World Refugee Day Q&A: Australian teen's curiosity about refugees sparks special friendship
GENEVA, June 20 (UNHCR) - Sophie Weldon is one of two UNHCR Special Youth Representatives for Australia. In 2003, the then 14-year-old won a UNHCR essay contest for high school students after writing about former Sudanese refugee Adut Dau Atem. The bond between the two - and their tie to UNHCR - blossomed and they were appointed special youth representatives in 2005. They help raise awareness about the refugee agency's work among Australians, especially young people, and give it a human face. Weldon recently returned home after spending two years at United World College of the Atlantic, a prestigious boarding school in Wales. She spoke with Public Information Officer Cécile Pouilly during a visit to Geneva. Excerpts from the interview:
Tell us how you first came to meet Adut
When I was 14, I was introduced to Adut by a family friend who was a migration agent. I had approached her saying that I wanted to hear for myself a refugee's story from someone my age, to understand the human story behind the refugee issues that were in the news. I decided I was going to write a school project on a real refugee story.... Adut had only been in Australia two months when we met in Canberra. I sat across from her and she just began speaking. As she told me her story, we cried together and we held hands and something really powerful came from that evening - both our lives changed in amazing ways.
What did she tell you about her life?
She was eight when her village was bombed while she was at school.... She grabbed her three-year-old cousin Abuk as well as her brother, Deng, and a friend and fled into the forest to escape the bombs and violence. Adut had to take care of Abuk as if she were her own child.... It's an incredible journey; UNHCR helped them survive and after two-and-a-half years of walking they found their way to Kakuma refugee camp [in north-east Kenya].
When they got to Kakuma, life was very harsh and, at such a young age, Adut helped care for those she was with as well as educate herself. She went to classes even though she was sick with hunger; she was able to learn and is incredibly intelligent. She was studying medical science up until a year ago in Australia.
Years later, her father - who hadn't been in their village when it was attacked - turned up at the camp looking for his children. He was there for a couple of years with them until they applied for residency in Australia. Although their application was successful, Abuk was not accepted and they had to leave her behind on her own. When I first met Adut, she could not eat without feeling sick with sadness, she couldn't sleep without thinking of those left behind.
How did your friendship with Adut affect you?
When I met Adut, I was 14 going on 15 and I was full of my own issues which I thought were important.... When I heard her story, it completely changed the direction of my life and put everything in perspective. My role with the UNHCR as special youth representative is a direct result of all that happened since meeting Adut.... Listening to the enormity of Adut's story filled me with a sense of helplessness. But with her help I realized I could share my good life with her instead of worrying about things I couldn't change.
Tell us about your role as a Special Youth Representative for Australia?
Adut and I were asked by UNHCR to speak after I won an essay writing competition [with the story of Adut]. We spoke at a World Refugee Day breakfast and we were then asked [by Australia for UNHCR] to speak at a number of different events.... We had such a terrific response from people wanting to know more about the story, wanting to know more facts, that UNHCR decided to take us on as their special youth representatives. We've continued going to the World Refugee Day breakfast and people love that continuation, being able to see how our friendship has developed, and how our passion for the organization continues. Adut is a powerful speaker.
What is the reaction when you talk in public about refugees?
It's different for each audience. When we're talking to students, it's really important for them to visualize their own upbringing, to imagine what they were doing when they were eight years old and then tell them this story. Sometimes, I ask them just to close their eyes and imagine what it would be like to leave everything you know behind and just be left alone by yourself among thousands of other people seeking safety, seeking protection.
When we're speaking to an older audience there is always an amazing response. They are overwhelmed by what they hear, about Adut's story and the interaction between us. It's not just young people that we hope to connect to.
What are the key needs of refugee children in your view?
From Adut's story I have come to understand that UNHCR's ninemillion.org campaign [promoting sport and education for all refugee children] is a terrific one ... giving children the opportunity to be educated and have fun gives them a chance to escape from the day-to-day life in a refugee camp.... As I continue working with UNHCR, I hope to embark on strategies to engage young people. I hope to bring ninemillion into that.
If you had to give one example of UNHCR's success, what would it be?
I would provide Adut as the perfect example of what UNHCR is capable of doing. Her life was completely changed by outside influences which she could not control. UNHCR provided the means to help her move beyond that reality and provided her with safety and food. Although minimal, it was enough to enable her to have a chance at a new life.
The fact that we have people like this in our community, we should hear these stories, we should listen to what they have to say because they are perfect examples of what UNHCR is able to do. But there is so much work to be done and these stories can just provide the encouragement and the inspiration for us to continue to support those that are left back in the refugee camps all over the world
Tell us about your plans for the future
Ever since I was a young girl, I wanted to do something to help others, but this is actually giving me a means to do that.... Adut and I will continue to speak at schools and conferences and different engagements in order to give a face to what UNHCR. And whether that will develop into other opportunities, who knows? I start university in the New Year and hope to develop my interest in this field. But definitely there are so many possibilities for me and other young people to get involved and to make a difference. All you have to do is start by listening and then you can do very powerful things.
One of the projects I would like to work on next is encouraging young people to come together to develop fund-raising activities, to connect with refugees in our communities, to share their stories and stand up for something worthwhile.
What will you be doing on June 20 - World Refugee Day?
I will be attending the annual World Refugee Day breakfast at the Westin Hotel in Sydney, which my family and I have attended and participated in for the past three years. It is always such a terrific morning as the function room is full of people from all walks of life who are there because they care about the plight of refugees and want to show support for the work of UNHCR. The morning is always moving, entertaining and inspiring. It reminds me all over again why I want to maintain my commitment with the work of UNHCR.