Saturday, June 26, 2004


A recent conversation with Pele Odur Okumu revealed some amazing stories of survival and an insight into the activities of the liberation movements in the provincial capital of Torit in Southern Sudan where he grew up.

Pele said he was held at gun-point by rebel soldiers of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), tortured, starved, and beaten unconscious at one stage, for refusing to join the liberation movement.

There was mindless violence everywhere: from the little village of Parajok where Pele was born, to the capital of Torit. No one was safe. Doors were blown open with grenades as the rebel soldiers and forces loyal to the government rifled through houses.

Pele later fled across the border and sought sanctuary in Uganda. His junior brother was probably not so lucky: he was murdered in cold blood for questioning the rationale of the movement and for refusing to join the SPLA in 1991. It was a vile and senseless murder. Murder most foul!

This unfortunate incident was the most traumatic experience of Pele’s young life. Yet he received no psychological support or counseling even after arrival in Australia. Meanwhile, the emotional wounds are still fresh, so to speak, and the pain appears to be unbearable. Yet, Pele soldiers on.

Africa is still in his mind, always. “There were enemies on all sides”, he says, “we were running away from the brutality of the government militia”, on the one hand; and the “criminal activities” of the renegade “elements of the SPLA” on the other; they were fighting for control of the civilian population, and the resources. Consequently, there was chaos and mayhem in Southern Sudan in the 1990s.

Pele’s family was split apart as a result of the conflict. He made the dangerous journey to Uganda. His parents, along with his brothers and sisters fled to Kenya.

Pele’s arrival in Australia in 1999 was a mixture of sadness and joy - joy because, he believed, he had finally found “Peace and security in Australia”, a new home. And sadness because his wife and three children were left behind in Uganda. A strong sense of loss overwhelmed him.

“Separation from my family is sad and painful”, Pele confesses “I feel quite guilty about it”. In fact, he grieved the separation from his family much the same way he did for the loss of his brother.

The psychological effects of separation and loss has made it almost impossible for Pele to cope with life as a refugee. Nor is there any immediate relief in sight. To make matters worse, there is also the almighty financial problem to worry about because he has continued to support his family in Africa from his meager earnings in Australia.

He has tried, quite unsuccessfully it seems, to send for the children he left behind and to bring the entire family to South Australia through the family re-union program. But, “there is no luck so far”, he says, “ I’m extremely disappointed”.

Meanwhile, what is Pele’s plan for the future? “What future?” he replies, “I have no future here while my family is still languishing in the refugee camps in Africa”. Then again, “my plan is to re-unite the family”.

I came out of the first meeting with Pele with a great deal of empathy; obviously believing that maybe there is something I can do to help him soften the pain and anguish of transition. Yet, I suddenly realized that I haven’t got all the answers; but I will do my best.

Thus, in the final analysis, I believe, maybe there is someone out there who could provide the answers, who could wipe the tears from his eyes, and put a big smile back on Pele’s gentle face.

Thursday, June 24, 2004


Today’s post is a profile of Abdi Ali, a “local hero” who has achieved great things and has been able to turn his life around for the better since arriving Australia as a refugee.

Abdi, 40 something, was born in Northern Somalia and grew up happily in the capital Mogadishu till the inter-clan political rivalry tore the place apart, and the whole system descended into chaos. He fled to Kenya for security reasons.

Consequently, as luck would have it, he came to Australia in 1999 with his wife and children, after 7 years in a refugee camp in Kenya. What an incredible experience the passage to Australia must have been for the young family?

For Abdi, there are no words to describe what it meant to be given the opportunity to leave the refugee camp and to be “accepted in a good and peaceful country” like Australia. Nevertheless, he did not underestimate the challenges that lie ahead of him in the new country.

Reflecting on his life as a refugee in Australia, Abdi now says, “I knew life would be tough from day one”. And after a thoughtful pause, he adds: “experience has proved me right; but I have learnt a lot”. Alas, it’s not easy to raise a large family with minimal income; and living below the poverty line is a nightmare.

But, Abdi, our “local hero”, has no regrets. He has weathered the storm (and would not be daunted by any adversity). He is made of a sterner stuff! In fact, he has single-handedly raised a family, and brought up healthy, confident, and well-adjusted children on minimal income; a great achievement by any measure.

Although he is the first to admit that his new life in Australia is generally good, “things are becoming harder” as the children grow up (he has three kids in primary school and two in pre-school – a large family by Australian standards), Abdi appears to be quite confident about the future. Thus, his quest for a peaceful new life has been successful. “We are very happy here”, he says.

