Bak Deng is the first to admit he ventured down the “wrong-path” when he arrived in Australia aged 15.
He says it was a gruelling trade as a roof tiler which helped him establish a functional life here.
“I used to hang around, too much drinking and doing nothing, when I dropped out of school. I didn’t have nothing to do,” Deng, 27, told SBS World News.
A trip back to South Sudan for his brother’s wedding prompted him to turn his life around.
“I went there after 10 years, I [hadn’t] seen the family or where I should be living… I started realising I was just wasting my life here doing nothing,” he said.
Roof tiler Bak Deng says a trip back to South Sudan prompted him to turn his life around. SBS World News
Rap musician Wol Riak, who goes by the name Krown, also landed in trouble after arriving in Australia as a teen.
For him, it was a promising career as a hip-hop artist that gave him a much-needed diversion.
“It saved me,” the 21-year-old says. “I was going on a route where there was no limit … where either you die or your life is messed up. Music for me just came and said you’re actually worth it, you’re not worth going to jail, you’re not worth dying.”
Breaking the cycle
Police appear to have gained the upper hand on the so-called Apex gang – a street gang founded by members of Melbourne’s South Sudanese community in 2012, declared a “non-entity” in April 2017 – but the issue of youth crime in the community remains.
Although Bak and Krown’s stories are now ones of success, like many young men arriving from South Sudan, the odds were stacked against them.
Both their fathers were killed in the country’s civil war and they came to Australia with few language or social skills, quickly falling into a pattern of petty crime.
They escaped the cycle but effectively stumbled into a solution. Bak says he benefited from advice and the discipline of a trade.
“[It] was really hard from the start because I was doing it as an apprentice… the work gets harder and harder every day but when you tell yourself you gotta get there, everything gets easier,” he said.
“Now I’m qualified… I couldn’t imagine one day I would do the four years but I done it!”
Rapper Krown says music saved him from a life of crime. SBS World News
Krown says his redemption came from within.
“Government can give you a million dollars, government can give you counselling, but it’s up to you,” he says.
“I ask for these young people, look inside yourself and ask, [what do] you want to do? You want to play soccer? Go chase it. Train by yourself if you have to.”
‘This needs real review’
One Australian academic has another theory. He says crucial data has been overlooked as a method of breaking the cycle and providing effective settlement policy.
Dr Berhan Ahmed from the African Think Tank collates statistics on the challenges of African settlement in Australia, and says new arrivals deserve more direction from their host country.
He’s calling for a dedicated centre to review data and provide informed settlement policy and solutions.
“This needs real review in how we deal with [and] support these young people at school, in the street, in employment,” Dr Ahmed says.
“[An] African study centre [would bring] this community’s information to the surface [and] into people’s access – settlements need to be more advanced, fitting 21st century Australia.”
Victorian Multicultural Affairs Minister Robin Scott says he is in favour of the concept, and the government is exploring methods of collating and effectively using data.
“We are examining how we can use data more effectively in government to deliver services,” he says.
Krown believes he already has the answer:
“For me, the message for the Sudanese is: think about the future for us and if you got a voice and you got a power, use it – use it in a positive way.”
This is the first part of an SBS World News series of special reports focussing on the South Sudanese community in Australia.
Sunshine, a new four-part drama series starring Anthony LaPaglia, is about a young South Sudanese-Australian basketballer who dreams of playing in the NBA and premieres on Wednesday October 18 at 8.30pm on SBS.
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