Hope in the face of crushing impossibilities

Nyadol Nyoun's keynote address at World Refugee Day in Canberra, Australia.

South Sudanese-Australian Ms. Nyadol Nyoun's keynote address at the UNHCR Regional Representation in Canberra's World Refugee Day celebration.
© UNHCR/Khanh Hoang

Thank you for the invitation, I am honoured to be involved in this special event and I thank the UNHCR, in particular Catherine Stubberfield, for the invitation and the opportunity to speak.

I still feel nervous whenever I am asked to speak at events like these, it has been a little over a decade since my family and I arrived in Australia - so often being here, being in a place like this, still feels like a dream. Having been born and raised in refugee camps, nothing in my earlier circumstances would have suggested that I would stand here today addressing distinguished and influential members of the Australian community.  It is not lost on me that only 13 years ago my family and I were living in an overcrowded refugee camp in Northern Kenya. Only 13 years ago many of my dreams and goals appeared distant and impossible and only 13 years ago I was considered to be stateless.

I was considered stateless because since birth, my life, that of my family and community, had been disrupted by years of war. And for a long time we knew no other life.  For a long time we were considered a displaced people, and soon we became homeless - a people without a country willing to claim them or protect them.

As a result, like many others in my community, I ended up living in and out of refugee camps. Kakuma refugee camp was where I spent most of my childhood.

The refugee camp had no running water, no electricity and barely met our basic needs for survival. My family depended on food rations distributed fortnightly by the United Nations.  

My mother, a single mother of seven children, was desperate to get us out of the camps. And I said “get us out” because I believe mum never wanted to leave her people behind, but she knew without escaping the conditions in Kakuma we, her children, had no future. 

It is not an exaggeration to say my mother sacrificed her life, at least the life she would have had, so that we could live a life with some dignity and hope. One thing my mother wanted was for her children to have an education. And this was demonstrated by how she supported my education at the Camp.

I attended Kakuma secondary college, one of three secondary schools servicing the refugee camp of nearly 90,000 people. 

I recall sitting in a class of about 60-80 students. On each bench, around four students sat together on desks less than an arm’s length.  There were only four girls in my class, and I was the loudest!

But the main problem was not the overcrowding in the overheated classrooms, it was the fact that each day, in suffocating heat and occasional dust storms, I walked nearly an hour to get to school.  Mum thought that enough was enough. She bought me a bicycle.

You have to remember that we had little, very little, but she bought me a bicycle.  My mother took food from the table and placed it as wheels beneath me.  She allowed me to fly.  It is a moment I recall often. A moment that showed the lengths parents go to provide for their children even in some of the harshest situations.

It was also my mother who had the fortitude to apply for resettlement in Australia. In doing so she was leaving her language, her identity, and culture behind for a chance to give her children a new life.

We commenced our application process to Australia in around 2002. And as we waited to hear from Australian immigration, I recall my mother singing gospel songs and praying each night, pleading that our application would be approved. Sometimes I sang along with her, but most of the time I listened silently waiting for my turn to persuade god on the ‘wisdom’ of letting my family and I resettle in Australia.

When mum stopped singing, I would take over.  I waited until my mother had finished singing and praying because I thought God would be in a better mood.  When all was quiet …so quiet that I could clearly hear my thoughts - I would begin negotiating with God.  I pleaded and promised that if my family made it to Australia, and I got a university education, I would be a good Christian, would always be grateful, never complain and would always, always listen to my mother.  

I was desperate to get out of the camp. At the time, I was in my final year of high school and knew if I didn’t leave by the end of that year, it would be the end of my education. There was no university in Kakuma and my mother could not afford to pay for further education outside of the camp. And I was lucky.  Very lucky: I did make it to Australia and I did attend university. However, I have caught myself complaining when trains run two minutes late. So I was unable to keep all my promises.

Since our arrival in 2005 our lives changed radically. Within the last 13 years we have moved from being stateless and refugees, to enjoying the privileges and protections of being Australian citizens. I now have a passport. I recall handing over my passport to an immigration officer at the Melbourne Airport and she said “Welcome home.” I have a home. 

