A large proportion of recently arrived refugees in Australia are from the south of Sudan. Until 2005 civil war prevailed in the south for all but 11 years in the last five decades. In an area nearly three times the size of Victoria, there were no sealed roads or airstrips, no electricity, and no running water. An estimated two million people died in the war, and four million were forced to leave their homes. A further two million people have sought refuge outside the country. Over 8,000 Sudanese people now live in Australia.
Most people in southern Sudan live in rural villages in small huts or ‘tukuls’ with thatched roofs and mud walls. They often keep cattle or grow vegetables and collect water from rivers or wells. There is has been no state infrastructure to provide hospitals or schools, and until recently there was no currency. Schools have not functioned across large tracts of Sudan because of the war and the absence of resources to rebuild destroyed school grounds.
Children in southern Sudan
Children born in southern Sudan during the war have had difficult and disrupted lives. They may have lost parents, siblings or other family members in the conflict, or because of disease and famine. They may have had to leave their villages because of bombing or fighting in the area. Children often work in the home or look after cattle and grow vegetables.
An estimated 220,000 children in southern Sudan have lost or been separated from their families and 20,000 children, some as young as eight, have been child soldiers. For those who stayed in their villages, few will have attended school.
Schools in Southern Sudan
Education in Sudan is highly prized but rare. Because there has been no government, there has been no education system and no-one to pay for schools or teachers. Where possible, communities have built classrooms from local materials, or held classes under trees. During the long wet season, classrooms are often washed away and under-tree classes have to be cancelled. Adults teach their children basic reading, writing and mathematics, but often have limited education themselves. Many schools lack the most basic facilities such as chairs and tables. Some schools have blackboards, and a few have pens and paper, but these are often hard to find and too expensive to buy.
Internally Displaced People (IDPs) and Refugees
Many people fleeing the war in southern Sudan headed north where they settled in IDP camps around the capital, Khartoum. Here they lived in slum-like conditions, and struggled to find employment and education. Medical and educational facilities were only provided by a few international agencies and local organizations, but they were insufficient to meet needs. As southerners in the north, the IDPs also suffered racism and discrimination. Boys as young as nine were forced into military service, sometimes going back to fight for the government in their home regions in the south.
Many IDPs went from Khartoum to Egypt where they hoped to gain refugee status and be resettled in a third county. Whilst waiting for their applications to be processed by the United Nations, they were given asylum seeker status which did not enable them to work or access government services. Once they gained refugee status they were still officially unable to work, but were entitled to access schools. However, most government schools already have waiting lists for Egyptian children and consequently, refugee children were unlikely to get in. A number of NGOs offer short educational programs for Sudanese refugees but these are often heavily oversubscribed. Most Sudanese asylum seekers and refugees in Egypt live in cramped apartments and survive by working illegally in poorly paid, manual jobs which they can lose without notice. Sudanese refugees living in Egypt are often subjected to violent racial abuse and police brutality, and can be deported back to Sudan at any time. Because of the risk of racial harassment, parents are often reluctant to allow their children outdoors, and it is not uncommon to hear of Sudanese children who have spent months, sometimes years, living in small apartments which they rarely, if ever, leave.
In Egypt, the operational language is classical Arabic which differs from Juba Arabic, spoken by many people in south Sudan.
Heading south and east
Thousands of southern Sudanese refugees escaped the war by heading east to Ethiopia, or south to Kenya and Uganda were they lived in UN refugee camps. The camps are large and resources are often scarce, but the refugees have access to education, basic housing, food and medical care. Many unaccompanied children live in the camps and international organizations operate schools for students of all ages. Refugees volunteer to teach in these schools and receive some training in return. At Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, there is a correspondence campus of the University of South Africa and vocational training is also available, although working in Kenya is illegal. In Kenya and Uganda the operational languages of the refugee camps are Swahili and English.
Arriving in Australia
The contrast between life in Egypt or a refugee camp, and Australia can be overwhelming for Sudanese new arrivals. Services like schools and hospitals, which Australians take for granted, may be a novelty, and children and adults will be unfamiliar with the structures and systems here.
Sudanese refugees may speak little, if any, English. Many will also have been through traumatic experiences on their journey and may have physical and mental health needs.
For children who have only been taught in a village school, the wealth of experiences offered by an Australian school may be bewildering, and they may find the routines and rules difficult to understand at first. Those who spent time in refugee camps will be more familiar with school-like environments, but may still struggle with certain aspects of school life. Particular things Sudanese children may find difficult when they start school in Australia include:
• Time: They may never have been in an environment where time was important, and may, at first, have difficulty keeping to school routines. Whilst children tend to learn languages and adapt to new environments fairly quickly, their parents may not, and may rely on their children to translate for them and deal with officials and service providers. Sudanese children will often have a lot more domestic responsibilities than other Australian children, which will affect their ability to do homework and participate in out-of-school activities.
• Behaviour and Concentration: A lot of Sudanese refugees arriving in Australia will have experienced trauma. This will affect their emotional state and their ability to concentrate. Children may have difficulty controlling their temper or may be withdrawn. Children may also be unused to spending more than a few minutes sitting still and may find long lessons especially challenging.
• Meals: Children may be used to only having one meal a day, and so may find “mealtimes” confusing. Some of the food in Australia will also be unfamiliar and they may not be used to eating as many fruits and vegetables. Some children will have been through periods when food was scarce which may affect their attitudes towards eating.
By understanding the background of Sudanese refugees, teachers will be better able to support their recently arrived Sudanese students.
For more information about Sudan and the Sudanese education system please contact the Sudanese Australian Integrated Learning (SAIL) Program via their website at www.SAILProgram.cjb.net .
This paper was prepared by Rebecca Atwell, formerly of the London-based “Consortium for Education and Training for Southern Sudan” for the Sudanese Online Research Association (http://sora.akm.net.au) in June 2005.