Out of Africa

13 September 2012 Sophie Quick

Out of Africa

Sophie Quick, Ed#413, August 2012

For one former refugee, a long journey continues. Sophie Quick talks to human rights ambassador and memoirist David Nyuol Vincent.

The last time David Nyuol Vincent appeared in The Big Issue (‘My Word’, Ed#321) it was 2009 and he was 26 years old. Now it’s 2012 and he may be 33.

While checking some facts for his recently released memoir, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Die, Vincent discovered he wasn’t born in 1983; the real date, apparently, was 1978. Like many of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, Vincent was separated from his parents during childhood. When assigned a birthdate by aid workers at a refugee camp in Ethiopia, he was so small they thought he was five years old. It turns out that he may actually have been 10. “When I found out my real age, I thought, man, I’m old,” Vincent chuckles. “But in all my documents here it says 1983… At some point, maybe I’ll attempt to go through the process of trying to put it right, but I have nothing to prove it except that my dad says I was born in 1978.” He shrugs, then adds, “It’s not really that important.”

For most people, discovering their age was out by five years would be profoundly unsettling. There are facts that form the basis of a person’s identity and a birthdate and birthplace are among the most fundamental. But birthdays weren’t a big deal for kids born in Vincent’s hometown. And it’s not the only question about his origins that has a complicated answer. For example, where was he born? Technically, Vincent was born in a place called Wau in Sudan. But now, Wau is in a new country called South Sudan, which gained independence from the north last year. There is also a story to Vincent’s first name. He went by ‘Nyuol’ in early childhood, but when he was baptised in the camp, he chose the Christian name ‘David’, after briefly toying with ‘Nicholas’.

And what is his mother tongue? Technically, it’s Arabic – but he’s forgotten the language he originally spoke with his mother. Perhaps you could say his first language is Dinka – it’s the language of South Sudan’s major ethnic group, it’s also his father’s language and Vincent learned to speak it fluently while living among native speakers in the camps in Ethiopia. Probably, like questions surrounding his birth, the answer isn’t really that important. Vincent has completed an Arts degree in English at the University of Melbourne and these days mostly speaks English with his partner Rose and daughter Abuk at home in Melbourne.

To meet Vincent today, it’s hard to imagine him as someone once so anonymous a stranger saw fit to assign him a birthdate. In a navy linen blazer, crisp shirt and riding boots – he looks very much the off-duty young professional. Except that Vincent is not actually off duty; he is never off duty. “I like my days to be very full up. I’ve never had a holiday,” he says. “If I’m not busy, I’ll run crazy.”

When Vincent wrote for The Big Issue back in 2009, he’d been in Australia for almost five years and had already been busy. After arriving on a humanitarian visa, he’d worked his way up from a job stacking shelves at Officeworks and turned a volunteer position at the Brotherhood of St Laurence in Melbourne into a full-time paid gig as a community liaison worker – working with refugee families and speaking at schools and community events. He was also completing his degree, having won a university scholarship.

In 2009, Vincent had just become an Australian citizen. In his ‘My Word’ he described the disorienting predicament of African immigrants obliged to integrate into mainstream Australia: “You become like a drop of ink in the ocean,” he wrote. “Except that unlike a drop of ink – which dilutes and dissolves so well into the ocean that you might not even see it any more – people like me stay isolated and trapped in the spotlight because of the colour of our skin.”

Vincent might have felt some ambivalence about the spotlight back then, but he’s embraced it in the years since. At university, Vincent studied Criminology and Political Science. Since then, he’s become interested in theories of conflict resolution, restorative justice, reconciliation and human rights. He is convinced that educating the wider community about what has happened in Sudan is a key to building tolerance. That is why he has written this memoir. “I feel it’s my responsibility to get out there and tell my story,” he explains. “It’s that notion of fear of the unknown. Once people are familiar with our story – and what we have gone through as a community – then hopefully they’ll be able to be compassionate and try to understand and sympathise with us.”

The challenge for Vincent is that this is a harrowing story not everyone will want to hear. In The Boy Who Wouldn’t Die, Vincent describes the outbreak of the second Sudanese Civil War in 1983 and how he spent months crossing the Sahara Desert on foot with his father when he was just a small child. There are gruesome scenes: young Vincent watches dehydrated refugees gulping down water from a dirty waterhole and dying on the spot, just days away from their destination – the Ethiopian border. He also describes his childhood days alone in the refugee camps (he became separated from his father after arriving in Ethiopia). The main distraction from hunger and boredom was escaping outbreaks of violence, and Vincent had to bury some of his own friends, who died from treatable diseases.

Vincent wrote the memoir in conjunction with Carol Nader, a former Age journalist. The two met regularly over the course of several months with Vincent telling his story over a series of interviews, and the two then drafting and editing the manuscript. For Vincent, the early chapters were among the most difficult parts. This wasn’t the first time Vincent had told his story. He had spoken many times, at interfaith conferences and Sudanese youth events. Telling the abridged version remained painful enough; setting down the full account was another matter entirely, Vincent says. “It was very hard. [I had to] relive the experiences I’ve gone through.” He is aware, too, that his own account also represents the stories of the boys with whom he grew up. “There are some parts of my struggle that bring a lot of really sad memories. Seeing my friends being killed, getting news of [someone] getting killed, struggling to find something to eat. "

There are other confronting aspects to Vincent’s story. Like many other young boys in the camp, he was recruited by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and trained as a child soldier. In the book, Vincent describes the indoctrination process, brutal training regime and, crucially, the allure of the paramilitary for adolescent boys.

