In the wake of the recent Swanston St riots the spotlight on the Sudanese Australian community has become painfully bright. One leader speaking out for the community is Abe Nouk, a popular slam poet, who strives to build education programs for the Sudanese community.
‘Why would these people riot in Swanston St if they’re not fed up?’ says Abe, ‘At some point when a bully bullies you, you snap. But no one wants to get the other side of the story because it’s easy to vilify on gangs.’
The media treatment of the Sudanese community has highlighted a glaring hypocrisy within Australian society. On one side, we promote our multicultural heritage. On another, we continue to advocate anti-refugee policies such as mandatory detention.
‘The idea of multiculturalism is that we want it to look good but we don’t want to deal with individuals within our cities,’ Abe says, ‘Does Australia really want to accept multiculturalism for all its flaws?’
The power, motivation and inspiration behind Abe’s words begin with his story.
Abe came to these shores in 2004 at only 14 years old. He couldn’t read or write. He didn’t know a word of English. Along with his widowed mother and eight siblings, they were thrust into Australian society as refugees.
Now 12 years later, Abe Nouk is an award winning, published, self-taught poet. He’s on a mission to help other young people find their words and bridge the gaps of rhetoric that echo behind the sensationalised headlines and hostile politics.
‘You have to realise illiteracy should be considered every child’s worst nightmare and that’s precisely what I went through and that’s precisely what every child goes through when they can’t use their imagination,’ Abe explains.
‘I’m not going to waste this freedom of speech.’
The evening air was especially warm on the night Abe left Sudan. The violence that ravaged Sudan had taken its toll on his mother and she had decided to make tracks to safer borders.
‘Women make decisions that make or break families daily and that selflessness isn’t something that is taught, you have to learn to cultivate that within yourself’ Abe comments.
The family headed towards Cairo where they lived as refugees for four years in ghetto communities.
‘Cairo was bearable,’ Abe reflects, ‘and it wasn’t bearable in Sudan when we were running for our lives.’
With their refugee status in a state of limbo and no change on the horizon, Abe’s mother searched for other options to maintain her family’s safety, landing on Australia.
Every refugee that applies for asylum in Australia gets three chances to apply. If the application gets rejected all three times, it becomes a closed case and the only way to Australia is illegally by boat. Abe’s mother and her 9 children were accepted on their third attempt.
‘That journey in itself didn’t seem believable. It still doesn’t. I’ve been here 12 years now and it seems like 12 days,’ Abe says, ‘You can’t put a price on the very notion of what freedom means.’
Through everything, Abe still finds the lighter side of life, like the joy of birthdays. While Abe knows his actual birthday, refugees without a proper birth certificate are given the 1/1 as their birthday. As a result, all 9 children have the same birthday.
‘Now I’m not the smartest guy in the world but my dad couldn’t have been that precise,’ Abe laughs, ‘But that’s one of the privileges of being a refugee, the world gets to celebrate my birthday on the first of every year.’
Abe’s drive for poetry was spurred by a childhood marred with a lack of self-expression. When Abe was growing up speaking Dinka and Arabic, his mother’s native tongue, he had a stutter.
‘Growing up I could never defend myself and whenever I tried the elders around me would finish my sentences. But it was never exactly what I wanted to say. So those frustrations always stayed in me,’ Abe recalls.
When Abe came to Australia, he didn’t know any English but was dedicated to picking up the language. Through reading children’s books and listening to hip-hop, Abe quickly taught himself the language, and the stuttering was gone. Suddenly Abe found an outlet to express himself and this developed into an obsession.
‘You have to get to a point where you create because it allows you to live. I create because it allows me to forgive my past, it allows me to forgive the fact that I had a fucked-up childhood.’
Abe’s poetry, which features a mix of personal and social issues surrounding refugees, quickly developed a following. He has been crowned the Victorian champion of slam poetry, has a collection of his poems published and has performed at the Sydney Opera House and Glastonbury Festival.
Abe takes all of this success with a grain of salt.
‘I think everybody is a poet,’ Abe says, ‘If something strikes you and you express it, then that’s poetic, it isn’t necessarily being good words. The only reason people listen to me is because I jump on stage and say something.’
Now looking forward, Abe aims to use his success and his story to help educate young people.
This begins with Abe’s fondest creation, Creative Rebellion Youth, a 24-hour educational creative space in Collingwood that focuses on helping young people gain access to an open learning and artistic environment.
Creative Rebellion Youth started in 2012 as a recording project driven by the idea is that money or time should be no barrier to the creative process. Today, it helps give disadvantaged youths an avenue of self-expression and a chance to grow into future community leaders.
Additionally, Abe has expanded his skills into becoming a highly sought after guest teacher for students around Victoria.
‘All I ever wanted was to go to school, now I get to go to schools to teach,’ Abe laughs, ‘Just the irony of that and how huge it is that I mustered the courage to do it.
There are approximately 20,000 Sudanese immigrants within Australia, with around 6,100, the largest community, residing in Victoria. Additionally, Sudanese Australians earn $294 a week on average, a measly sum compared to the $597 average for Australian born residents.
Abe believes this wealth disparity is one of many damaging consequences that the lack of appropriate education is having within the Sudanese Australian community.
Following this, Abe argues that government institutions and schools are failing to adequately address community and social problems. The government services are 9-5 jobs with many workers apathetic to addressing the root causes of these problems.
