Akuch Kuol Anyieth: ‘When you grow up in mayhem, you have no choice but to be strong’ | Australian books

Akuch Kuol Anyieth always had in the back of her mind that she would write the story of her life and that of her family and friends. She wanted to record an honest account of refugee life and resettlement in Australia. Her family would cry as she read each draft chapter to them, but she knew her task was important; a form of advocacy for greater understanding of the mental illness suffered by traumatised refugees who have been through war.

“In a nutshell, you bring yourself with you,” she says. “We receive them as refugees, yes; we understand they come from countries facing war or political disagreement … we’re very focused on service provision and a material-things level, [but] not on a ‘what-happened-to-you’ level: let’s talk about your history, your journey that made you move to Australia.”

Having completed her first master’s degree at 25, Anyieth is researching a PhD on the effect of family violence intervention orders on the South Sudanese community in Australia. “Do they really stop the violence?” she says. “I’m not so sure.”

Fleeing at age five with her mother, Mary, and her siblings to a refugee camp while her father fought in the civil war, Anyieth, now 31, escaped tribal conflict. She would encounter more violence in this supposed sanctuary in the form of an older brother.

In the camp at Kakuma, in arid, remote north-west Kenya, where she would shelter with her family into her teenage years, this brother, renaming himself Dragon, threatened and assaulted three generations of the family, Anyieth writes with compassion and raw honesty in her memoir Unknown: a refugee’s story.

Akuch Kuol Anyieth
Anyieth’s family fled South Sudan when she was fiver years old. Photograph: Alana Holmberg/The Guardian

Dragon – struggling with his past trauma, substance abuse and settling in to a foreign land – continued to physically attack his sisters and their mother even after they arrived in Melbourne in 2005. These assaults prompted Victoria Police to issue family violence intervention orders against Dragon. He was imprisoned for breaching the orders, but Anyieth says the family little understood what the orders actually meant. She and her mother would scour parks for Dragon to check on his welfare and bring him food, shocked to find him “looking like he had been homeless for months”, Anyieth writes.

One of the most emotionally affecting passages in her memoir occurs after Dragon suffers serious brain injuries when hit by a train, and she and her sister Atong “burst into soundless tears” by his hospital bed. Despite his past attacks, she still loves and can see the good in him. Anyieth writes Dragon is a different man today: happily married, a “wonderful husband” and “hands-on father”, with a good relationship with his mother and sisters. “He is no longer violent to anyone,” she writes.

Why are the women in her family so strong and forgiving? “When you grow up in mayhem, you have no choice but to be strong,” says Anyieith, a gold Christian cross hanging around her neck.

“Particularly having grown up in Kakuma in the refugee camp, life there is very challenging. The majority of the men would be off in the war, and some of the boys [too] … and when you leave the responsibility of the entire family on one woman, automatically they have to be strong, otherwise the children won’t survive, otherwise the family would just fall apart.”

Life in her new country would require such strength. Anyieth writes that she is grateful to have left the “dire situation of despair”, and to come to a better place, but “can’t remember ever feeling truly free in Australia”. “Racism and discrimination still hold us back as a community from fully experiencing freedom and fully becoming Australians.”

Akuch Kuol Anyieth
‘Racism and discrimination still hold us back as a community from fully experiencing freedom and fully becoming Australians.’ Photograph: Alana Holmberg/The Guardian

Marginalisation and the media

Anyieth’s memoir takes a deep dive into media portrayals of young African men in Australia, particularly in Melbourne: “No one wants to condone criminal activities, but we’ve all heard that saying, ‘boys will be boys’. Well, the leniency, the forgiveness implicit in that expression was never exercised when it came to the African boys I knew, especially the South Sudanese boys. The saying might as well have been ‘white boys will be white boys’.”

Aside from Olympian Peter Bol, we rarely hear about the successful members of the South Sudanese diaspora in Australia who have become lawyers, writers, doctors and engineers, she says.

To what extent does Anyieth believe negative media stereotyping of South Sudanese boys and men as “gangs and lawless thugs”, as she writes, contributes to structural racism and racial stereotyping of young African males in Australia?

“The role of media in the society is so important,” she says, because “it shapes the community’s thinking and views toward that particular group. The media is partly to be blamed because some of the stories have been very sensationalised.

“Though there are sometimes elements of truth to their stories – there is a level of criminal behaviour and offending, yes, among some of the African or South Sudanese community – [but] often with these young people, there are deeper issues that they are going through in their individual lives, their community and within their families.”

Anyieth acknowledges Victoria Police have undertaken more cultural awareness training but says the force’s relationship with the South Sudanese community was damaged by “over-policing” and “racial profiling”. There has consequently been “little uptake” by young South Sudanese enter the police force.

“We would like to see our young men and our young women join the Victoria police force, but if we don’t rebuild that relationship, then it’s very challenging for young people to put their hand up and say, ‘I want to become a police officer’.”

Anyieth writes that traditionally in her culture – the family is Dinka – parental punishment with a “beating” or being “tied to a tree” is not considered abuse, but discipline. Her memoir considers how many South Sudanese fathers feel marginalised that Australian culture removes their authority to instil such discipline.

But these parents, she writes with careful measure, fail to “look within themselves, inside their own families, to understand how some of their traditional beliefs and practices were contributing to the breakdowns of their family units”.

Akuch Kuol Anyieth
Anyieth sees ‘a very bright future’ for South Sudan. Photograph: Alana Holmberg/The Guardian

Meanwhile her mother’s pride in her daughter’s academic achievements and advocacy for the South Sudanese community in Australia is leavened too with a dose of traditional, though gentle, aspiration.

Anyieth laughs that her mother prays to God “to provide Akuch a good man, a good husband” before family dinners: “My sister just looks at me like, ‘There we go again, just find the man already so this line can be removed from the prayers’.”

Anyieth and Mary recently visited South Sudan for a holiday, 12 years after the country gained independence and more than 25 years after they fled. She saw rapid development in infrastructure, but, “politically, I’m not so sure”.

“Hopefully, if there are no other civil wars, then we’re looking at a very bright future for the country to develop and to make sure there are no more displaced people.

“Right now, there is so much diversity, in terms of people moving back from the west or from other countries within Africa, and that could be a beautiful thing, because people are bringing different elements of the world and can really contribute to the overall development.”

This raises the question of whether Anyieth, who writes that her priorities are “my work in academia, and my activism for non-violent family units, and for community healing from trauma”, feels any desire to return to South Sudan for longer periods to be part of this development.

Unknown: A refugee’s story by Akuch Kuol Anyieth cover image
Unknown: A refugee’s story by Akuch Kuol Anyieth, out through Text Publishing. Photograph: Text Publishing

“There’s so much need and demand in South Sudan because it is a very young country,” she says now. “It’s going through a very rapid growth and development and people like myself who have learned something in the West are expected to bring it back home.”

Once Anyieth gains her PhD she will consider what is on offer here in Australia employment-wise, or whether there is a journey to the mother country ahead.

“South Sudan will always be home, and so is Kenya, so is Australia. I feel incredibly lucky and so fortunate that I get to be a part of three different societies. All three countries will always be home, regardless of which of them I decide to settle in.”

Leave a Comment