Sudanese mothers wonder if they were better off in a war zone
When the South Sudanese first received their Australian visas, myself included, it was a great relief; a second chance after years of war. Mothers hoped the next generation could enjoy safety and peace, and indeed the first few years exceeded expectations. Over time, however, cracks appeared as issues emerged in the community. Some of these same parents, once happy and hopeful, now wish they had never come to Australia.
Every mother dreams of a good life for her children, regardless of her colour or religion. She goes to any length to ensure their wellbeing. South Sudanese mothers are no exception. My vivid memories are of women in conflict zones, running through crossfire, using their bodies as shields, and walking thousands of kilometres in the desert for their children. This burning love continued in Australia. Their infants grew and thrived. In the years that followed, however, something shifted and as children became adolescents the first signs of youth crime began to appear.
It began slowly, with isolated incidences. A mother, in shock and oblivion, would receive a call from police about her child’s antics. Dismayed parents were perplexed and as incidences grew they strove to ensure their children avoided trouble. For some, extra vigilance worked, but for many it had no effect. The media and some politicians were quick to place young Africans in the limelight.
Suddenly labels dominated the news – African gangs, Apex thugs, South Sudanese criminals. Youth crime knows no race or ethnicity, but the media singled out South Sudanese youth. The issue soon escalated to an unprecedented scale. Over time, this media chaos took a great toll on mothers. The awful acts of a few supported the frenzied campaign against the wider African population and this rhetoric continues. Currently, South Sudanese youth are over-represented in juvenile detention, leaving parents heartbroken, confused and full of regret.
The broader impact of this calamity is evident. Most of African appearance have experienced discrimination or harassment. Young people are committing suicide and parental mental illness is rife. Unemployment as a result of discrimination has increased and new trends of homelessness have emerged. Young people are re-offending, disengaged from school and entirely lacking in hope or direction for the future.
The Victorian government has generously supported the South Sudanese community with service provision, funding and dialogue, all of which have been positive. However, the issue still exists and the fallout is enormous. With children incarcerated, mentally unwell, suicidal, disengaged, abusing substances or dead, parent hopelessness is at critical level. Mothers have lost everything they lived for.
This problem must be radically reconceptualised. To tackle the youth crisis in Victoria, parents need tools to support their children, including capacity-building and improved access to resources and opportunities. Politicians must collaborate with parents and work towards a lasting solution. Service provision must prioritise a rights-based approach instead of a charity or needs-based approach, to avoid a culture of dependency and poverty.
Juvenile rehabilitation programs and parole laws must be reviewed. The alarming statistics of minors re-offending after detention strongly indicates that an overhaul of the detention model is required. Laws against racial discrimination must be tightened. The media must assume moral responsibility for their reporting, and fearmongering must be entirely avoided.
Early intervention is crucial. A renewed focus on children staying in school, with accessible vocational pathways, demonstrably lowers the risk of offending. Desperate parents have even considered sending children overseas for rehabilitation, a strategy that requires community support. Finally, South Sudanese leaders must do their part in changing public perception about their community.
In the storm of negativity, however, are seeds of hope. Many South Sudanese prosper and these stories are largely unreported. Many youth do their best despite the unsettling surrounding climate.
The current crisis needs a fresh approach. In the end, we are all Australian and what affects one community affects all. A collective, holistic approach is vital to ensuring a strong and united Australian people.
Biong Deng Biong, a South Sudanese Australian, is an executive officer with
Edmund Rice Services and lives in Melbourne.
Lifeline 13 11 14, lifeline.org.au
beyondblue 1300 224 636, beyondblue.org.au