Sora - a female name from South Sudan, meaning revolution.
SORA - a revolution in global awareness. A revolution of knowledge

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Australasian Journal of African Studies article

Building bridges between academics and service providers to Sudanese refugees in Australia

By Anna Grace Hopkins and Matthew Albert

Introduction

The Sudanese community is the one of the fastest growing ethnic communities in Australia. While those in their troubled homeland progress with cautious hope through the latest round of peace talks, Sudanese who have fled their homeland have now for many years been amongst the refugees arriving in the Australasian/Pacific region. The burgeoning Sudanese Diaspora provides a fertile source for research, not only into matters relating to Sudan's long and complex history, but into the myriad of concerns that affect all refugee communities. Settlement issues, health and educational concerns, studies into resilience and trauma recovery, questions of culture and identity are confronted by the Sudanese community daily and, therefore, by the many service providers and agencies who work alongside the community as they re-adjust to life outside Sudan and the surrounding refugee camps. But we have noted with concern a lack of resources and information available to those who service the Sudanese community, and the resultant lack of understanding and sensitivity with which their needs are being (or, rather, not being) met. Increasingly we have been receiving enquiries from all over Australia and in some cases the world, from people who come to us searching for information on Sudan and the Sudanese Diaspora. These inquiries have been varied: a translating service looking for interpreters, individuals and organizations researching educational and trauma-related issues, academics and journalists looking to research and publish research on Sudan and the Sudanese people in our region. While we are more than happy to provide support for these studies as best we can, it is of concern to us that the first place to which people are led when looking for information on Sudan is to us: volunteers, and undergraduate students of law and cinema studies respectively! It is our view that, at the present time academic circles could benefit from an increased awareness of the necessity and desire for research into resettling African communities across Australasia and the Pacific and from closer links with service providers, in this case those working with Sudanese refugees. We hope to encourage the building of bridges between academics and those who are working directly with these new and emerging communities, with a view to building awareness, increasing knowledge and articulating need.

In search of experts: the experience of the Sudanese Australian Learning Integrated Program (SAIL)

The Sudanese Australian Integrated Learning (SAIL) Program is a non-profit, volunteer run, secular program that provides free English support and community services to the Sudanese refugee community in Melbourne. SAIL began work with five Sudanese students. Today SAIL works with over 300 Sudanese participants on a weekly basis and provides English tutoring, in-home support, extracurricular activities, excursions and camps, information sessions, and a student newspaper.

The Sudanese experience has been described as 'the longest and most academically neglected of the continent's postcolonial struggles'. It is also one of the most complex, in which 'religion, local perceptions of race and social status, economic exploitation and colonial and post-colonial interventions are all elements in the Sudan's current civil war [and the experience of those who flee], but none, by itself, fully explains it.' While Dr John Garang of the Sudanese Peoples' Liberation Army has noted that 'any struggle must be anchored in history' Australia is slowly filling up with eyewitnesses to Sudan's history who, in suburbs all over Australasia and the Pacific, are seeking compassionate and effective respite and repair from it. In this respect the paucity of academic material readily available to Australians and others across the region working within the community is beginning to have an impact as it limits the ability of service providers to adequately and sensitively support the Sudanese community. People want and need the information but they do not know how or where to find it and, in some respects, it is not documented at all. From our vantage point as workers at the 'coal face,' we look to academic circles in the hope that their information and our practice can intersect.

How can research and the dissemination of information have a direct and positive impact on the resettling Sudanese community? The reality is that for anyone working with a refugee community, especially a new and emerging one, trying to get ones head around all the issues that come up is often akin to falling off a vertical learning curve. Because they have been granted offshore humanitarian status offshore, the very presence of the Sudanese in Australia means that their survival has been harrowing. Many Sudanese have walked for weeks or months to get out of Sudan and into the tenuous safety of surrounding nations. They have spent much of their lives at risk of disease, far from medical care, vulnerable to mercenary behaviour of militia and residents of host countries. In refugee camps, they faced over-crowding, lack of basic necessities, poor education, danger, and sexual violence. We have heard of last-minute escapes from predatory animals, and perilous swims across rivers with babies tied to backs. Along the way, all families have lost relatives through fighting and illness and many have witnessed the violent deaths of loved ones. These experiences do come with a price. Presently, most Sudanese in Australia, and probably most of the Diaspora, are struggling to shake-off the long-term effects of their trauma. We, and others working with the community, crave scholarship into the nuances of these experiences, their legacy and the countries that have delivered them, in the hope of better tailoring our services.

