Stories of “African gangs” terrorising Victorian suburbs have featured prominently on the front page of tabloids this year. They describe Victoria gripped in “a state of fear” as “out-of-control teen thugs” wreak havoc in the streets. In this feature, we speak with three members of the Uniting Church’s South Sudanese community on the real story beyond the headlines.
Springvale Uniting Church member Majok Majuch wants to change how South Sudanese youth are portrayed in the media.
During the 2018 New Year celebrations, Majok spent the night filming South Sudanese volunteers as they patrolled the Melbourne CBD with Victoria Police. He wanted to highlight the South Sudanese community’s involvement in preventing youth crime in the city.
“When the media report about Africans, it’s as if we don’t have any values where we came from,” Majok said.
“We come from a tribal based region and tribes are managed by the value that people live together in harmony.”
As a nine-year-old, Majok fled South Sudan and spent several years in Kenya and Uganda before resettling in Australia in 2006 on a humanitarian visa.
When he first arrived in Melbourne, Majok struggled to adjust to a new culture and language. His experiences inspired him to create an online video channel, Macmajok Media, to support other South Sudanese youth.
“The purpose is to educate people so that we are not left behind,” Majok explained.
“When I was in high school there were so many challenges. I’m trying to share what I have experienced to make it easier for everyone else.”
Majok initially wanted to pursue a career in law or economics, but he developed an interest in videography after he realised programs for migrant communities were missing from much of Australia’s media landscape.
“What I do is educational programs through the internet in a language that can be understood by those who cannot follow the news,” he said.
“I’m trying to educate parents on what they need for their child to succeed at school and what they can do to help their kids get better scores.”
A “knife in our community”
Riak Gordon Kiir is a community development worker at Pakenham Uniting Church in Melbourne’s outer south-east. His role involves building relationships between government agencies, community service providers, schools and South Sudanese families in the Cardinia Shire.
“If there is any misunderstanding between a South Sudanese child and a school, the school will ring me and I will translate for the family,” Riak explained.
“I also try to explain cultural context to police, city council and MPs.”
According to the Victorian Crime Statistics Agency, Sudanese-born people make up one percent of all offenders. While Sudanese-born offenders are overrepresented per capita, a person in Victoria is 25 times more likely to be seriously assaulted by someone born in Australia or New Zealand than someone from Sudan.
Riak said many within Melbourne’s South Sudanese community are upset at some of the headlines splashed across the nation’s newspapers.
“If anything happens with any other nationality, they never mention their community,” he said.
“Why is the media always putting the knife in our community?”
Riak denies the existence of a South Sudanese gang in Melbourne and is particularly dismayed that the actions of a few individuals have been generalised to an entire community.
“Culturally, we deal individually. If you did something wrong, the law will deal with it individually. It can’t be the whole community having a problem,” he said.
“If there is a child from a Nuer community, the government needs to find out which part of the Nuer community. Even within the Nuer community there are three groups.
“They need to address the issue to the sub-community leaders, not the whole South Sudanese community.”
Victoria Police has expressed doubts over whether an African youth gang exists in Victoria. The Apex ‘gang’ that created headlines in 2015 and 2016 was a loose network of members from different cultural backgrounds, not a predominately African group as first reported.
It was declared a ‘non-entity’ by Victoria Police in April last year.
However, Riak said certain politicians continue to feed the narrative that Melbourne’s South Sudanese community has a youth crime problem.
“It’s individual people on the streets, according to their individual situations,” Riak said.
“Those kids might have issues such as financial, social, housing problems. This needs to be investigated, not just put more pressure on the community.”
Earlier this year, Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton claimed Victorians were afraid to go to restaurants at night because of “African gang violence”. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull also criticised the Andrews Labor government’s handling of youth crime in the state.
“The police and government in Victoria are dealing with it normally because they see it as a social issue,” Riak said.
“It’s not a gang issue. It needs to be addressed in social life. If those kids have problems and drop out from school, the government needs to find jobs or training for them.”
Majok suggests the heightened media coverage given to “African gangs” may encourage young people to partake in criminal activity.
“Some kids might think being called a ‘gang’ or being in the media is something cool,” he said.
“Once you are reported as different to everyone else, you are being isolated. When you isolate yourself, you don’t want to go to mainstream services offered by the government.”
With stories of terrified residents featuring prominently in the news, some have blamed South Sudanese parents for letting their children run riot on the streets.
But Majok argues the media spotlight on African youths is “even more traumatic” for South Sudanese parents.