One thing is certain though, the happiness of Abdi’s family depends not on endless accumulation of material things, but on deeper appreciation of the moment (the quality time they spend together as a family).

A former Mogadishu school teacher, Abdi talks passionately about his “love of teaching”, although he has not been able to work in his “chosen profession” since he arrived Australia – mainly due to the lack of recognition of his qualifications in the new setting. He has, however, managed to find part-time jobs in other areas, as well as studying for an Advanced Diploma in Accounting. “I like financial accounting”, he says, and “would like to work as an accountant”.

Meanwhile, the family is a fundamental factor in Abdi’s life. He takes great pride in raising a happy and contented family, despite the challenges of transition. He is a good father and husband; a bread winner in his own right: “I don’t have anything else here but my family” he says, “ my children are my best gifts ever, they mean a lot to me”. He thinks the world of his beautiful wife whom he describes as his “right hand person” and a “tower of strength”.

He likes the city of Adelaide so much that he is now trying to bring other members of his family to South Australia through the family re-union program.

In deed, it is fair to say that Abdi is a great survivor and knows how to make ends meet, even in the most extreme circumstances. He has a positive frame of mind and seems to have deliberately trained himself to see happiness and contentment even in the most mundane areas of life.

Monday, June 21, 2004


African culture is alive and well in Australia.

On the 26th June, the African Heritage Association of South Australia (AHASA) will present a big “African Night”, the 2004 African culture mega show. The event will be held at the Ukrainian Hall, 66 Orsmond Street, in Hindmarsh.

The night will feature a blend of good food and drinks from all corners of Africa by seasoned Chefs. In fact, the mega show is an opportunity to showcase the best of African arts and crafts and world music from the Caribbean, as well as musical genres from South Africa, West Africa, Central and East Africa.

The highlights of the night will be Ebby Allottey and the “Afrikeeko” from Ghana whose repertoire includes the “Highlife” music, soca, funk, and reggae. And, of course, the Super Nile Band from the Sudan will be on show.

Also taking the centre stage will be the 7-piece ensemble from South Africa led by Cape Town artiste, "Snow". And a Senegalese drumming ensemble led by Master drummer, Lamin Nanky.

Thus, in essence a good time will be had by all. There will be a lot of fun: a lot of singing, dancing, and laughter. You would not want to miss the multicultural dancing group performing the African popular dance (Soukouss) from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As usual, DJ Joe will provide the recorded interludes between the live music and the rest of the night. So, come and dance the night away!

Join the fun and laughter!!

Saturday, June 19, 2004


This year’s World Refugee Day celebration on Sunday June 20 will have a special significance for the Africans in South Australia in that it will give them the opportunity to showcase their creative impulse. It will be a day to remember; a day of fun and frolic; of music and entertainment. A day for all supporters of the refugee cause.

The afternoon gig will feature a 12-member outfit popularly known as the Nile Band - a dynamic group of musicians from Sudan and Liberia . The group has five vocalists, among whom are the following Sudanese refugees: Deng Manyuon, 27, Grang Kuol, 20, Eva Tear, 19, and Steve Tongun, 16. These young people have found a new home in Australia and are now celebrating their new lives through music.

The Nile Band will play at the Governor Hindmarsh Hotel for the World Refugee Day. And they will get the crowd on their feet with the energy and vitality of contemporary rhythms from Africa.

The main theme of the event is “ A place to call home” and it is a tribute to the displaced people in the world trying to rebuild their lives in safety and dignity.

The event is fully sponsored by the Australian Refugee Association (ASA) and the Migrant Health Service (MHS).

Friday, June 18, 2004


Today is one of my luckiest days because I come across some data which, I think, might be of great interest to the African refugees and their fervent supporters all over Australia.

To begin with, the worldwide number of refugees and other people who have fled their homes (through no fault of their own) fell by 18 per cent to just over 17 million in 2003 - the lowest level in a decade, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This figure includes the “forgotten” people of Western Sahara who have been living in refugee camps in Algeria and Libya for the past decades.

On the contrary, bugging the trend is the Sudanese refugee population which increased significantly: from 508,200 to 606,000 during 2003 mainly because of the civil war in the South and the new crisis in Darfur, West of the country - a fact that is of major concern to the Sudanese people now living in Australia.

On a slightly more positive note, the international community is stepping up pressure on the Sudanese government to open up the war-torn Western region of Darfur to aid agencies. And European leaders also plan to call on Sudan to hammer out a political accord as soon as possible to resolve the conflict and contain the flow of refugees. Similarly, the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warns that the humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur requires immediate attention - a warning that should be taken very seriously, in deed.

