Inside Story

Across the African divide

Ralph Johnstone meets the people at the sharp end of the complex challenges facing young refugees from Africa

Ralph Johnstone 12 September 2012 5586 words

Bridging the divide: A young Sudanese man takes part in a role-playing exercise at a camp organised by the Brimbank Young Men’s Project.
Photo: Ralph Johnstone

TEN years ago, among the humanitarian community in East Africa, the term “lost boys” came to represent a special story of hope and redemption: thousands of orphans and former child soldiers who had successfully escaped the unimaginable brutality of Sudan’s civil war to find salvation in the arms of the West. Though their settlement was often protracted, and always ravaged by painful memories, most of them prevailed – among them 3600 young men who famously resettled in the United States, who went on to write, sing and rap to the world of the healing power of strangers’ kindness.

A decade on, in 2012 Melbourne, the phrase is once again being bandied about in local headlines, this time to describe a handful of largely Sudanese- and Somali-descended boys who have dropped out of school to spend their days immersed in a fog of cheap cask wine in the parks and open spaces of Footscray and St Albans.

For the leaders of their communities, however, and for a growing number of concerned teachers, social workers and ordinary citizens, it’s a crude and damaging moniker. “These boys are not lost: most of them really want to make something of their lives,” says Moses Lado, who three years ago became the first of a new breed of “liaison officers” employed by Victoria Police to assist the city’s newer migrant communities. “The media constantly focuses on the drunkenness and violence of a very small group, and it’s devastating for the whole community.”

Lado doesn’t mean only the Sudanese community – whose members are often tall, jet-black, sometimes facially scarified, and speak little if any English when they arrive – which faces arguably the greatest integration challenges of any group in recent Australian history. The widespread myopia that lumps all African-Australians together as a single community means the negative focus of the media and our migrant-obsessed discourse reflects badly on anyone of black African descent. “Like it or not, these guys are Australians now,” says Lado. “If you keep referring to ‘Africans,’ you’re accusing even the most innocent baby born here.”

For the past twelve months, I have been on an unsettling journey with dozens of African-Melburnians, exploring the multiple challenges that face the latest generation of young people to have landed on our shores. Theirs is a story of culture shocks and battered expectations, of divided families and bewildered parents, of blatant racism and unbearable self-consciousness; and, once in a while, anchoring the whole debate in some form of hope, of deep personal sacrifice and the kindness of Australian strangers.

I’M back in Africa for an afternoon. If it weren’t for the late July chill, this dark, fusty living room close to the Western Ring Road in Melbourne’s west could easily pass for a middle-class home on the outskirts of Nairobi or Kampala. A black teenager is sprawled, fast asleep, on an old lounge suite. Through the window, a dozen black boys jostle, laughing, around a tiny pool table. A B-grade action movie flashes on a widescreen TV, watched by no one. The air is thick with sweat and last night’s cigarettes.

A tall, elegant young man walks in and shakes the teenager awake; he stirs, stares quizzically at me for a few seconds, then quickly stumbles off to another room.

I’m the guest of honour here, and they’re keen to make room for me. Someone turns off the TV. A smiling boy fetches me a glass of water. One by one, three young men squash alongside me on the damp sofa. The elegant man, who I’ll call David, starts to tell me his story: he’s doing a humanities degree at Victoria University, and volunteering at the new African-Australian Community Centre in Footscray, which will open in October. He speaks like Barack Obama: clean, crisp consonants; perfect English. I can’t help asking, “What are you doing here?” Here, in this grubby rented bungalow in this nondescript St Albans street. “We stay here when we’re not studying,” he says solemnly. “We’re protected and secure together in this house.”

Nearly all you read about Melbourne’s young Sudanese residents these days concerns the trouble they cause. The public drinking, the fighting. The running battles after beauty pageants and all-night parties. The shoplifting. And the little late-night groups shuffling around the city centre on a Friday or Saturday – lads of thirteen or fourteen, bleary eyed, aimless – look like they’re headed for trouble. What you don’t hear about – what the politicians and the media commentators rarely dwell upon – is just how badly many of them are travelling, how jobs and education and stability are passing them by. In recent months, I’ve notched up a list of devastating case studies, most of which I’ve been asked to keep to myself. Stories of boys dropping out of school and turning to drugs and booze; stories of teenage girls falling pregnant and being disowned by their parents; stories of young children being bullied or attacked on their way to school. Stories of entire Sudanese families bunking down in their living rooms, terrified that they might be attacked by “white gangs.”