In addition to Abe, there are a number of prominent African community leaders working to improve the education system for refugees. Dr Berhan Ahmed, an Eritrean immigrant is an academic at the University of Melbourne and the 2009 Victorian of the Year and believes the Swanston St riots were a demonstration of the failings of the education system in supporting refugee students.
Through being neglected by mismanaged government services, Dr Ahmed explains that these students have no inspiration to keep studying and this leads to dropping out and pursuing criminal ventures.
‘Money spent to show they are spending money to help, but the money is not going to the right places. You have to give power to the people around them,’ Dr Ahmed asserts.
Dr Ahmed highlights how schools place young refugees in classes based on age and not academic ability, causing a high fail and drop out rate.
‘What does that mean for someone who has never had a proper education?’ says Dr Ahmed.
With the recent Swanston St riots sparking vitriolic rhetoric in the refugee community, Dr Ahmed believes that the education system needs to be reviewed immediately.
‘The question becomes how do we break the cycle of racism within our community? I believe it begins and finishes with education.’
Abe argues that this systematic mismanagement is exactly what is causing tension within young refugees.
‘Imagine being enrolled in year 9 and being bullied by the teachers who tell us that we’re too old to be in class. We’re in an environment that if it doesn’t understand where you come from or who you are, it becomes too impatient and labels you. At some point people live up to those labels cause they are pissed off.’
Abe explained that Creative Rebellion Youth is designed to alleviate educational missteps and to help curb the threat of alcohol abuse and crime. For many young refugees, their traumatic refugee experience mixed with the disjointed isolation they feel in Australia leads to a violent and destructive path.
‘The trauma will always be there. It’s justified self harm and self harm is a way out.’
‘How do I get these kids so busy creatively that they won’t need an outlet to fuel their habits? If I’m not using the art form to invite other people who think they’re capable of doing it, then it’s purposeless.’
‘I remember one time, a student got up and said “if you teach me something I’ll forget it but if you tell me a story I’ll remember it" and that’s when I knew that our imagination, our capabilities to tell stories has no context in terms of skin colour.’ Abe says.
Abe tells me of one of the success stories from Creative Rebellion Youth, Daniel, also from Sudan. Daniel came to Creative Rebellion Youth in search of an artistic outlet but had no capacity of expressing himself. Daniel also had no concept of how to play music except by ear. However after 9 months of hard work, Daniel is releasing his own EP, an accomplishment that brings a smile to Abe’s face.
‘To be in the midst of that creative internal search is priceless'.
As Australia quickly approaches another election and the Swanston St riots lingers inevitably in context, Abe and I return to speak about how political and social issues are directly affecting his community.
Abe told me of friends who are in process of being deported, friends who were misidentified by newspapers as criminal and received no public apology or compensation. Abe himself was close to doing jail time on account of misidentification through racial profiling.
‘Wrong time. Wrong place.’
Abe believes that this is systematic bullying by authorities that restrict the ability of refugees to defend and to enable themselves.
‘Not being able to defend yourself is one thing, but being stripped of it and then being told you have these rights, and then you try to exercise those rights and you realise that I can’t exercise it. That’s exactly what this situation boils down to.’
Abe believes the refugee climate within Australia mirrors the situation in detention camps in Nauru and Manus Island, which currently holds 3,707 refugees in mandatory detention.
‘The citizens of the country have become complacent and they have allowed the government to make obscene decisions to lock people up. What happened to people going ‘No we don’t agree with this, the government is suppose to be for us.'
However, what riles Abe the most is the selective treatment by mainstream media outlets to Sudanese Australians. Abe uses the example of Thon Maker, a Sudanese Australian who has entered the NBA draft and has received considerable media attention.
‘I feel there is this love-hate relationship with the Australian public and it’s completely bullshit. At some point we have to be completely honest with ourselves.’ Abe exclaims.
‘It’s not even the frustration, it’s even more destructive. Isn’t that hypocritical? You can’t represent a small few of us and lock up the others.’
As a way forward, Abe talks again of the value of conversation and education. Abe stresses how, after considerable learning and personal growth, he wants to listen to voices from other side of the aisle that espouse anti-refugee rhetoric.
For speaking about issues are the first steps to resolving them peacefully and for the long-term.
‘At some point you start to realise racism is ignorance, and you have to perceive the human that comes from it,’ Abe says, ‘‘just saying someone is racist to me doesn’t cut it anymore. You have to listen to what they are saying and take what value you can from it. ’
‘Regardless of how much we disagree, we need to give them a place at the table, that’s what freedom of speech is about.’
As Abe winds up our chat, he asks what the standard of literacy here is in Australia. After hearing that most children are reading by the time they enter primary school, Abe is stunned.
‘Wow. That is mind blowing’ Abe exclaims, ‘to me, the idea of literacy as an expectation and not a luxury is truly amazing. I’m not sure Australians know how lucky they have it.’
Maybe Abe is right, maybe as a community we take our education for granted. We take the issues that surround refugees and multiculturalism for granted. With the polarising rhetoric surrounding refugees and the recent riots that grabbed front-page headlines, something needs to be done to address these issues. It begins with looking at our education systems.
The questions and problems surrounding refugee integration and multiculturalism cannot be solved overnight. But, as Abe told me, maybe all it takes is a change of perspective.
Alex Capper, once affectionally called by Ross & John of 3AW as the '7 foot fucker', loves the Essendon Football Club, stalking reddit and dabbing. He thinks he can speak French, but he can't.