South Sudanese Footballer Defying Labels And Hoping To Encourage Others To Do The Same

26th September 2019
By Katherine Everest

Budding AFL player, Majok Aneet, and Community Leader, Manyang Koch, detail their experience of migration to Melbourne as South Sudanese refugees, and relay struggles experienced in the current climate.

Melbourne athlete, and refugee from South Sudan, Majok Aneet, is back on track to fulfil his dream of playing in the AFL. After been labelled a “thug” who “swapped footy boots for crime”, the star is determined to defy labels afforded to him, and through sharing his story, hopes to encourage others to do the same.

Majok’s resilience comes off the back of a hard lesson learnt after been sentenced to 285 days in prison, and served a two-year non-custodial Community Corrections order for co-conspiring in an aggravated burglary, and recklessly causing injury. Judge Michael Tinney reduced Majok’s sentence, preventing his deportation back to South Sudan, on the grounds that Majok threw no blows and was very much ‘a blind follower’ throughout the committed crime. Majok states immense support from particulars has allowed him to overcome such a hurdle.

“When I got in trouble and I had the time off, I met a couple of people that were at the level I wished I could have received advice from, and talked to [growing up]. I know I made a mistake, and to me I have to make a mistake as somebody that came from nowhere and had no family.”

Majok was named one of the best players for Spotswood Football Club in the final of  the RAMS Division 1 Seniors of the West Region Football League, where the team just missed out on a slot in the grand final this season. He plans to recommence training with a VFL club in 2020, after previously playing for the Werribee VFL squad. When not playing football, he is working as a landscaper with YMCA Rebuild.

Photograph: Karen Burns

His story presents a common struggle experienced by young males who have migrated from South Sudan. While recognising that young South Sudanese males have committed crimes in the past- as young males from every background have- the devotion of media attention to the sensationalism of young South Sudanese Australian males as ‘thugs’ has meant their stories and struggles of migration have faded into the background.

South Sudanese community leader, former Youth Employee with the Department of Families, Communities and Social Inclusion in South Australia, and Juris Doctor student, Manyang Koch, provided insight into two main issues potentially contributing to the behaviour we often see published in the media, but less often see attempts made to understand underlying causes. Issues presented were coming from broken family structures, and experiencing educational difficulties as a result of migration.

He states growing up in a new environment without parents present, and cultural differences in the management and intervention of family disputes often deprives children of parental figures needed for support as they develop into adults.

“Most of these young boys, they all come from broken families. Some of them came with either uncles, or relatives, and this is a new environment. Majority of them, there is a level of family violence within some families.”

Manyang attests investigation into the prevention of family violence is critical, while an alternative form of intervention that does not separate young men from father figures is essential.

“In our own culture, I pay 500 [cows] to your family- you are my wife, we are family. Naturally, we have some indifferences, we should sit and sort those indifferences. But here, for example, in police coming into the family, in cases of intervention of family violence, the man will be asked to stay away just to prevent any instances. If there is intervention in place, they [fathers] either decide to go back to Africa, or they move state. This causes a lot of psychological problems for most of these kids. As long as that person has not proven violent to his own children then we see that there is a need for these children to have contact with their father.”

Manyang also identified that young people who have migrated from South Sudan have likely spent lengthy time in Kenyan refugee camps, meaning they have either missed early years of schooling, or never attended school; making fitting into the Australian educational system extremely difficult.

“You are born in a refugee camp and maybe stay there until the age of ten. Already around that age probably you are either in year five or four in Australia. You come with parents who are less educated than you. You don’t get the help you are supposed to be getting. You go back [to school] with an assignment that’s not completed, and if this happens three, four times in a week, the frustration itself, it’s coming. It will continue, you will skip school on a day to day basis because you don’t want to feel embarrassed in class. We come from extended family, so four brothers, three brothers, they all go to the same school, and they are all not getting the same sort of help. What do you think? They will find themselves, group themselves, what they do is they fan out.”