And then there are the stories of the police. Here in this house in St Albans, they say they hear about “pull-overs” every day of the week. One boy, a teenager, has just arrived from the police station, with the paperwork to prove it. (He’s been charged with assault, after being “attacked by some boys with knives.”) Another says he was stopped by the police on the way here. Another man, immensely tall and burly, says he was also stopped, and did not have his ID. He gave the police his details, but says he doesn’t care what happens to him.

The boys talk about the police like their parents might once have talked about Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir: the common enemy. “The pull-overs make me sick,” growls one. “Always when you’re in the street, with a couple of friends or walking home from the shops – always you get the pull-over.” “What have we done wrong?” asks another. “Is it because we’re too dark, or too tall?” He looks genuinely mystified. “I’ve been stopped seven times this year,” says a third. This man, a former child soldier who ironically says he has good relations with the officer-in-charge at Keilor Downs, says the police attention will make him leave Australia. “I will go back to Sudan. I have no family there, but I will go and never come back. Because of this pressure from police; it’s unbearable.”

Across Melbourne’s inner-west – from the housing estates of North Melbourne and Flemington, west to Footscray, and out to Sunshine, St Albans and Keilor Downs – the police have become locked in a high-profile battle with groups of unemployed and increasingly unafraid young men, mostly from Somali and Sudanese backgrounds. The charges against them are well known, and often beyond doubt: public drinking, fighting, and pilfering of wine and snacks from neighbourhood stores. What is less well known is the steady stream, often a torrent, of public calls to the police. “People say, these black guys are on the street, they have a bottle and they look like they’re going to do something,” a policeman tells me. The implication is clear: a group of big, mean-looking black boys usually means trouble.

In Melbourne – home to about a third of Australia’s 22,000-strong Sudanese community, and nearly half of its 6000 Somalis – the situation reached a new nadir in late August, when Victoria Police released a special selection of statistics indicating Somali and Sudanese people were nearly five times more likely than the average Victorian to commit “serious crimes” such as robberies and assaults. The widespread media coverage that followed met with shocked disbelief from African residents and their supporters, who saw the statistics as concrete proof of “over-policing” and “racial stereotyping,” and argued that they would inflame public fear and mistrust of young Africans. Driven by the outcry, the advocacy group, Africa Media Australia, has organised a public forum to discuss negative representations of Africans in the mainstream media, to be held at the Footscray Refugee Resource Centre on 22 September.

“This country has a black skin problem,” is the blunt verdict of Dr Berhan Ahmed, the Eritrean head of the African Think Tank organisation, who in July became the first African to contest a seat in Victoria’s lower house. “I see kids every day shrinking in shame because they feel that being black is a curse, that people here just associate them with failure – failed governments, civil war, piracy. They stick together and become defensive, as it’s the only way they can deal with that shame.”

Ahmed, an ecology lecturer at the University of Melbourne, came fifth in the Melbourne by-election with 4 per cent of the vote, but says he received up to 12 per cent of the primary vote in Carlton, North Melbourne and Flemington. He preferenced Labor’s winning candidate “in exchange for concessions to lobby for African interests in Canberra,” including the creation of a ministerial advisory committee to look at employment discrimination against Africans and measures to get young families out of “crime-breeding” housing estates. “The state Labor president promised to negotiate these challenges for us,” says Ahmed. “But we’ve seen how the Aboriginal community has moved forward with promises like that.”

Comparisons between African and Aboriginal communities may be unfair, dangerous even, but it’s amazing how often they come up in conversations with older Africans. Deep down, many – particularly darker residents from the Horn – believe they suffer similar discrimination, although they stop short of blaming it on Australians’ uneasy relationship with their Indigenous compatriots. But when you add up the symptoms of that exclusion – unemployment estimated anywhere between 15 per cent and 30 per cent, higher school dropout rates, the boozing and the drugs – it’s hard to avoid the comparisons.

