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South Sudanese clergy, lay leaders offer plan to deal with 'African gangs' controversy

Community leaders express despair, seek hope about the future for their young people

The 9 January meeting of South Sudanese clergy and lay leaders at West Melbourne acknowledged that South Sudanese had arrived in Australia traumatised and unprepared for the dissonance between secular Australian culture and their own. Photo: Ken Hutton

By Mark Brolly

January 11 2018 

Clergy and lay leaders from Melbourne’s South Sudanese community have met amid the controversy over “African gangs”, with some parents declaring that Australian culture had made them enemies of their own children and a few wishing they had never come to Australia.

Melbourne Assistant Bishop Philip Huggins said the meeting, which attracted more than 20 community members at the interim Diocesan Centre in West Melbourne on 9 January, proposed solutions to prevent future problems for young South Sudanese, deal with those already in trouble with authorities and seek meetings with political leaders and police.

There are also plans for a national conference of South Sudanese community leaders to discuss major issues and find agreed solutions, in partnership with governments and wider civil society, and for “counter-narrative” advertisements to be produced, especially for social media.

An ecumenical service of worship for the South Sudanese community is planned for St Paul’s Cathedral on Sunday 4 February from 3pm.

The controversy follows recent high-profile crimes blamed on groups of young African men, including assaults and vandalism, mainly in Melbourne’s western suburbs. Some matters are now before the courts.

Victorian Coalition MPs, including Cabinet ministers, joined Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on New Year’s Day in criticising the Andrews State Labor Government, saying African gang crime was out of control and had become the No.1 issue affecting Victoria.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said Melburnians were frightened of dining out at night because of gang crime.

“The reality is people (in Melbourne) are scared to go out at restaurants of a night time because they're followed home by these gangs, home invasions, and cars are stolen,” Mr Dutton, a Queenslander, told Sydney radio on 4 January.

Bishop Huggins wrote in his newsletter for his Oodthenong Episcopate, which covers outer northern and western Melbourne and Geelong, on 10 January: “There are very many fine people in the Australian South Sudanese community doing their utmost to be good citizens in a new land.

“As I have listened to their stories over the years, the traumas they have endured but have survived in order to give their best, I am filled with deep respect for them.

“Even on Tuesday, in understated fashion, some were telling me how they’d just come back from Africa after funerals for murdered siblings.

“On top of all this, now they have to deal with a media frenzy over a few of their children who have gone off the rails.

“As if the anguish of seeing some of their children in trouble was not enough, they are dealing with negative stereotyping of their whole community. ‘Our youngsters feel frightened now to even go down the street to buy milk because of the things people say to them.’

“Away from the media, in our mean-spirited suburbs, cowards call out from cars as they walk along.

“On top of this we have had senior political leaders fan these negative stereotypes for their own miserable political purposes. Seeing some electoral advantage, in their vanity, playing with the most dangerous of fires, they have sought to amplify the fears in the community.

“One talks even of the dangers of going out to dinner!”

Bishop Huggins also wrote to The Age, which on 5 January published his letter: “Listening to some of the harsh commentary about the long-suffering Sudanese community, I am reminded of an apt wisdom: if your immediate reaction upon hearing of some sadness is an ideological one rather than a human one, then your heart has been corrupted. You should go straight away on pilgrimage until your heart is cleansed. A time in the desert is better than just adding to the sadness of humanity.”

In his Oodthenong Newsletter article five days later, Bishop Huggins wrote that the meeting of clergy and lay leaders acknowledged that South Sudanese had arrived here traumatised and unprepared for the dissonance between secular Australian culture and their own.

“‘The culture of Australia has made us the enemies of our own children’, they said, restating early problems with Police and Child Protection agencies; noting how their kids were quick to pick up new rights in a new land; their own problems acquiring language and employment, etc.

“There was much elaboration of these matters as folk restated their efforts to settle well without the resources to properly keep everyone together.”

