Photograph by Juanita Wilson
“Good afternoon, Isaac. How are you?”
“I’m great, yourself?”
The voice at the other end of the phone is young, assured and undeniably Australian. And, I have to admit it, I’m a little surprised. Isaac Mach, the young man who features on our cover, only reached these shores in 2011 – arriving with his mum, two brothers and a sister from the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya – having fled South Sudan. The 17-year-old Year 12 student, whose favourite subject is Health and Physical Education, now plays Division Two AFL for the University Cougars in his adoptive hometown of Toowoomba. Last year he also played in the AFL Queensland All Nations Multicultural Team (pictured).
Isaac got into football through a group at his local church. “I was a bit unco to be honest,” he says, with a chuckle. “It took a while... It’s a bit different to other sports, but once you get onto the rules…” Now he’s even pondered taking it further. “I have, it would be great. I wouldn’t mind a career in football, actually.”
While Isaac is really into sport (he also plays basketball), when I ask about his other hobbies, his answer is tellingly mature: “I love being around kids, that’s one of my hobbies out of sport.” Isaac talks about the leadership role he now holds in programs he participated in when he was younger; he clearly takes pride in mentoring others.
The more I speak to Isaac, the more I feel like I’m talking to a teenage version of my own younger brother. He’s a thoughtful speaker, with the barest inflection of an accent. Was transitioning to a new language ever a problem?
“The school I went to back in Africa kind of did a little bit of English… So I kind of knew the main terminology when I came here. But I went to an English school first up. I was there for six months and then I went to a normal high school.”
“Do you pick up everything really quickly?” I ask.
“I kind of do, mostly… I think so.”
Most often, Isaac responds to questions like this with a modest, “I try my best.”
His football coach and mentor, Ross Savill (whose phone Isaac is using) sees exactly how much effort Isaac puts into everything. “He tries really hard, his whole family works really hard,” says Ross. “Kids from refugee families come to the church to get help with homework, and a lot of them then link up with the footy club… Isaac’s one of the kids that just puts his head down and works hard, at his schoolwork, at whatever he’s asked to do.”
I joke a little with Isaac about this edition kicking off his a career as a cover model. He cracks up. But, he’s well aware of the nature of the issue
he is representing (Ross, Isaac’s sister and his mother have all seen the cover, and are pleased with the result).
Finally, I ask if there’s anything else Isaac would like to say – to the people reading this, or to those whose pictures and stories also appear in this edition. “I guess just try your best at everything, don’t let anyone put you down. And hard work pays off.”
Listening to this young man, I can only hope that’s true.
But, as Angelica Neville’s story, ‘Desperate Measures’ (p20) illustrates all too well, many of the avenues for hardworking people like Isaac to make it safely to Australia are being shut down. And the uncompromising rhetoric around border protection ignores the real cost of political posturing: people. Nature-lovers, cooks, footy players…and great kids. Like Isaac.
Melissa Cranenburgh, Associate Editor
This article first appeared in Ed#484