In recent months, several new developments have given impetus to African-Australians’ appeals for greater legal protection of their young people: the referral to a formal inquest of the case of Michael Atakelt, a young Ethiopian found dead in the Maribyrnong River, who had been in police custody prior to his disappearance; several out-of-court settlements to African men claiming racial abuse by the police; and an upcoming federal court case in which seven young Africans are seeking judicial determination of “racial profiling” by police dating back to 2006–08. The plaintiffs’ solicitor, Tamar Hopkins, says if the court finds in their favour, it will increase pressure on the government to make “serious” changes to policing practices, such as receipting for stops and searches and an independent authority to investigate claims against the police.

“We clearly still have a dysfunctional complaints system that leaves complaints in the hands of the police,” says Hopkins. “Until that system is transformed, as has occurred in the UK, Canada and New Zealand, the system is simply not going to offer effective accountability or encourage behaviour change. In the UK and US, the police officially say racial profiling is bad – but I think here they basically think it’s acceptable.”

There are, fortunately, some splashes of light amid the gloom. In recent months, the police have stepped up their cooperation with several local councils, drug and alcohol services, and – most visibly in the city centre – ten Sudanese Salvation Army volunteers, who help officers deal with late-night confrontations with young Africans on weekends. There has also been a flurry of new projects at “ground zero”: homework clubs in the housing estates; a weekly service by the Salvos’ “youth bus” for African kids in North Melbourne; and the eagerly awaited African-Australian Community Centre, which will deliver badly needed legal and job-hunting services alongside a busy program of cultural events when it opens next month.

Also in October, National Australia Bank – widely regarded as the African communities’ most compassionate corporate supporter – is due to welcome the hundredth participant to its African Australian Inclusion Program, which gives African graduates a rare chance to notch up a six-month work placement with a reputable employer. And in the coming year, if the African gods keep smiling, the precocious Sudanese-Australian football player, Majak Daw, should get his senior call-up by the North Melbourne Kangaroos – making him arguably, in an instant, the greatest Sudanese-Australian of all time.

ASSISTANT Commissioner Steve Fontana has become a frequent spokesman on Victoria Police’s difficult interactions with young Africans, who he has made it something of a personal mission to assist. But even he admits that he’s “alarmed” by last month’s statistics, which indicated that people of Sudanese and Somali descent are involved in “over twenty serious crimes a month” in Melbourne’s North West Metro region, which stretches north from the city to Whittlesea and west out to Wyndham.

“It’s not just the over-representation of young Africans that concerns me,” he says, “but that they’re groups of five, six, up to ten people, who will pick someone out who’s alone and in many cases use violence that’s unnecessary – and often it’s just to steal an iPad or some cash.” Fontana describes the recent case of an Asian woman who told a group of young Africans to keep the noise down, and was viciously assaulted. “An officer attending heard a fourteen-year-old girl say, ‘I should have killed her.’ That’s what we’re dealing with.”

One potential silver bullet repeatedly championed by Melbourne’s African communities is to increase the number of “sworn” African officers at Victoria Police. Five years after the Ethnic Communities’ Council of Victoria publicly called on the police to step up recruitment of “Horn of African and Sudanese persons,” the force has just one African officer, from the Congo. Earlier this year, a committee was set up to promote “VicPol” as a career choice among young Africans. Led by Inspector Cindy Millen, who gained friends across the African divide when she put African representatives on patrol with her officers in Moonee Valley, the first session attracted twenty potential recruits from the Horn – although Millen says many asked for an “impossible” assurance that they would not be deployed in their own communities.

According to Tamar Hopkins, however, neither more African police nor more “cultural training” of new recruits can replace finding decent Australian officers. “More African recruits are not going to fix the problem [of racial profiling],” she says. “Integrity testing is very important. No one’s going to say ‘I’m a racist,’ but there are ways of testing the attitudes of new recruits towards ethnic minorities. It’s a travesty that some people cannot feel safe when they call the police… We shouldn’t just look to Africa for reasons why people don’t trust the police; we should look at ourselves.”