Manyang believes the educational system must be reformed to reflect the multicultural landscape of Melbourne.

“All educational institutions, they need to adapt this system by employing quite a number of South Sudanese, who have the knowledge to provide necessary support to these young kids in order to combat the level of crime. Given the appropriate level of support for these young people, they will at least reduce the level of crime.”

These two scenarios are all too familiar to Majok. Originally from South Sudan, Majok migrated from Kenya to Australia in 2004 with his aunty, older brother, and cousins. His mother remains in South Sudan while his father passed away in South Sudan in 2014. He first attended school in Australia in year four, where coincidingly he had to learn to read, and speak in English. He lived with foster families throughout the entirety of his childhood in Toowoomba, and when forced to move to Melbourne had no family to live with. Difficulty finding a foster family in Melbourne meant Majok found himself living with older cousins, moving around, and having to look after himself. This, Majok said, is what led him to get caught up in the wrong crowd.

“The older I would get I went through a lot of foster parents. I got in trouble at boarding school, that’s how I ended up in Melbourne. My trouble was, I couldn’t understand how school goes. So me, not used to that school environment, I was getting in trouble a lot and got sent to another state.”

He added, “It happened to a lot of us young Sudanese kids. You end up around a wrong crowd like that because Melbourne is so big. When you’re here with this crowd you feel comfortable, like you fit in, but you don’t know what you’re walking into until something actually happens.”

Majok also pointed out the negative representation of young South Sudanese Australian males in the media has made things even more difficult.

“Anything that happens, it’s point fingers on all of us, and all of us get judged the same. So we have that in the back of our minds. When I see it, it upsets me. It’s something that we can’t handle.”

“Anything that happens, it’s point fingers on all of us, and all of us get judged the same. So we have that in the back of our minds. When I see it, it upsets me. It’s something that we can’t handle

Majok Aneet, aspiring AFL Player

Increased reports of suspicion towards members of the South Sudanese community have come to the attention of Manyang. He attributes this increase to negative portrayals of the South Sudanese community in the media. Since he moved here in 2014, Manyang’s view of Melbourne as a city of strong multiculturalism has changed.

“From 2016 until now, I think I have a different view of Melbourne. I think the attitude in the media has changed. Generalizations of people of colour; it’s become the order of the day. Being suspicious [of people of colour] has become random, and the attitudes towards people have also changed. I’m not saying that to everyone, it is only the media. I think it’s actually caused a lot of impatience within the Sudanese community. One thing they don’t realize is that, when you do this you are harming thousands of people out there.”

“From 2016 until now, I think I have a different view of Melbourne. I think the attitude in the media has changed. Generalizations of people of colour; it’s become the order of the day.”

Manyang Koch, South Sudanese Community Leader

He recommends a shift in media representation of the South Sudanese community to one that circumvents exaggerated and inaccurate reporting, and works towards resolving the issue rather than aggravating it.

“Come out with the modalities, how to tackle the problem, rather than going over the same issue again and again. I would recommend that the media should be positive, because we live in a world run by the media, and the media have it all to play either to destroy or to raise awareness.”

Majok encourages young South Sudanese males to speak out about their struggles to provide greater understanding amongst the community, and greater avenue for solutions. For many, he says, this is not an easy thing to do, as young males feel there is no space to air their concerns to the public, while existing prejudices held within the community deter some from talking to an audience they feel will not listen. In response to this Majok encourages the community to put aside existing prejudices and start believing in South Sudanese youth.

“We all need to tell our stories, and some of us, we keep it in. I’ve got so much to tell about Melbourne, I just don’t know how to say it. We want to talk about it, and sort out the issues that are going on, and when we do, it seems like it’s getting worse almost. But we actually are trying our best to do what we need to do. If we open up and see these young guys, and how much talent we have, and in five years’ time maybe be somewhere, but it’s just like no one believes in us because of what happened.”

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