For Refugees, It’s Been A Hard, Dazed Journey Into The Light

For refugees, it's been a hard, dazed journey into the light

Andra Jackson
The Age
October 13, 2007

JUST 16, Issiah Lado has taken a very long journey. He arrived in Australia as a child refugee and for a time, he says, experimented with drinking and fighting. Today, however, he studies and works as a cook and will soon step up to manage a city restaurant.

The teenager, who fled southern Sudan, is under the guardianship of the Department of Human Services. He has no immediate family in Australia. He went on his journey of transformation by himself, with the support of a social worker and his employer.

Issiah is one of about 20 Sudanese youths working in the Lentil As Anything restaurant chain. All are rebuilding lives disrupted by conflict and forced family separation. They are, by definition, a resilient bunch.

The group obtained jobs under the restaurant's refugee mentoring program 30 of its 45 staff are refugees.

Lentil As Anything's cultural secretary, Grace McQuilten, said the program was about building self-esteem. But in the past fortnight, a shadow has fallen over the workers.

The bashing death of 19- year-old Sudanese Liep Gony in Noble Park has left fear of being violently targeted, Issiah says. To protect him, his employer now sends him home by taxi.

Issiah said when he travelled on a train last week he felt “everyone was looking at me, thinking that I might do something. It made me feel bad.”

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews' remarks that the refugee allocation for Sudanese was cut because they were not integrating into Australian life has wounded many in the community. Issiah feels the sting of the minister's comments.

“They are saying 'the Sudanese boys, they drink, they do fighting, they steal, they do this'. Yeah, I used to do that and I got locked up but after that I changed my mind, and now I start working and I stay away from problems.”

Another restaurant worker, year 9 Princes Hill Secondary College student Selam Kestu, is contemplative and saddened by Mr Andrews' comments.

“I thought the government are supposed to be very analytical and thoughtful people,” the young Ethiopian says. “How can they say that? Every African cannot be blamed for the actions of others.”

Fasco Akot, a waiter at Lentil As Anything's Abbotsford cafe, is doing his VCE at Broadmeadows TAFE. He worries that reduction of the Sudanese intake may mean that he will never be reunited with his father, who remains in Sudan. “It is hard now, not like before,” he said.

Mr Akot, 20, said he had experienced discrimination in Australia, including an incident last year in the western suburbs when he was assaulted and had his bicycle stolen by non-African people.

Mario Kawac, 16, of Fitzroy, attends school in Preston and counts himself as a friend of Liep Gony. “(The killing) made me worried it could happen to my cousins unless they stop hanging out on Noble Park's streets.”

There is a resolution in the teenager as he reveals his ambition for the future he hopes to overcome misunderstanding by becoming a policeman. “To show my people there's a Sudanese in the police in Australia,” Mario said.

Lentil As Anything has joined with the Fitzroy Learning Network to celebrate the Sudanese settlement with a community festival. The event, which begins at noon today, will be held at the Abbotsford Convent, St Heliers Street, Abbotsford, and includes Sudanese music and dance and children's activities.


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