Down the hall from Millen’s new office in Werribee, multicultural liaison officer Constable Richard Dove has emerged as one of the softer faces in Victoria Police’s African charm offensive. Dove made his mark – and several close African friends – when he helped organise a groundbreaking 2008 forum to link the “disconnected” Sudanese community in Wyndham with local authorities and service providers. Last year, the Sudanese in Melton followed suit, and the “Wyndham model” has now emerged as a popular template for councils struggling to assimilate their migrant communities.

The Sudanese community remains a key focus of Dove’s work, which includes leadership camps for young Sudanese in Altona and a popular, twice-yearly “African dads and kids camp” with CatholicCare. Dove believes all agencies applying for government funding should be obliged to proactively link African and Australian families – “not just on the soccer pitch, but in their homes.” He gets emotional when he discusses the settlement chances of the South Sudanese: “The media representation of this community is dehumanising, portraying them as aggressive warriors, when they are a complex, sensitive, deep-thinking people who analyse everything. They feel very different, so it doesn’t take much to push them to the stage where they feel on the outer, under siege.” Such is the force of his conviction that I don’t ask Constable Dove about the allegations that some of his own colleagues are contributing to that siege.

“Look at what these guys have been through to get here,” he says. “They’re so humble and grateful, but most Australians remain completely unaware of it. For our new arrivals, there’s nothing so destructive as people looking at you with hate; after a while, you start to hate yourself. We’re seeing Africans who hate white people almost as a defence mechanism: I feel you hate me, I can’t take it any longer, the only way I can maintain any sense of self-worth is to hate you back. That hate can infect an entire community. But it can also be fixed very quickly, with something that gives people a sense of self-worth: someone is taking an interest in me, someone respects me.”

Brendan Nottle is another Australian who’s unsettled by the hatred shown by some young Africans towards their white compatriots. The Salvation Army’s veteran commanding officer is used to dealing with drunken bashings, rapes and late-night overdoses on Melbourne’s streets. But nothing has prepared him for the recent upsurge in “hate-fuelled” robberies by young African-Australians. “They’ll ask someone the time and then hit them and steal their phone,” he says. “But it’s almost a thrill crime – they’ll later find the phone thrown away. These crimes seem to reflect a deep-seated anger or hatred towards some groups of people.”

Nottle’s work forces him to think outside the box, and earlier this year he approached Steve Fontana with an idea that has since spared dozens of young Africans the ignominy of a run-in with the law. Based on its two-year-old “street teams,” whose volunteers look after inebriated young people in the city centre on weekends, the Salvos have appointed ten Sudanese volunteers specifically to help the police deal with young Africans. The results have surprised everyone. “The Sudanese volunteers are superb,” says Nottle. “We’ve all become students of theirs.”

The coordinator, a soft-spoken young man called Liah Muot, has not only won friends among the police for defusing tense situations with African boys; he’s also won over the Salvo volunteers who’ve seen how his face draws in youngsters from the high rises in North Melbourne. “He’s one of them and one of us,” says one volunteer.

In fact, he’s one of Melbourne’s finest, and anyone who wonders about the future of our Sudanese community should meet him. Most weekdays, Muot is up by 5.30 am, writing assignments for his social science degree at RMIT University. On Tuesdays, he does a full day’s work at the Salvos, and on Wednesdays he used to do a half-day at Wesley Mission. On Saturday nights, he’s out with the cops; and now, since June, he’s been spending his Fridays on the Salvos’ youth bus, playing soccer with young Somali and Eritrean kids in North Melbourne. “He gives up all his free time to make this city a better place,” says Nottle. “How many Aussies can say that?”

But for all his sparkling goodwill, Liah Muot carries a deep sadness. Now twenty-five, he hasn’t seen his mother since he was fourteen. Somehow, he channels his personal grief into a natural empathy for those young Sudanese who’ve not managed to fit in as well as he has. “For many young Sudanese, Australia can be the end of the world,” he says. “You can’t speak the language, you struggle in school, your dad always threatening, ‘I brought you here and you must succeed.’” Muot says the key lies purely in accepting difference. “People here look you directly in the eye, which feels like they don’t trust you. They shake your hand, even if they’re younger than you! And all the time, you stand out as an easy victim. Look at my [forehead] scars: look how scary I look!”