Much to Vincent’s frustration then, and relief now, he was never called to the frontline in that war. He spent several more years in refugee camps in Ethiopia and then in Kenya – separated from his father and not knowing the fate of his mother and three older sisters, until more than two years after he arrived in Australia. He was in his late twenties when he finally saw them all again,and met the younger brother with whom his mother had been pregnant the last time he saw her. 

But The Boy Who Wouldn’t Die isn’t just a tale of woe: it’s also the story of a boy with incredible pluck. Vincent excelled at soccer and wangled privileges by appointing himself child envoy to foreign aid workers. He didn’t receive any formal education until he was 10 years old but, from early on, Vincent writes, he “understood that if I continued to be good at soccer and talking to white people, the opportunities to change my life would come”.

Soccer and talking to white people… More than 20 years later, in another land, he is still making use of these twin talents. Apart from his community liaison work – much of which involves helping people in Melbourne’s Sudanese communities deal with Centrelink, schools, hospitals and the police force – Vincent has also started a soccer team. He has long known that soccer can bring meaning to the lives of alienated people.

Last year, the Sunshine Heights Western Tigers Soccer Club, made up mostly of Sudanese refugees, played their first game in a Melbourne suburban competition. But it hasn’t been an easy ride: Vincent and his teammates have regularly copped racist slurs. Some games have erupted into violence with fault, Vincent says, on both sides. In a case now under review by local soccer officials, one Sunshine Heights player woke up in hospital after a soccer match descended into a brawl two months ago. “Some people aren’t very welcoming of us,” Vincent says. “We get provoked and once we lose it, it’s so dangerous. It’s one of the things that, as a team, we’re always struggling with… All of us now have come to a mindset of trying to grow a thick skin. If someone calls me a ‘black c**t’ or a ‘monkey’ – I can’t do anything about it, I have to move on and focus on the game. But, on some occasions, it has been very difficult for some of the boys to take that on board.”

It’s dispiriting, Vincent says, but he’s convinced the on-field sledges aren’t a reflection of attitudes across the whole of the community in his adopted country. “It’s just a small number of people who don’t get it. I have a lot of friends in Australia who are very caring. And I have been in a lot of situations where people have stood up for me… I still have a great vision of this country. I want to treat this country as my country and I want to feel that I’m contributing to it as well.”

In this sense, he’s perhaps a little closer to answering a question he posed in his 2009 ‘My Word’: would he ever be “fully Australian”. In fact, Vincent’s spent a lot of time reflecting on this in an official capacity since the start of this year. On New Year’s Day, he was announced by the Prime Minister as one of 40 ambassadors for the People of Australia Ambassadors program, which promotes multiculturalism in Australia. One word that doesn’t often come up in this country’s sometimes volatile conversation about multiculturalism is ‘patience’, and Vincent believes it’s patience that’s needed. “The government and mainstream community wants me, as a newcomer, to integrate, but they’re not asking anything from the other side. This is their home, of course, but [the mainstream] need to be given more opportunity to accommodate us.

“They want us to integrate, like yesterday!” He clicks his fingers. “But it’s a process, we need a long time to be able to do that.”

Vincent wants to feel not only that he’s contributing to his new country, but also that he’s putting in time for South Sudan. Vincent spent six months in South Sudan in 2010 and helped to mobilise young people to vote in the referendum that saw the country gain independence with a 98% majority. He’s also established a non-government organisation called Peace Palette in the village of Turalei, where some of his family members now live, and he’s lobbying the South Sudanese Government to start a reconciliation process with Sudan.

This month, Vincent is heading back to South Sudan. He’s excited about the work he’ll be doing with Peace Palette, but for Vincent there is also sadness to these trips back home. Since reuniting with his family in 2007, Vincent keeps in regular contact and sends money back to his parents on a regular basis. But, in the memoir, Vincent describes something that is perhaps common in refugee families, yet few could bring themselves to put into words: an emotional severance takes place when a child has to grow up without his parents. The chapter in which Vincent describes the reunion with his family is called ‘Biological Strangers’. “I was separated from my family at a very young age, I had to live without them for many, many years,” he says. “I have lost that emotional connection with them. I have my own daughter now and I don’t want this to happen to other people.”

The Boy Who Wouldn’t Die bears witness to this loss and the horrific events that compounded it, but Vincent also sees the book as a chance to show what people like him can achieve. “I want people to know what happened to me and what has happened to us… But I also want to say that I am so grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in this country. One other thing that I really want to say now is: I struggled, you welcomed me, and look at me now.”

» Sophie Quick is staff writer/editor at The Big Issue.

This article first appeared in Ed#413 of The Big Issue magazine.