Being African women, being Australian women

By John Alizzi in conversation with Nyadol Nyuon | 04 Oct 12
In August 2012, the Sydney Opera House hosted a celebration of the 100 most influential African Australians. Right Now’s John Alizzi spoke with Nyadol Nyuon, who was recognised at the ceremony, about her background and the rights of African women in Australia.
Nyadol Nyuon is a 23-year-old post-graduate law student at the University of Melbourne, and has worked for the needs of African Australian youth and refugees with the Victorian Department of Justice, Initiatives of Change, Victoria Police, Australian Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, Oxfam Australia, Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), Fitzroy Learning Network, Social Studio, Victoria University and La Trobe University.

RN: Firstly, can you tell us a little about your background and how you came to this point, studying law and being involved in so many community initiatives?

Nyadol: I was born in Ethiopia in a refugee camp called Itang and then I moved with my family from Itang in 1991 and landed in another refugee camp in northern Kenya called Ka Kuma. Whilst I was there I got involved in drama activities that were just put in place so young people could have something to do in the camp. So I worked in a group with other young people with plays on HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, so it was very, very … it was not just for fun, it was quite educational in a way and a very good opportunity for young people who are living in the camp because that was the only way we actually got out of the camp and went to compete with other Kenyan schools.

I think that’s where my involvement with the community really started. I also did a bit of debating when I was there and worked in volunteering roles, set up by some UN agencies, to try and just improve relations within the camp and things like that. In 1995 my family applied to relocate, resettle in Australia, so I arrived in Australia in March 1995, then just enrolled in high school, managed to do that and then did an undergrad, managed to do that, and then applied to Melbourne Law School and have no idea how I got in.

I also started getting involved with my local church and then I started meeting people who were doing community volunteering roles. And then I started getting involved in the African Think Tank and volunteering with Oxfam and one thing led to another. But it’s always been something I’ve really enjoyed doing.

Can you tell us a little bit about some of the current projects you’re working on?

I’m involved in the African Think Tank and it’s been headed by an academic who works at the University of Melbourne, Berhan Ahmed. That involves training leaders in the African community to better manage their projects, to make their organisations work more effectively with the limited funding they have. That project has just concluded. It’s been a very good, very productive and very successful program.

Another program that I’m involved in is called Africa Media Australia (AMA). I attend twice a month and just participate in the program. The reason why the program came up is because there’s been very bad media coverage of the African community, particularly the Sudanese and Somali communities. And that is very much a concern for the community as to how they are being portrayed, but there are also general concerns about race and immigration profiling. So this kind of media – there’s another one that is also being organised by Melbourne University called Aussud Media that does the same thing – is a sort of community of initiatives that tries to address and provide a different platform, different voice.

There are different perspectives that don’t emerge as easily in the mainstream media, which tends to be generally quite negative. And so I attend that program twice a month and then I sit on the board of the African Think Tank and I also do my own things on the side. For example, I recently brought ten girls from St Maria College (Northcote, Victoria) to Melbourne Law School and I just wanted them to have ideas. I suppose first expose them to these places and just let them know that they exist and that they can now sort of have a goal and an aim. That worked really well and I had the support of Professor Pip Nicholson and Professor Tim McCormack.

What are your thoughts on what can be improved in relation to the rights of African women in Australia?

I think media coverage can have quite important consequences for the Sudanese community. Because you know, more people complain about feeling more racially targeted after negative coverage. They feel they are now not going to get jobs because of the portrayal of the Sudanese in a certain manner. But when it comes to particularly African women, I don’t know if I can speak for all of them, but I think in a sense they tend to be one of the more neglected voices in the social services.

Really, there’s a lot of focus on young men because there’s been this bad media coverage that young men have been involved in committing crimes; in terms of the Sudanese and Somali community there’s been very little attention being paid to women. And some of the problems they face, the majority of women actually, are significant. I know in the Sudanese community mothers with, you know, six to seven kids, and some of the problems they face, like housing for example, are really difficult to solve.

They also tend to come to Australia, the majority of them, having had very little education. And so that skill level to be able to get jobs is lacking, and they also don’t have what is called “employment history”. So, if there have been no employers they cannot easily get jobs. So I think much more focus on training and providing maybe child care services so that they can go and attend classes and improve their skills would be useful.

One of the things, which might seem like an offshoot, is health. This could be another area that needs more focus. In particular, personally I have begun to notice a lot of, well we’ve lost four to five women because of cancer and I think you know, just using an example, I think a lot of women I know, know very little about cancer and as opposed to women who have grown up in Australia here as it is something that has always seen in the media. If you do end up with cancer, God forbid, you can relate to groups and there are meetings you can attend. So this whole knowledge is not there for, say, Sudanese women in particular and I think African women in general, so I think that’s another area that needs attention.

So, you have highlighted employment, housing and health for women as issues that need more attention. The last question is: what advice would you give, or do you give, to African or other minority women for whom tertiary education and having a voice in Australia seems impossible?

For young women I think I generally try to tell them to aim as high as possible because, for one, in this country you can actually do that and I think in refugee camps it is very, very limited how far you can even think you can achieve. And in Australia you need to get past those mental barriers, that you think that you cannot go that far. So the advice I give them is to aim really high and try to work as hard as they can to try to achieve that goal. And, fail if you must, I failed terribly and I think I will continue to fail.

I think it’s because they also grow up in – with all due respect to my cousins because I think there’s aspects of being Sudanese that are good – I think the culture itself, bringing up women thinking in ways (that I think is also familiar to other countries) that what they can amount to is good wives. I think that is quite prevalent in my background.

As recently as last year, I had a conversation with my aunties, and one of my relatives said “I can’t really assist you in doing anything because you are going to get married and have kids, and you’re not going to retain the name of this family”. And all my aunties were shaking their head in agreement, and when I left I thought “did you realise what you have just said?” And then I thought this is how the culture is. And so even though we are in Australia, wanting to be ambitious and achieve, there are things that family continue to do that hurts, which limits the ability to access that dream.

I think somehow that’s what a lot of young women here are caught in – being Sudanese and being Australian – they have to go out there and be a sixteen or seventeen or twenty-five year old Australia wanting to achieve high and do all these things but they have to come back and be in the community, tied to the ideals of what a good women is, which is influenced very much by the Sudanese background.

So those kinds of practices can really limit how far these young women go. And I think the aspect of racism as well, it’s not just having intergenerational issues with your parents, it’s also stepping out there and finding out that you’re somehow not Australian enough. And I think that is also a limiting thing, it really does make you feel mentally that you know it’s almost a failed pursuit because you think “why try, because I’m never going to change being black”, in a sense that seems to be if it’s impossible to change that it makes wanting to aim higher or, you know, be better seem very hard because you can’t really deal with the kind of stereotypes and challenge them.

So, I think I try to advise young women that they will face this kind of thing within Australia, but, you know, I think you’ve just got to aim high and believe in yourself.