Taking Back the #AfricanGang Narrative
21 January 2019 at 8:42 am
When South Sudanese lawyer, Maker Mayek reclaimed the racially-fuelled term, “African Gangs” on Twitter with a viral hashtag by the same name 12 months ago, he turned the conversation on its head, and is now working hard to fight back for his community. He’s this week’s Changemaker.
Moving to a new country, without parents and limited family as a teenager is something most people born in Australia could not fathom. But for Mayek, there was little option but to flee the civil war in his home country of South Sudan, and make a new life in Australia.
Having experienced extreme violence and upheaval, he knows the burden of trauma, something he feels is less understood in Australia where the expectation is that new migrants must make the most of their opportunity, with little help or support.
He knows there are challenges in his community, but little is being done to understand what the challenges are or how we can all help to solve them, meanwhile the good bits are all too often overlooked.
Now a successful lawyer, and passionate advocate against discrimination and targeting of the South Sudanese community, he’s using his voice to fight for his community and change the way we view emerging communities in Australia.
In this week’s Changemaker, Mayek speaks on what it’s like to leave everything you know behind, how to move forward, and staying positive in a relentless and often distressing battle.
Was there a specific moment when you and your family realised you needed to leave South Sudan?
When I left, many people were fleeing the country to either refugee camps, or neighbouring countries. I was old enough to understand what was going on… soldiers with guns running around as part of the Liberation War, it was enough activity for everyone to know what was happening including children. My dad had been killed in the war years ago and we were living in a village going to a school run by Catholic missionaries. My mother felt we’d be better off if we went to a refugee camp my Aunty had fled to around 10 years prior. Just before we left, my mother passed away, so it was only me that left.
What was going through your head when you were leaving South Sudan?
It was a very tender age to be leaving family members behind. I really only had my brother, who had been sent to Kenya to a seminary to study there, and otherwise everyone else from the family was left behind. It was hard, leaving everyone behind and everything you know, but then as a young person, I also wanted to have a better life. It was difficult but I accepted it, and I left knowing there wasn’t really an alternative.
When you found out you were coming to Australia, how did you feel?
We had worked extremely hard to get into Australia. The application I had made was rejected a year earlier, and when the second one was approved, it was the best feeling in the entire world. The night before we left, I wasn’t able to sleep at all, and was so anxious but excited at the same time. It was such an unbelievable feeling, leaving for somewhere completely unknown. I was excited, because I knew I’d get to see a lot of my friends who had moved over in previous years, but because it was such a distant place, and didn’t know what to expect, it was nerve racking. I really embraced it though because it’s what I had wanted and hoped to happen for a really long time.
You’ve been a big voice in the African gangs debate, how has your work as a lawyer intersected with your activism?
I’ve always viewed myself as a person who had an opinion about social issues. I also grew up in an environment where injustice was prevalent – in my family, and for the people around me. Very early on, I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer despite the fact that no one in my family had ever been a lawyer or even gone to university, and I didn’t know anyone that was a lawyer.
When my community started to become a target as a result of the reaction to stories shown in the media about South Sudan, I decided to start the hashtag of #AfricanGangs on Twitter, showing South Sudanese people doing normal and positive things. It turned into a call to do something about the issue, and the injustice the community was experiencing, and I was given the opportunity to speak on behalf of the people I care deeply about, and also the opportunity for wider society to know and understand where some of the challenges refugees or people from emerging communities face in this country.
I felt it was exactly what lawyers were meant to do; speak on social issues when there are situations of injustice, when real people are being oppressed. So there was that convergence of these two roles as being a role to support social activism.
You have worked really hard to make a life for yourself here, and be part of Australian society, do you feel let down now that it seems people are turning on your community?
I’ve always felt, ever since we started coming to Australia, that people didn’t understand what it meant to be a refugee, or to come from a background where you experienced turmoil, war, and conflict. I felt people had an attitude that as a refugee, you were on your own, and had the responsibility to redefine your life and do things on your own. Which I think is expected of everyone because you get the opportunity to define your life, but at the same, refugees are often dealing with the after-effects of war, conflict and trauma that you can’t do anything about.