THERE’s another African hero whom virtually every young person I speak to tells me I have to meet. Girma Seid runs the Centre for Multicultural Youth’s Brimbank Young Men’s Project, which aims to “reengage” marginalised young Africans through a careful series of group activities, mentoring and social events. It’s hard to believe this modest Ethiopian has only been in Melbourne for three years, such is the reverence his name attracts. “He saved my life,” says Dominic Matiang, an articulate twenty-four-year old who’s gone from drinking in the parks of Footscray to completing an IT diploma at Victoria University’s TAFE division.

When Seid launched his project in 2009, he spent the first nine months in the parks of Footscray and St Albans, “talking, just talking” to angry young men who didn’t want to know him. Three years on, his conviction is finally paying off. By the end of this year, ten of the project’s fifty-five charges – until recently deemed “hopeless cases” – will have full-time jobs. In July, after three years of tenuous pilot funding, the project finally became a “settlement service” fully funded by the Department of Immigration. There is now talk of replicating it in other parts of Melbourne.

Among its many achievements, Seid’s project has demonstrated the powerful bonding – the healing – that is possible when you take troubled young men, social workers and police to the neutral environment of a country campsite. He describes a role-modelling exercise at one camp last year: “The police and the boys swapped clothes and then acted in the way they feel the others act – the boys stopping the police, the police asking them, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ At the end of the evening, the two groups were hugging, taking photos: it was really quite moving.”

Seid says the boys he works with are lost in a sense: stuck between the radically opposing expectations of their parents to excel at school and reward their lifelong effort to bring them to Australia, and the expectations of their friends – so much more immediate and realistic – to fit in as ordinary Aussie teenagers. “And then there’s the pride,” he says. “Kids who can’t keep up at school bottle it up and get more ashamed and angry, and that’s when they’ll seek out others who have similar feelings.”

The result is a group of boys, and a growing number of girls, who often, as soon as they reach sixteen and become eligible for Centrelink support, leave their homes and “couch surf” between friends’ places. Frequently their fathers, ashamed at having lost them, break off all contact; social workers say they know of many mothers who make regular pilgrimages to the parks to beg their children to come home. “I remember being at a house in Keilor Downs,” says Moses Lado, “and there was a fourteen-year-old boy who was screaming at his father, ‘Fuck off, you bastard,’ using terrible language – and the man was begging him, ‘What have I done to you?’ It was just the saddest thing. Most of these parents love their kids deeply – they just want them to come home.”

For Dominic Matiang, it would have been easy to slip off the rails and stay there. Like many young Sudanese-Australians, he has parents who fought for the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army – the rebel force that went on to form the government of South Sudan – and he spent many of his formative years in the crowded chaos of Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp (home also, for several years, to Girma Seid and Moses Lado). Now he is about to be qualified, however, this bright, eloquent young man has his sights set back on South Sudan.

“My plan is to get my qualification, get a couple of years work experience, and then go back home and get a job,” he says. “A lot of our young kids who have lost the plot will wind up staying here. The ones with the knowledge who want to make something of their lives will go back to where they came from. Australia will be left with the rest.”

Dominic’s mother, Rebecca, is not pleased at the thought of one of her four sons returning to her homeland. But she understands just how the lack of friendship and belonging can get you down. “A lot of our children are losing hope, really losing their lives,” she says. “They hear stories all the time that Aussies hate them, that even the smartest Africans cannot find jobs.” When she moved to Williamstown in 2005, this genial woman says she thought living in “a nice area” would help her fit in. But after seven years, she now wants to move back to Sunshine. “None of my neighbours have spoken to me since we arrived,” she says. “People cross the street to avoid me, because I’m black. I need to move now. I need people to talk to. I need friends.”

In another trend that is alarming some community leaders, a growing number of African parents are sending their children overseas as soon as they show any signs of rebelliousness. Researchers have noted trends in the number of teenagers being sent to relatives in “safer” environments: Eritreans to Egypt, Somalis to Malaysia, Ethiopians back to Ethiopia. The implication, conveyed loudly and clearly, is that these children will be safer and will have a better future in these countries.

“The argument is that the government took away the parents’ right to discipline their children in traditional [physical] ways, and now the children are running amuck and the parents blame the system here,” says Farida Fozdar of the University of Western Australia, who has written widely on migrant issues. “Most people won’t admit the real reasons they’re sending their children abroad,” says Berhan Ahmed. “They’re afraid of jeopardising their residency, and are ashamed that their children are going off the rails.”

