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A sacrifice for family’s sake

Beatrice Van Rest  |  08 August 2019

Agum came to Australia at the age of 15, leaving most of her family behind in a refugee camp in Uganda. Now a young mother, she reflects on the many challenges she has had to overcome and the opportunities that she hopes her children will now have as a result.

Agum Maluach arrived for the interview we had organised late, but fashionably late. Her nails were painted a striking yellow.

She brought her two little boys, a two-year-old and a baby, both in an adorable state of confusion, eyes and mouths wide open. Within a few minutes of her arrival we had the mics turned on, and began to pepper her with questions about her fascinating and eye-opening past.

Agum’s story is one of dislocation, separation and the challenges that come with starting a new life in a foreign country. She has much to tell about hardship, but also of hope, endurance, courage and the unbreakable ties of family.

CIVIL WAR IN SUDAN

It was 1997, and the civil war reignited in South Sudan. Amid bombings and shootings, it saw hundreds of thousands of people displaced as communities were forced to leave their homes, among them Agum and her family.

They sought safety in an overcrowded refugee camp and clung to each other to survive, having brought nothing with them but the clothes on their backs. As I speak to her, she recalls with a sense of grief the memories of her mother breastfeeding not only the baby, but herself and her siblings as well.

‘I remember my mum was breast-feeding, and because it was a long trip, and there was no water, I had to be breastfed as well. My throat was so dry, it got to a point where I was just very weak’, she says.

After the initial conflict died down, Agum travelled back to South Sudan with her family to try and reconstruct the village and re-establish their community. It proved to be a difficult endeavour as more challenges arose - she mentions things like tribalism - and it became too dangerous for them to remain.

‘That’s when we moved to Uganda, me and my siblings, and my mum. My dad couldn’t leave the country because he had other kids and families to provide for.’

LEAVING HER FAMILY

In the neighbouring country, they stayed in another refugee camp.

It was here where Agum was sponsored by her cousin to have an application for asylum sent to the authorities. If accepted, she would go to Australia. Although their applications had been rejected numerous times before, Agum was lucky enough to be chosen.

‘It hit me: I’m actually going to leave my family. I’m not going to come with them. I had a panic attack for hours, or days, where I was just like, where is this place?’, she remembers.

‘I didn’t know anything about Australia, in fact I had never heard of anything about Australia, only Canada and America. Little did we know of this beautiful country…but I was going to leave everyone behind.’

She grappled with the question, why me? Why did her safety seem to be valued over that of her brothers and sisters? How could she leave her family? It was her mother that soothed her.

‘My mum told me one day, “If you get there, you could actually get us there too, so be okay with that.” And I think that was when I was okay with it.’

A NEW WORLD OPENS UP

So at 15, frightened and unknowing, she left behind her mother and siblings to start a new life in a country she had never heard of; a sacrifice and a journey few could fathom making.

Agum recalls fondly the fact that as a child, she had no inkling that a world existed beyond her village. I get the sense that they lived simple, gentle lives before the war broke out and changed them. When she talks about these memories, a waft of nostalgia seems to come over her.

Her arrival in Armidale, NSW, in 2008, brought about a new series of challenges. But for these she would be without the support of her mother and unable to share them with her siblings. She would learn English, attend school, grow up and enter an arranged marriage; something which is customary in South Sudan, and normal in many parts of Africa. It was a link to her home culture. But she also had to adapt as someone from a completely different culture, which required a different kind a strength.

‘I felt different, I felt like I didn’t fit in. Every time we would go out people would stare at us, and I remember the local newspaper came to the house we lived in and did a story on us and I think that alone was just like, wow, just to have another family in the community is really special for them’, she laughs.

COMING HOME CHANGED

It was not until 2012 that Agum was able to return to Uganda with two young children by her side. Agum met with her mother and some of her siblings not as a young girl, but as an adult and a mother, challenged and changed by the trials and tribulations of her life in Australia.

This emotional reunion is symbolic of the unbreakable bond between mother and child in spite of distance and separation. It meant that for Agum, a connection severed by distance could be rekindled.

She was back with her roots, back with the people who encouraged her to be a better person. To be a powerful person.

‘There were so many of us, and they had to pick one child. They chose me. They said it’s because I can be a powerful person. I kept reminding myself of that every day, because there were people who believed in me, and gave me this opportunity to be here. So, I had to prove them right.’

BUILDING A FUTURE FOR HER CHILDREN

While I interviewed Agum, I realised that family, whether it be biological or not, present or absent, is what shapes an individual’s identity. Since migrating to Australia, Agum has continued to build her family, bringing with her the values and traditions of the culture she

was born into back in South Sudan. She has had to make many sacrifices, but in doing so, she has been able to give her family at home the support they need.

She has also been able to create opportunities for her own children, so that they can flourish without the threat of displacement or poverty. Her mother instilled in her the courage to go forth with strength and dignity; something she will no doubt pass on to them.

There’s something in the familial culture you grow up in which forms the values that sculpt

the path you take in life. A connection to family is especially relevant in times of suffering, separation and adversity, and sometimes, sacrifice is needed. Ultimately, family is fundamental to what makes each person different.

To what makes you, you.

Agum is part of the Jesuit Social Services’ Just Voices Speakers Program. The program offers inspiring motivational keynote speakers, musicians and story tellers from diverse communities, cultures and lived experiences for schools and other groups. For more, go to www.jss.org.au/just-voices-speakers-program/

Image: Agum with Australian Catholics guest editors

Beatrice Van Rest, of Avila College, Mt Waverley, was one of the guest student editors of the 2019 Australian Catholics Spring edition. 

 

Topic tags: socialjustice-global, refugees, religiousandculturaldiversity

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