No, where are you really from?

To celebrate Refugee Week 2019, WIRE invited Akuol to share the inspiring story of her journey from a childhood in a Kenyan refugee camp to life as a Melbourne resident, Australian citizen, and advocacy worker.

My name is Akuol Garang and I’m from Melbourne.

“Oh… but, where are you really from? I mean before that, where are you from?”

I get excited every time I am asked this question. It is just so funny to see the expressions on people’s faces. It is a fun game I like to play.

But in all seriousness, I am originally from South Sudan. My family and I are former refugees. We did not choose to become refugees. Nobody chooses to become a refugee.

People become refugees or displaced for a number of reasons. For us, it was war. My parents had no choice; they were forced to flee their home and seek safety in another country. We ended up in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. I grew up in that camp before migrating to Australia with my parents and three siblings, in 2001. We are now Australian citizens.

My childhood in a refugee camp

Life was good in that refugee camp. It was simple, it was fun. We got to live like children. We got dirty, rolled in the mud. We were creative, making use out of the little things we had.

As part of my advocacy work, I often get to share parts of my story. Understandably, people become so shocked to learn that I was born as a refugee. They become even more shocked when I tell them that those ten years that I spent in that refugee camp were the best ten years of my life. I want to go back.

I am not trying to glorify life in a refugee camp. Because I can tell you this much. We lived in inhumane and unimaginable conditions. We had no electricity, clean water, proper education or access to adequate medicare.

Yes, you heard right! No electricity.

This meant no light after dark, no phone, no Internet. In our society, most of us can’t last more than a few hours without checking social media. The struggle for us was so real.

My mother’s strength

Any parent will tell you how incredibly difficult it is to live in a refugee camp. How they struggle to put food on the table, provide us with clean water to drink, get access to adequate health care, give us clothes. But they did it.

As a child, I never really understood how hard it was for my parents.

My mother, like many refugee women, is incredibly strong. She is resilient. It still impresses me how she can be so secure in herself, so stoic despite the hardships and trauma she has experienced. It is her strength and resilience that have shaped me into the person I am today.

Growing up I was always shy and reserved. I actually dislike speaking. People often say to me: “But don’t you do public speaking for a living? Isn’t that part of your job?”. Yes, it is. But it took so much for me to get to where I am today. I have grown up having the strength and belief that I could succeed at anything I set out to do.

I am never satisfied with the bare minimum. Overcoming adversity and challenging stereotypes was something I had to do. It was an opportunity to realise my aspirations. My teachers never thought I would ever make it to law school. They automatically assumed that because I was from a non-English speaking background, from a refugee background, that I shouldn’t dare to aim high.

I remember one of my teachers telling me to start thinking about doing TAFE courses because the ATAR score for Law was much too high. This was in Year 10. By the time I finished Year 12, not only did I get into university, but I was also awarded a certificate for excellent academic achievement in English in Year 12.

My life experiences have made me appreciate life more. I am grateful for the little things. I also derive a tremendous amount of strength from helping others. I cannot really explain how this makes me feel, but all I do know is that it is one of the driving forces for why I do what I do.

Now, I am a Registered Migration Agent; I provide advice and assistance in the preparation and lodgement of Australian visa applications. I am also a refugee advocate and a community advocate.

I believed we survived the war and the inhumane conditions of a refugee camp so that I can be given a second chance to do something with my life. It is my job now to stand for what I believe in. Every day, I challenge people to think differently about refugees. My work challenges common misconceptions about refugees and instead provides facts about current issues facing refugees in Australia.

I believe in our shared humanity. Should we just ‘judge a book by its cover’? No, we need to recognise and celebrate our differences, in a society where “we the people” includes all the people.

Most importantly we put a human face on the refugee crisis.

Akuol Garang is a young Sudanese-Australian woman living in Melbourne, studying her masters in human rights law and advocating for her community, multiculturalism and for people seeking asylum in Australia. She is also a volunteer at the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre. This article is part of our Lived Experience collection and the author was paid for her contribution. If you would like your story to be considered, please complete the consent form and submit your story via our online form.


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