There are mothers that came over with their children without their partners, because their partners were killed, or they were left behind. Then you’ve got kids who were either born here, or were very little when they arrived. They’re the ones being challenged, and finding it difficult to follow a path and make a life for themselves. Their problems are the problems of the world they found, and the world they came with. At home they live a completely different world, to when they are out of home at school, or public spaces, and that challenges them.
These young people become disenfranchised, they might leave school, they become despondent, and then at home, they don’t understand their parents and their parents don’t understand them. They then tend to find comfort around their friends who look, behave and speak like them, despite the fact some of these people may be doing the wrong thing.
I don’t feel like the state and federal government gives the necessary support to people we bring into this country, and instead they’re left on their own to figure it out, and when social issues come up they are the first to be slammed down and told they are bad people, despite the fact they’re really facing challenges that they need help and support with.
Is there a solution?
We need to improve the delivery of social services, and empower our emerging communities. It feels like some of the social services that deal with young people do not really understand them, because they do not have a proper grasp of how best to deal with them. It’s best that we empower the emerging communities, so they can develop and identify their problems and they can identify their solutions. Then they have the resources to deal with their problems.
Generally, issues of disadvantage are across the whole world, you can see them, and as long as they can be identified, and worked on, I think there’s always a solution. We tend to be a very relaxed country with immense resources and wealth, so there’s no reason why we cannot resource and resolve some of the social challenges we experience.
Your social media campaign really brought attention to the positive aspects of your community, how do we get that side out more?
The government are aware of what the statistics are, and the great things South Sudanese people are doing with this country.
I know so many that are doing wonderful things, from being doctors, scientists, professional athletes. This is coming from a community that has been in Australia for less than two decades. There may be challenges, but every community has [challenges]. Let’s view the few challenges we’ve got in terms of what every emerging community experiences when people first settle in this country. There needs to be a balance of what people have done, and the positive contributions people have made, and the challenges people are experiencing.
I know the media is more likely to report on negative incidents over positive; it’s what the media is and it’s what people are interested in. I think though, there’s an obligation for all of us to highlight some of the positive contributions so we can see that this isn’t just a challenged community, they are also interested in achieving things.
You speak publicly a lot on this issue, how do you stay positive?
It’s definitely draining, but I do find comfort in the fact that it’s for a higher purpose. Australia was not built by one successful person, it was built by making sure everyone was having a fair go. I’ve already found my own path and I’m able to discern which path to follow from here, but it’s the others who need the support, so they can stand on their own two feet.
Sometimes it’s hard because every single time I appear in the media, I get someone attacking me, saying things like they hope someone pours bleach on me, and you never know who’s going to find you on the street and do exactly as someone has wished on you. But I’ve had the privilege of being called to speak, and there are so many others who could probably speak better than me, or who could do things better than me, but they haven’t had that opportunity for their views to be heard, so for them, I cannot turn around and say “I’m just going to accept these ideas”, and give in.
How has this experience changed you?
It has made me a stronger person. I can clearly recall there were times when I would be really upset if someone talked to me with contempt, or with disdain. I now understand that is what comes with speaking in public. There will be people who applaud you, and people who are happy that you are making that contribution, but there will be people who will not, they think you’re encroaching on their space, they don’t want to see you on their TV screens. All these things come together and make you a better, more determined person.
I meet so many Australians everyday, and they tell me I’m doing good work, and that we should keep talking, and that my community will be okay, it will come to pass, and that really warms my heart. You see everyday Australians, taking to the streets, in rallies and protests, to fight on behalf of my community. These people could have chosen to do anything else with their time, yet they come out in the hot weather and they rally because they don’t want an emerging community to be targeted, and that makes me crave to keep going and do even more.