A Somali elder, who later asked that I remove his name from this story, told me of sustained “abuse” that his teenage children have suffered at the hands of insensitive Australian teachers, “asking them to tell the class about the causes of terrorism, as if their race should make them an expert.” This may be an aberration, but he fears such questions can permanently alienate some students. “My youngest daughter still says, ‘I’m an Australian,’ but I have no doubt that when she’s in high school, she’ll start saying, ‘I’m from Somalia.’”

Some social workers privately lament that young African-Australians can be their own worst enemies when it comes to taking up jobs or training opportunities, let alone breaking the shackles of welfare dependency. But most agree on the urgent need to overhaul several aspects of Australia’s support system: the woefully inadequate 510 hours of English tuition offered to new arrivals; the need for more sensitive class placements and intensive literacy and numeracy support for struggling secondary pupils; transfers to TAFE courses for those still struggling in the higher grades.

Meanwhile, employment – the one thing that most steadies a migrant family, that creates aspirations for its children – continues to be a distant dream for many African families. For the past five years, Omar Farah has been helping qualified Africans look for professional jobs through his Carlton-based Horn-Afrik Employment, Training and Advocacy Project. It’s a valiant effort, which has just secured its third tranche of federal funding; but its record is little short of devastating. In five years, 250 professional men and women have approached Farah for help; of these, twenty-five have found jobs – and half of them are now back driving taxis.

“All these professional people have to go back to Somalia or Sudan to get work, leaving their families here,” says Farah. “The reason they cannot get jobs here is not because of their qualifications or skills or experience, it’s because of their colour. In the twenty-four years I’ve been in Australia, I’ve seen some improvements for us Africans, but if John Howard and 9-11 and One Nation hadn’t happened, if the Herald Sun and the Australian hadn’t persisted in always telling the worst stories about Africans, things would be so much better for us.”

ON 19 OCTOBER a major gap for Melbourne’s African community will be filled when the Brotherhood of St Laurence and Footscray’s Anglican parish formally open their new African-Australian Community Centre. The centre is particularly focused on steering “disengaged” young African Australians back into education and work through a lively program of social events, job and interview preparations, and a “community justice program” that liaises with the police, legal services and the courts to encourage young people to cooperate with the law.

“We try to persuade them to go to court, rather than ignoring fines and summons and getting into more trouble,” says the centre’s manager, Abraham Mamer. “We want to show them that by showing remorse and starting to pay their fine, even if it’s just $5 a month, they can avoid being recorded as a criminal. Young Africans are always on the wrong side of the media, because the services they’ve been given have not really helped them, but this centre is going to be different – a place run by Africans for Africans.”

The difficulty of establishing role models – and some long-awaited stability – for Melbourne’s Sudanese community was dramatically illustrated on 2 June when a soccer match in Tullamarine erupted into a racially motivated brawl that left two Sudanese players unconscious. The fight was a serious setback for Brimbank Council, which had actively campaigned for the Sunshine Heights Western Tigers team to take on the Sudanese players. “They wanted to create some role models for the younger boys,” says Nick Hatzoglou, who was keeping goal that day, and who until recently ran the AFL’s Multicultural Football Project.

Hatzoglou is confident that many Africans’ sporting prowess will eventually win them friends and respect – although the June brawl was a reminder of just how long that could take. “It’s clear we can’t just lump teams together without doing the groundwork.” He believes Majak Daw could be a groundbreaker for the Sudanese. “People will take tremendous pride in seeing Majak representing the Kangaroos: it will be a huge good news story for the whole Sudanese community.”

It’s an argument repeated to me by several Australian youth workers and community project staff. Whereas our Asian compatriots have won respect, and eventually acceptance, as “good Australians” through a heady combination of culture, food and sheer hard work, for many Africans it will probably be their natural sporting abilities that carry them over the line. What does it say about us, that a group of people renowned for their affectionate hospitality, their deep spirituality, their unmatched commitment to family and community, may ultimately be judged by how well they kick a ball? •

Ralph Johnstone is a Melbourne-based writer.