year second year I used to work as a stock worker in a big warehouse in Wetherill Park. They supply academic books.

It also reflects his deeply entrenched desire to help others whose lives have been affected by circumstances beyond their control.

When I started my third year I got a job in the disability industry. I’m still working in that area. I support people with disabilities to meet their everyday life… putting someone’s life back to normal.

You see a lot of things in people’s lives… see how they manage their everyday life. It’s a really good experience.

But his education remains his top priority.

Uni comes first. Definitely.

When I started uni, I was not going to work because, you know, being in first year you still don’t have a lot of knowledge. You still have to develop your academic skills.

He still faces challenges, but he has found support within the university.

Some subjects are very hard.

Sometimes I tell my teacher it takes long for me to understand some words because English is my second language. They give me time. They explain for me. Sometimes I go see my teachers after a lecture and I ask them to explain to me more. My teachers are all good. They always give me good advice.

Nevertheless, he still sometimes struggles with his English, but the clarity with which he speaks of that struggle belies the intelligence with which he continues to overcome it.

The common English that we use for academic purpose is good and easy to understand but there is some English that is quite different. You know, each profession has got its own language.

If I get literature from other professions, they are writing in their own language. Sometimes you have to read two or three times to understand.

And it is not only his intelligence, his dedication, and the support of his teachers that has seen him through, but also the hardships he has faced, and the lessons it has taught him.

I didn’t feel like I should give up because things are hard. I started leading a very hard life when I was young. Nothing that I’m seeing is very difficult.

So too, the continuing support of his family has been a great help.

All my brothers are here with me and my mom is here. My younger brother was [here] in 2002, then I came in 2003, and my mom came at the end of 2004, so pretty much all the family is here. We’re all living in the same country.

My family is supporting me. They understand.

And yet there are facets of his life in Australia that present other kinds of challenges.

What sometimes stresses me a lot is that people are trying to annoy you because of your background. There are some people who stereotype. They think when you come from Africa and

all that black background

they look at you as a second class human being.

Even at work, sometimes there are people who think that you just come there to take their positions. They start reporting some false information about you.

He deals with it, he says.

Its very easy for me. I just keep quiet. I just go away from you.

But it must take its toll.

Perhaps his use of the second person – when YOU come from Africa – is simply a part of his struggle with the language. Perhaps it also helps him to keep the racial hatred he faces at a distance – they look at YOU.

And this distance can only be increased by the sense of isolation he feels with respect to other students whose backgrounds are similar to his.

There are a lot of Sudanese going to UWS. Not many of them know each other. We don’t talk.  Sometimes when they see me passing I wave to them and some of them keep quiet.

I feel very much isolated, especially with my own people.

For John, isolation is not only an emotional issue. He feels strongly the effect of this isolation on his vocational opportunities after graduation.

I need connections because it’s usually very hard [for an employer] to trust somebody from the first time… You need for people to tell more about you. When you know a lot of people, you have a lot of connections. You have more opportunities to get better jobs.

“And you don’t think you have that kind of support?”

I haven’t been here for many years… I don’t know many people.

Still, he is not alone. Aside from the enormous support and love of his family, John finds comfort in the company of friends.

“What about other people who are not from Sudan? Do you have many friends here?”

Yeah. I’m really blessed because… I have good friends since I was starting at TAFE. Friends are with me studying at Campbelltown so I feel happy.


I’ll just say it is both bad and good

On the hardships he has faced, James is circumspect.

I’ll just say it is both bad and good.

He sees the virtues in what his life has taught him.

It made me learn that sometimes life can be really difficult but all you have to do is adapt.

In discussing the long-term negative effects of his early life, he focuses on his sense of arrested development.

The bad aspect is [that is has] taken me a long time. I’m thirty… [and] I’m still going to university… So I just feel a bit challenged that I came to this country when I was a bit older… I should be doing something else.

The fact that he registers the trauma of his youth in terms of a perceived educational and vocational setback is a testament to his will to succeed. Likewise, his views on marriage speak not only to the respect he feels for family, but also his ambition, and his willingness to sacrifice in order to achieve his goals.

I can’t marry yet. I still have so many things to do. Marriage involves so many things; it’s not a small relation, it’s really a big commitment. I have to give myself… you know. I can’t achieve my goals at the same time. Take one after the other.

Asked if he has any advice for others in a similar position, James advocates openness, honesty, self-awareness, hard work, and civic commitment.

I would encourage the young ones to really study very hard. I guess they should accept that they don’t know what is going on… It’s a big change to come from where you are living… It’s really not easy… Many people pretend that they know [but] it’s really good if you do want to succeed [to] let people know your weaknesses. They shouldn’t be shy or say ‘no, I can’t do this’.

I tell them this is the right time for you to do whatever your parents didn’t do because of the war… you have got all the resources. The government has made everything very accessible to you so it is the time to use this [and] achieve something for yourself, [to] feel like you’re a part of the community by doing something productive.

Speaking about his drive to succeed, and its meaning, John reveals a deep compassion, a connection to the lives and the struggles of others that is born of his own experiences of conflict, displacement, and isolation.

“What is it that makes you keep going? What is the drive?”

I guess the way I grew up. The experience that I had, it was not a good experience. It was [an] experience that people are not supposed to undergo. But I’m just working hard so I’ll help people not experience those kinds of things.

It’s been a long time war in my country and a lot of people they’re going to… some of them did not even attend elementary school so I’m thinking for community perspective. I really want to help my own people to get whatever they need.

To be in Australia and, again, the way my parents brought me up, it really makes me work very hard. So this is the drive that I have.  I always wanted to achieve good things… to do good.

Read other Success Stories of Refugee students at The University of Western Sydney