September 2015

The Nation Reviewed

The two Abrahams

By Arnold Zable
Stories of South Sudan from Traralgon

Two hours’ drive east of Melbourne, within the southern reaches of the Great Dividing Range, lies the Latrobe Valley. When the first South Sudanese families arrived here nearly a decade ago they saw distant mountains, cattle grazing in open farmlands. “It reflected where we came from,” says Abraham Malual. “We thought we had come home.”

“In South Sudan we were farmers and herders,” says Malual’s close friend Abraham Maluk. “We took our cattle to grass, to the waters of the Nile River. In Melbourne our children were hanging around the streets, the train stations. They were getting into trouble. Parents were losing their authority. Our kids did not even know where milk came from. They thought everything came from the supermarket. When we settled in the Valley they saw how we used to live.”

Though the two Abrahams spent their childhood in the South Sudanese town of Bor, living just 10 kilometres apart, and undertook parallel journeys away from their homeland, they did not meet until well into adulthood. Malual was 12 and Maluk 14 when, during the Second Sudanese Civil War, government troops invaded their region in October 1987.

“They wanted to kill South Sudanese boys, to rid the opposition of potential reinforcements,” says Malual, now 40.

“Our parents told us to run. I ran with my younger brother and hid in the bush,” says Maluk. “I saw my parents falling when they were shot. I got separated from my younger brother. We never saw each other again.”

We talk in the living room of Malual’s house in a quiet residential enclave on the outskirts of Traralgon, a town of 24,000 in the Valley’s east. The two Abrahams speak as one. Malual exudes good cheer. He speaks English with an Australian accent. He is unusually short for someone from the Dinka ethnic group of Sudan. “People ask, ‘Why are you so short?’ I tell them it’s not my fault. I have the same brain,” he laughs.

Maluk’s speech is more measured than Malual’s. He is a natural educator, a man who clarifies. When he depicts his harrowing journey his speech attains a poetic intensity.

“We had no food, no water,” he says. “We were attacked by soldiers. We were attacked by lions, cheetahs, wild animals. Many boys became weak. They just dropped. I buried many friends. I survived because I kept saying, ‘This is not the day I am going to die. Maybe tomorrow, but not today.’”

The two Abrahams made it to the Ethiopian border. For two years they lived in the Pinyudo refugee camp, but never met. When the Ethiopian government changed, they were among thousands of boys forced out at gunpoint.

“We had to swim across the Gilo River,” says Malual. “Many boys were shot, swept away, many taken by crocodiles. If you were underwater, crocodiles saw you as someone who could attack them and they swam away. So we swam underwater.”

The boys re-entered Sudan and headed south. After a trek of many months they settled in the vast Kakuma refugee camp across the border in Kenya. They lived there for 13 years, first in tents and later in huts of grass and timber.

It was in Kakuma, in 1992, that Malual discovered the fate of his family. His parents were killed soon after he fled, and the young girls abducted. “When I received the Red Cross message it was horrible,” he says. “I couldn’t do anything about it.”

The two Abrahams finally met in 2005 when preparing to come to Australia. Both had married and had children born in the camp. Maluk flew to Melbourne in late December 2005, Malual three days later. Malual settled in the suburb of Dandenong, Maluk in Clayton. They did not meet again until they moved to Traralgon: Malual in January 2008; Maluk, coincidentally, one month later.

“It was strange when we first settled in the Valley,” says Maluk. “The media at that time wrote very negative articles about our communities in Melbourne. There was a lot of tension, a lot of suspicion. We were the first blacks many people saw, apart from Aborigines. If you were walking on the road, two or three of you, they kept a distance. They thought we would attack them. They thought we would destroy their way of life. We did not blame them, but went out into the community to explain where we came from.”

“We worked as a team,” says Malual. “We spoke to Rotary, the Men’s Shed, in churches, to local sports groups. We told people that we came from war-torn countries and we needed a quiet place to settle.”

“It was confusing for our children,” says Maluk. “Kids were bullying them. They were dropping out. They could not cope with homework, with classwork. We went to their schools. We spoke to parents, teachers and students. We tried to put them in our shoes. We explained that the kids came from a place where education was interrupted.”

“The Liddiard Road Primary School led the way,” says Malual. “The wellbeing officer, Sharon Sandy, reached out to our community. She visited our families. She took an interest in us. She began collecting stories written by our children.”

The demand for the stories, first produced on stapled paper, was overwhelming. Local residents and community groups were keen to read them. There are now three professionally produced books. The first, Donkeys Can’t Fly on Planes, features stories of survival written and illustrated by local South Sudanese children. I am in Traralgon for the launch of the two latest books: In My Kingdom and All the Way Home. Written by South Sudanese parents for their children, they include stories of growing up in Africa, survival in the refugee camps and perilous journeys to new lives. The books are delivered to Malual’s house three hours before the launch. They are passed around in the living room where several families have gathered. Malual’s wife, Elizabeth, and Maluk’s wife, Rebecca, whose stories feature in the books, have cooked up a celebratory feast.

“We applied for settlement in Australia because we heard there was free education here,” says Maluk. “The day I found out we were accepted was like a dream.”

The Abrahams have seized their chances, studying at Monash University. Malual, who worked as a plumber in the camp, has gained a degree in community welfare and counselling. Maluk, an Anglican minister, has a degree in social and community welfare, and a master’s in international relations.

When they became citizens in 2009 it marked the end of 22 years of statelessness. “It meant I could travel back to South Sudan,” says Maluk. He returned to Bor in 2010 for the first time since he saw his family slaughtered. “I was shocked to see so many orphans, traumatised children. It reflected back my whole life. These children needed someone to care for them.”

The Abrahams joined forces with Sharon Sandy and other Valley residents to set up the Bor Orphanage & Community Education Project. Maluk has since returned to South Sudan twice, staying there up to six months. He has set up a station to distribute food, employed field workers and established plans for a school. A retired Traralgon builder has volunteered to construct eight classrooms in kit form, to be shipped to South Sudan by year’s end.

“We have to do it,” says Maluk. “I tell myself that when we were in the bushes, in refugee camps, without help we could not have survived. In the Valley we are now part of the community. We have found a peaceful home. It is time to give back.”

Arnold Zable

Arnold Zable is an educator and a human rights advocate. He has written several books, including Cafe Scheherazade, Jewels and Ashes, The Fig Tree, Scraps of Heaven and Sea of Many Returns.

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