“No African person wants to see their kids on the streets doing bad things,” he said.
“They want their kids to be in school, be educated and get the highest job possible. The reason people come to this country is because they want a better life, particularly for their kids.
“If there are problems being caused by African kids, it’s actually hurting the parents too.”
Nobody is born a criminal
Paulo Kwajakwan is a candidate for ministry studying at Pilgrim Theological College. When he arrived in Australia with his family in 2001, he set up the Chollo Christian Fellowship, which formed a close association with Noble Park Uniting Church.
Paulo said it is important to understand the background of young offenders rather than simply labelling them as ‘thugs’ and ‘criminals’.
“Nobody is born a criminal,” he said.
“Every problem has a background and you really need to go into that community and talk to the people.
“We community leaders have advised police not to rush in judgment and to understand the background of people first.”
According to the most recent census, the unemployment rate for South Sudanese people in Victoria is 31.8 percent, compared to 5.7 percent for the rest of the population.
Paulo believes many of the young men who engage in criminal activity come from broken families. Some grow frustrated at the lack of job opportunities and become disengaged from the community.
“Most of them are on their own with their mum, some don’t have their fathers because they died at war,” he said.
“They find it hard because there’s no support for them.”
Paulo is concerned how his five children will be treated in light of the intense media scrutiny on the South Sudanese community. Just last month, his 23-year-old son was struck in a random attack that left him with a broken jaw.
“It was really scary – that’s exactly the worry we carry with us all the time,” Paulo said.
“I always talk to my children and alert them. I tell them to be careful what they say and how they act and approach others.”
A quick glance at comments on the internet will reveal some of the vitriol directed at Australia’s African community.
Majok believes racism against Australian-Africans has worsened, particularly in the online space.
“You see comments calling for Africans to be deported, asking the government why we are here and so many offensive things that are disturbing to hear,” Majok said.
“It seems like we don’t belong to this country. We’re Australian citizens. We shouldn’t be segregated as Africans and Australians.”
Earlier this year, Australian-African youth took to social media to fight back against some of the media coverage. Using the hashtag #AfricanGangs, they began tweeting photos of graduation ceremonies, weddings and family dinners.
Riak hopes to see more positive stories of Sudanese youth represented in mainstream media.
“We have kids in Sunshine picked for the NBA in America. We even have a female from our community playing footy for the first time last year,” Riak said.
“There are a lot of great things going on.”
It’s not just in the sporting arena that South Sudanese youth are making strides.
From 2011 to 2016, the number of South Sudanese people in Victoria with a bachelor degree more than tripled.
“We have South Sudanese graduating university and college; some are lawyers and university lecturers,” Riak said.
“We have South Sudanese in the Australian army and other government departments.
“These are good stories, but the media isn’t talking about them.”
Listen to our voices
The majority of South Sudanese youth in Australia have grown up in a different cultural environment to their parents. Majok urges the government to invest more in culturally appropriate services for South Sudanese parents so they can better support their children.
“Sometimes people say parents are failing, but parents also need help,” he said.
“The parents are now in a different situation and deal with things they’ve never seen before, like drugs.”
Pakenham Uniting Church offers a range of community programs to help migrant families adjust to life in Australia. These programs bridge some of the generational gap between South Sudanese parents and their children.
“We open homework classes for young children when there is no one supporting them at home,” Riak said.
“We cooperate with their parents, so they can do homework with support from our volunteers at the Uniting Church.
“We also have playgroups to integrate young Sudanese kids with others.”
These outreach programs can also help combat stereotypes as people learn more about South Sudanese culture. In South Sudan there are 64 different tribes, each with different histories, language and traditions.
“People see that we are black, they call us all African,” Riak said.
“Africa has 54 countries. There are different cultures and language even in the one country. How do you know if someone is Nuer or Dinka? Sit down and talk with them. That’s the only way.”
Riak’s congregation is an example of a community that is united across different cultural backgrounds. A mural outside Pakenham Uniting Church (pictured opposite) illustrates their commitment to welcome people of all colours and faiths.
“Communication is a part of understanding the other person. That is what we do at church,” Riak said.
“We are from different nations, but we understand each other because we believe in God. But we not only believe in God, we also need to share our stories.”
For Paulo, the best way to support South Sudanese people is to give space for their voices to be heard.
“Listening to the stories of people and letting them speak is the best help you can offer,” he said.
“That’s at all levels – church, government, institutions, if they want to help they need to know the people first.
“If you go and talk to them, you may discover amazing things.”