Bishop Huggins wrote that the meeting moved on to solutions and recommendations “after some expression of the frustration of being relatively powerless and not feeling heard as the train wreck approached, as kids prematurely exited school into drugs, alcohol and the negative self-identity that leads to gangs and prison”.

“Some parents now wish they’d never come to Australia. (They) would prefer they’d died in South Sudan, such is the shame and grief of losing their kids in these ways, and feeling powerless to prevent this happening. Then to now feel humiliated in the media and the streets, as if they are all criminals!”

He wrote that senior South Sudanese clergyman, the Revd Chaplain Soma, helped the meeting frame solutions by suggesting it think of young people in three stages: “little kids, under 13, the ones nearly at risk”; early teens now at risk; and young adults already in trouble.

The Church needed to better resource the South Sudanese community’s large Sunday Schools, provide youth camps and more Homework Clubs for a positive transition from primary to secondary school. Capable South Sudanese clergy and laity should be provided with a stipend or salary so that they could work with these young people, other than as volunteers.

“The State Government needs to fund more teachers’ aides, South Sudanese liaison staff in schools to be advocates for their kids, countering racism,” he wrote.

“The State Government needs to resource parents to be better teachers of their kids at home.”

Bishop Huggins wrote that other suggestions were programs such as the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s HIPPY scheme (the Home Interaction Program for Parents and Youngsters, a free two-year early-learning program that empowers parents and carers to be their children's first teacher in their homes). Mr Ken Hutton, Executive Officer to Archbishop Philip Freier who also worked with Dr Freier during his time as Bishop of the Northern Territory (1999-2006), spoke of the successful NT programs with Indigenous Communities, such as “Families as First Teachers”.

Families had to feel again that they were part of a solution, Bishop Huggins wrote.

“The Victorian State Government should look at this NT program and Queensland’s more culturally appropriate child protection program. As with Indigenous people, for whom generic welfare services do not work, so with the South Sudanese.

“We need culturally-specific programs which close the gap between the community and Government services.”

For young adults already in trouble, he wrote that good solutions were proposed.

“The Church and State Government together should trial a Rural Boarding School for young offenders where there is a clean environment, without drugs and alcohol; where there is education and training towards durable employment options. Not a prison but not a place these young offenders can readily leave. A place which offers a redemptive narrative of a kind that won’t happen if they just circulate between prison and their current community.

“There are other suggestions which will involve some interaction with our Senior Police.

“Very few South Sudanese are in the Police Force, how can barriers to entry be addressed?

“There seem to be barriers preventing extended family members, who are primary care-givers (after the death of parents in South Sudan), from seeing their young people after arrests.

“There are evolving plans, which should be shared with our Police, to create zones in Melbourne and Geelong so as to better monitor and manage kids at risk and in danger of being drawn to gangs.”

Bishop Huggins said the meeting expressed the hope that Premier Daniel Andrews and Deputy Police Commissioner Andrew Crisp would meet a representative group from the clergy and lay leaders about the possible solutions outlined and that the Victorian Multicultural Commission would fund some “counter-narrative” advertisements.

“Distinguished film-maker Richard Keddie and I have spoken about this in recent days. Richard has already shaped a proposal for which we seek funding, an initial $10,000, as soon as possible.

“We are planning a beautiful and uplifting Service of Worship in St Paul’s Cathedral on Sunday 4 February from 3.00–5.00pm to gather with the South Sudanese community in ecumenical worship.

“We are beginning to plan a National Conference of South Sudanese community leaders to address major issues and find agreed solutions, in partnership with Federal and State Governments, the wider civil society, including the Church. This might be Canberra-based at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture.

“These notes convey a recognition of the problems and a readiness to find solutions.

“After our concluding prayers, as people departed, I was gratified that there is hope renewed.”