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Kuir Alaak’s Progress

The most interesting thing about the African refugees in Australia is that they are both apparently pretty flexible and often surprisingly adaptable. But some are more adaptable than others. Kuir Alaak has earned the enduring love and respect of the community by making the most of his new life in Australia, and working hard to improve himself.

A charming teenage refugee from the war-ravaged Sudan, Kuir always sets his sights high and has a firm belief that being a refugee is no impediment to progress in Australian society. But at the same time, he says quite frankly that “ It is hard being a refugee” because, according to him, “You have to do everything by yourself”. Kuir says he left his family behind in Africa when he arrived Australia in 1999: his dad is in Uganda and “mum is in a refugee camp in Kenya”. Now, he is all alone, looking after himself; and doing it well.

Kuir, 19, loves everything Australian; especially the people of Adelaide: “Australia is a free and peaceful country” he says with a broad smile, and “ the people here are nice and friendly; I would like my parents to be here with me ”. Ever so conscious of his own identity, Kuir sees the good side of everything; and he is wiser beyond his tender years.

Being a born optimist (and a bright student of International Business), Kuir says he knows how to “make it” in Australia: he wants to get a good education and work hard so that he could support his “mum and dad” who are still languishing in the refugee camps in Africa.

Meanwhile, Kuir is still paying his own way through college, a stupendous achievement for one so young. Thus, while some refugee children who are starved of parental love and affection have fallen by the wayside, Kuir has survived the refugee process and thrived and live to tell the tale. He is a living proof of the fact that a brighter future can rise out of even the most dire circumstances; although it is early days yet.

I think Kuir Alaak has a bright future in Australia. But he needs our moral support. Please send him some encouraging words of wisdom through this medium.

(It should be noted that some refugee children of African descend have quickly adjusted to the Australian way of life and are thriving in the school system. Others are struggling to survive: they are in the most vulnerable circumstances; deserving of our support, and government protection from physical and emotional abuse)

Wednesday, June 09, 2004


Today’s post is focused on the plight of orphans.

A few years ago, a group of orphans from war-torn Sudan and other countries in Africa arrived in Australia to start a new life. But the transition from one culture to another have proved to be extremely painful and confusing for some but positively rewarding for others.

While the majority of the young men and women have been successfully re-settled, thanks to the efforts of the humanitarian agencies; a small minority have slipped through the safety net. Obviously, dazzled by the city lights, drunk with youthful exuberance and a misguided sense of freedom without parental control, they have taken to the streets and popular entertainment venues; presumably to have a “good time” and “Take things easy”. But, generally speaking, life wasn’t meant to be easy, as the former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser once said.

Although some are barely out of puberty, this “lost generation” of African orphans in Australia are struggling to survive and are doing it tough. Some are still roaming the streets; searching for money, food, and shelter and a sense of belonging. They are yet to find themselves in the new society.

Thus, for this hardcore group of orphans, education and training is not a priority, despite the tremendous opportunities available here (some have dropped out of school, and out of work). And people in the emerging African communities in South Australia are genuinely concerned about the future of these kids.

In fact, it seems to me that being so young and restless and poorly educated is a recipe for disaster in a highly competitive post-industrial economy like Australia. But it is not too late to rescue these orphans from the brink of disaster and provide for their physical and emotional needs in a supportive environment.

What do you think? Any suggestion?

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Dakena Thomas: Motivation and Hard Work

Dakena Thomas has a simple formula for success: education, motivation, and hard work. I think this formula applies to most Africans; especially those still struggling to survive in an alien environment.

Although Dakena is a relatively new refugee from Liberia, he has managed to convince me that he is ready to lead a successful life in Australia. He is the most highly motivated individual I have ever met. In fact, he’s got what it takes to be successful: the drive, a “wicket” sense of humour, and a strong determination to succeed.

Come to think of it, Dakena works most nights of the week. And during the day, he studies, full-time, for a Diploma in Business Administration. He is a bundle of energy with a nerve of steel. Meanwhile, he is doing extremely well and has the ability to do even better in years to come. His work ethics is the envy of many.

Ever so humble and focused, Dakena still believes he has a long way to go before reaching his goal of a stable financial future. “I am still learning about life as a refugee; still trying to figure out how the Australian system works”, he says, “ I work hard everyday because I have a wife and three lovely kids to support”. And a whole, prosperous, future ahead of him here in South Australia.