Some of us are forced to grow up quickly. As a young girl, Sudanese Australian community leader and poet Lizzy Kuoth lost her mother, experienced frequent raids of her home by northern Sudanese forces, and was then forced to escape her homeland to Egypt. Once there, Lizzy had to wait for the United Nations to resettle her to Australia, and take on the role of family leader – all before she had started high school.
The VMC spoke to this inspiring Victorian about her journey and how trying to understand others first can help you forge a great life.
Tell us about your passage to Australia?
I was born in South Sudan. My mother died when I was five years old in a tragic accident, so my grandmother raised my two siblings and me. We were living with my uncle at one point and he was a general in a rebel group. Things got hectic. We were guarded with guns. The North Sudanese army would raid my home.
Something had to change for us. The hostilities in Sudan weren’t improving and we were in the middle of them. My grandmother was elderly and still working very hard as a cleaner, but it wasn’t enough to look after us.
So, my extended family came up with a plan to get us to safety. We took a long journey, both by car and boat. We stayed with relatives in Cairo for four years while we waited for our humanitarian visas to be processed by the United Nations.
Once the visas were granted, my grandma, siblings, cousin and I got on a plane to Melbourne. I was thirteen years old at the time. I had never been on a plane before so when my ears popped, I thought I’d lost my hearing. The whole flight I was terrified about moving to a new country where I couldn’t speak a word of the language and now, I couldn’t hear either. It only came back when we got out of customs and hugged some relatives who had come to greet us.
We moved to Dandenong and my grandmother told me I would be leading the family. It was a lot to take in.
How did you go making friends at school?
I’m a quiet person, but I’m also very expressive. I enjoy speaking. I enjoy expressing myself and my opinions. I grew up reading and writing poetry in Arabic. To not be able to speak the language of the country I was living in became very frustrating.
The first friend I made was a Chinese girl. She couldn’t speak English either, so we mainly made gestures to each other, spoke through facial expressions. We smiled a lot. To me, it was amazing to become friends with her, because I’d never met a Chinese person before. In Sudan, I’d seen them on TV, but I hadn’t thought they were real.
I noticed the kids at my language school were hanging out with people from their own backgrounds. I didn’t want to do that. So, I made a strategic plan to befriend people from different backgrounds. That helped me break out of my shell and improve my language skills. It’s difficult, because you’re a teenager and you don’t want to embarrass yourself, but you must be willing to make mistakes to grow.
Who was your best source of support growing up?
My biggest inspiration was my grandmother. She was always been someone I really looked up to.
I remember I came home after school once and a handsome old man was cutting our grass. She couldn’t speak one word of English, but she’d managed to make friends with him and ask him to mow the lawn. And there she was, sitting on the veranda smiling.
She’s always allowed me to be myself. To be comfortable with the skin I’m in, my thoughts. I’m able to recognise when I’m wrong. I grew up being allowed to express my feelings.
I grew up realising you should seek to understand people, not seek to be right and prove others wrong. Finding common ground was most important. That’s really helped me with all my relationships in life.
The word ‘refugee’ carries a lot of stigma for some people, do you think it’s understandable that people want to move away from that, or could it be something people should be proud of?
Personally, I’ve never felt any negative feeling towards the word. I am happy to share my refugee journey, and I have shared it with primary schools, organisations and businesses. I don’t feel shame. It’s a disservice to myself if I were to not accept that as part of my journey – I’m not going to lie about it.
Acknowledging the existence of refugees is important too, it opens room for dialogue. But with politics, I see it’s another story. There are a lot assumptions wrapped up in the label. I wish it wasn’t that way. But there are millions and millions of people living as refugees right now and they deserve to be heard.
What can Victorians do to help make life better for refugees who settle, to help them thrive in our community?
It’s so important to recognise that refugees are seeking a better, safer life, not a better economic situation. Imagine having to live your life every day fearing death and having limited access to the basic needs of life. You don’t leave your own country by necessity. It’s not a lifestyle. These people are desperate.
As Australians, the best thing we can do is live by that saying of a ‘fair go’.
Refugees bring talent and skills, they’ve come here to bring the best of themselves. And we bring inner strength too. I’m comfortable knowing I’ve got the means to build from nothing. I’m not scared being who I am anymore.
Reviewed 23 June 2021