The Age reported on 11 January that Melbourne’s South Sudanese community had filed photos of their families celebrating weddings, graduation ceremonies, careers, family dinners “and the most joyous event of all, the birth of a child” on social media under the hashtag #africangangs, the term so often levelled against them, as a powerful counter-narrative to media coverage about gangs of Sudanese teenagers menacing mainly Melbourne's west through violent home invasions and assaults.

The previous day, Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton said that while some young people were engaging in what looked like gang activity or gang-related behaviour, it was “complete and utter garbage” to say Victoria wasn’t a safe place to live.

Mr Ashton welcomed the establishment of an African Australian community taskforce to work closely with police on youth offending and anti-social behaviour in Melbourne.

The creation of the taskforce, which is to meet for the first time on 12 January, followed a meeting between Mr Ashton and leaders from the African Australian community.

It is designed to provide information to police on emerging issues and hot spots, allowing police to respond swiftly; to provide a more efficient channel for police to engage with African Australian leaders and give advice on how they can best deploy their people and assist with efforts to prevent youth crimes and anti-social behaviour occurring and to inform police of incidents of racial vilification and other hate crimes aimed at African Australians.

“We know that the vast majority of African Australians in Victoria are decent, law abiding people,” Mr Ashton said. “They are suffering as a result of the actions of a small cohort of young offenders. The African Australian Community can, and want to, play a role in providing solutions.

“Victoria Police will, of course, continue to take tough action against young offenders. When they commit appalling crimes they can expect to be swiftly locked up.

“Victoria Police has always enjoyed excellent relations with the African Australian community. For example, we’ve had great success working alongside community groups at major events such as White Night and New Year’s Eve. Volunteers from the community patrolled with police, speaking to young people and identifying issues before they escalated.

“That means working through emerging issues, identifying problems early and jumping on them before they can cause real harm.

“Whilst we are already working collaboratively at the local level, this community task force will further strengthen these efforts.

“Throughout my discussions, the African Australian leaders have shown great resolve to work positively and proactively in the community and with police to bring these young criminals under control.”

On 2 January, the then Victoria Police Acting Chief Commissioner, Shane Patton, said that for a significant period of time, there had been an issue with over-representation by African youth in serious and violent offending as well as public disorder issues.

“We don’t want to elevate these young thugs, these young criminals, to any status or give them any type of credibility…” Mr Patton said.

Police Minister Lisa Neville defended State Government’s record on youth crime, including extra resources for gang squads, including 3000 extra frontline police added in 2016:

“These resources are having an impact. We have seen substantial breaking up of a number of the network youth offenders in other parts of the State. We’ve seen the biggest decrease in the crime rate in over a decade.”

South Sudanese community member Nelly Yoa told the ABC: “A lot of them do use the excuse that they’ve come from a war-torn country… doesn’t matter where you’ve come from. The fact is, you know, you’re in this country and you need to abide by this country’s law.”

Ms Nyadol Nyuon, who fled South Sudan aged five and grew up in refugee camps before coming to Australia in 2005, where she is now a lawyer with Melbourne firm Arnold Bloch Leibler, told ABC TV’s The Summer Drum on 2 January that she was troubled by the emphasis on South Sudanese youth because it suggested a link between the crimes and the ethnicity of those who committed them.

“This is not a Sudan or South Sudan problem, I would say, I think it’s an Australian problem,” Ms Nyuon said. “It’s a group of kids that are struggling to find their own space in a new country…

“My issue is with the way this is being made to seem as if this is a South Sudanese, or someone from a South Sudanese background, is likely to commit crime. Now that paints all of us in the community in a very, very bad light. It also takes away from the achievement of so many South Sudanese people, who are making a life for themselves, who are taking this second opportunity to build businesses, to make strong families and to do the right thing. So when we focus on the Sudaneseness of these people, I think we miss the issue. The issue is what do we do as a community – all of us as a community – to make sure that young people that are in trouble, or who are getting in trouble with the police, are dealt with as a community, not as South Sudanese.