As a case study, we can consider the position of Sudanese students within their mainstream schools. The majority of young Sudanese students are struggling educationally. Most students have had disrupted education prior to arrival in Australia, particularly those who have spent years in refugee camps. Their parents may have low literacy levels in their first languages, which affects both their own and their children's ability to learn English. Long-term and repeated exposure to traumatic events have also affected the children's ability to learn in mainstream classrooms, and even children who have had consistent schooling are unfamiliar with the practices of our Western education system. These circumstances present major obstacles to the Sudanese students as they attempt to settle in Australia. While there may exist information and research that addresses issues such as these, it is evidently not being accessed by the institutions and individuals to whose work it pertains, and the result is frequent and significant misunderstandings, frustrations, impatience and disillusionment from all involved, including the students.

In an effort to address this problem the SAIL Program, in consultation with the Sudanese community, has put together a simple 'fact sheet' on the experiences of African refugee school students. The purpose of this resource is to give service-providers including teachers in mainstream Australian schools a 'crash course' to understanding some of the issues that make Sudanese students different from others in their schools. As well as basic country information and general descriptions of the life experiences of Sudanese people in Australia, it offers outlines of modern Sudanese history and politics, and strategies for dealing with the unusual problems and situations that these students find themselves in.

Ideally, SAIL would like to be able to provide a similar bank of information to those working with Sudanese in other areas of the community: lawyers, police, housing and healthcare providers and employment agencies. On this project, as on many others, there is terrific potential for academic knowledge and guidance. The time commitment for a project such as this is small. The real world impact is potentially very great.

The Sudanese Online Research Association (SORA)

Such an ambitious wish list calls for an ambitious response. Our response has been in the form of a website and online library. The Sudanese Online Research Association or SORA was launched at the annual conference of the African Studies Association of Australasia and the Pacific in October, 2003. SORA is designed as a borderless home for the study of issues pertaining to the ongoing growth of the Sudanese Diaspora. The grander purpose of the site is to represent not the Sudanese people, but those who service them with a view to providing a one-stop-shop for all aspects of Sudan-related research. Designed for those whose time is limited it aims to promote and encourage students of all disciplines and of all ages (there is even a "kids" section for this purpose) to engage in the issues that are affecting Sudanese people living outside of Sudan. In its short life, the e-response to SORA has been overwhelming. From across the globe there are queries and submissions surfing in. At present, there are two Masters Theses, a major research paper and numerous University essays published exclusively on SORA. Our hope is that this will one day seem to have been a humble beginning. We encourage readers to introduce their colleagues, associates and students to this forum with a view to making people in academia work for people in need.

The opportunity to make a difference by conducting research is real. We know this from our own experiences as "default experts" on a nation that we have never set foot in nor studied in depth. While the need to support those in Africa is great, the need to support the lucky few who survive the continent's most brutal conflicts, such as that in Sudan, is perhaps just as dire. While the information that academics can provide may not be as abstract and stimulating as academic papers, the impact it will have will be great. SORA is an avenue for exactly this to happen.

Matthew Albert & Anna Grace

Matthew Albert and Anna Grace Hopkins have been working with the Sudanese community in Melbourne since 2000, when they co-founded SAIL. SORA was launched at the 2003 Annual AFSAAP Conference in Adelaide.

affiliated with the Sudanese Australian Integrated Learning Program, Australia
associated with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Peace Education Program, Kenya & Uganda
sole distributor outside of Africa of the Sudan Mirror Newspaper, Sudan
partnered with the African Studies Association of Australasia and the Pacific (AFSAAP)