Within the last 13 years, I have also moved from sitting in an overcrowded classroom to graduating from Melbourne University with a law degree. And on 10 May 2016, I achieved my long held dream by becoming a lawyer when I was admitted into the legal profession.

This was a dream I would not have achieved without the generosity of many people who have supported me since arriving in Australia. More importantly, it was a dream that would have been impossible without the opportunity to be resettled in Australia - an opportunity that the millions of refugees worldwide continue to hope, dream and aspire to have.

I share my story today because it demonstrates what many refugees’ stories have shown before - which is, that given a small window of opportunity, many will turn it into a life time of achievements.

In the current political climate around the world where people fleeing persecution are vilified and prevented from seeking asylum, and where they are regarded with suspicion and subjected to punishment, we cannot lose sight that it is people, not numbers, not statistic and not headlines that we are talking about.

I have often wondered, of the children in detention centres, how many, if given the opportunity, would, like me, make their big impossible dream come true.  How many, like the many refugees in the past, could become business men or doctors who might find the cure of cancer or change our country for the best.   And I wonder about how many never get the chance to try, and instead remain forever those terrible numbers and statistics.

I know from personal experience, that many refugees take dangerous roads to safety and many cross dangerous and unpredictable seas for the chance to have their children strive. As put so eloquently by the British Somali poet Warsan Shire, this is not an easy decision for any parents, because:

"No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.

You only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well.

Your neighbours running faster than you, the boy you went to school with who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory is holding a gun bigger than his body, you only leave home when home won't let you stay.

No one would leave home unless home chased you, fire under feet, hot blood in your belly.

It's not something you ever thought about doing, and so when you did - you carried the anthem under your breath, waiting until the airport toilet to tear up the passport and swallow, each mouthful of paper making it clear that you would not be going back.

You have to understand,  no one puts their children in a boat  unless the water is safer than the land.

Who would choose to spend days and nights in the stomach of a truck unless the miles travelled meant something more than journey. No one would choose to crawl under fences, be beaten until your shadow leaves you, raped, then drowned, forced to the bottom of the boat because you are darker, be sold, starved, shot at the border like a sick animal, be pitied, lose your name, lose your family, make a refugee camp a home for a year or two or ten, stripped and searched, find prison everywhere and if you survive and you are greeted on the other side with go home blacks, refugees dirty immigrants, asylum seekers sucking our country dry of milk, dark, with their hands out smell strange, savage - look what they've done to their own countries, what will they do to ours?

I want to go home, but home is the mouth of a shark home is the barrel of the gun and no one would leave home unless home chased you to the shore unless home tells you to leave what you could not behind, even if it was human.

No one leaves home until home is a damp voice in your ear saying leave, run now."

What Warsan Shire writes is painfully true.  But so is the resilience of so many refugees.

I stand here today as an example of what the generosity of a nation can afford someone who was once considered stateless.

I stand here today as testament to what given a chance, many more can do and achieve.

And I stand here today, because I must.  Because if my story, in any way, can change the way we perceive some of the most vulnerable people in the world, then it is all worth sharing and spreading.

I hope, for those who continue to campaign for change, that events like these are able to renew their inspiration to do this very tough work. We must keep on speaking for and on behalf of those whose voices remain unheard. I say purposefully unheard because everyone has a voice, however we live in a world that is yet to value all voices. 

We must continue to advocate for the displaced and the vulnerable because in the current political environment it is vital that we do not lose hope.  

I often recall a quote by one of my favorite authors, Tony Morrison, when times appear dark, she said

“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal."

I also urge you to remember, we were made for this time. 

Here again, I borrow words and language from people who said it better than I can.  I want to end with the encouraging essay by Clarissa Pinkola Estes.  She wrote:

My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered.

They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.

You are right in your assessments.

The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking.

Yet,… I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times.

Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is that we were made for these times.

In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.

You must forgive me for sounding so “aspirational” in the face of such a harsh realities we see today.  But in some ways I am still a refugee. 

I am still that child who used to lay on my back, day dreaming about the “impossible” and yet here I stand today having had the great fortune of having many of those impossible dreams and goals come true:

To be a refugee is to hope in the face of crushing impossibilities.

And with that, Happy World Refugee Day, thank you for having me and may we continue to hope, advocate and work for a better world.

Thank you.