“I have been a victim of war, I have lived in refugee camps and I know the fear that someone whose home has been invaded feels. I’m not taking away from that, I’m not telling anyone who has been a victim of crime by someone who happens to be South Sudanese that that’s not an issue. What I’m saying, though, is that there are many South Sudanese out there doing the right thing. What I’m also saying is that we should focus on this issue as an issue going wrong in Australia, as an issue affecting Australian youth, because the moment we make it a South Sudanese issue, then we begin to have a conversation about deporting people. And I think that will begin to show an insight into us thinking of these kids as if they are some ‘other’ people. They are not ‘other’ people, they are Australian young people having problems that the Australian community needs to collectively deal with.

“A lot of these boys, particularly the kind of group that we’re now seeing on the street, tend to be about 12 to maybe 18-year-olds and taking that the average South Sudanese would have been here for 15 years or so, they would either have come here very young, some of them would have been born here. And this is why I keep saying this is an Australian problem. Some of them have never seen a refugee camp or even know what South Sudan is. They do not share the same stories that their parents would have shared, they would not have known the suffering their parents would have endured in refugee camps and so the expectations that somehow these kids are going to act less problematic because of their background or because they would appreciate the fact that they were refugees is a bit misguided because these kids are growing up here, these are first-generation Australians.

“Unfortunately, with the media representation of black people and brown people generally, and particularly the South Sudanese, those kids are being exposed to a very sad and hopeless narrative.”

Mr Philip Ruddock, who was Immigration and Multicultural Affairs Minister in the Howard Government from 1996-2003, told the same program that he was partly responsible for South Sudanese coming to Australia because he introduced the program that brought them here after he visited Africa in 1997 and saw the conditions they lived in as refugees.      

“What you have to look at is when you bring people who have come through the refugee experience, how do you settle them successfully?” Mr Ruddock said.

“My own view is that the numbers of people that come from any location should be relatively small and they should be dispersed. I think the settlement programs are much more successful if they’re working among smaller groups of people rather than a very large group of people who have a propensity to form gangs. And so the extent to which you are able to get a better dispersal, I think, is a good thing and the extent to which in the refugee program you bring many more people from a diversity of backgrounds is a good thing.

“We’ve been particularly successful – and I don’t think we ought to be ashamed as Australians – about the way in which we’ve been generous through our refugee resettlement program and we’ve been enormously successful. Incidents of this sort ought to be seen in perspective.”

Mr Ruddock said South Sudanese had been making a tremendous effort in western Sydney to deal with these issues by mentoring their own young.

“I can’t compare it with what’s been happening in Victoria… I don’t know what’s being done in Victoria, I’m not making a judgement about it. But what I am saying is that if you look around the world at countries that bring people for resettlement, and Australia is one of the few countries that does – we do more than almost any other country in the world… in terms of programs we put in place to support people, to give them English-language skills, to try to address torture and trauma, the sorts of issues that are troubling – I’m not saying it’s necessarily perfect but I wouldn’t be judging ourselves that harshly because of the outcomes.”

Mr David Hetherington, Senior Fellow at Per Capita, a think tank dedicated to fighting inequality in Australia, said: “I think it’s important, though, that we keep all of this in perspective. There was somewhere between 200 and 300 Sudanese arrested in Victoria last year; 173 people were arrested at The Domain (in Sydney) yesterday on drugs charges. I think we run a real risk of over-blowing the Sudanese dimension here enormously. Australia has a long and ignoble tradition of demonising most recent arrivals, from the Irish through to the Italians after World War II, we’ve had a Middle Eastern crime focus, Asian crime focus, now we’re talking about South Sudanese. I just think we have to step back and remember that while we see pictures on TV of young East African men running amok in those stores, on Christmas Day on St Kilda beach and at Little Bay in Sydney, we had hundreds of Anglo-Australians behaving badly. So this isn’t just a Sudanese thing.”