He started at the local school, but trouble soon followed. He was being called names and took a stand. He began to fight.
“I was suspended a couple of times because people were chucking bananas at me and calling me names and I couldn’t take it,” Mr Ajak said.
Now 26, he works as a defence lawyer with city firm Papa Hughes.
The story of his younger years echoes those of hundreds of South Sudanese youth living in Melbourne, yet the outcome is vastly different.
“I’m no different to any other kid — Anglo, Middle Eastern, Asian,” Mr Ajak says.
“We all have different capabilities but it’s mostly opportunities that make the difference in your life. I really think that refugees are often traumatised and frightened, but they can easily become good citizens.”
Calls for deportation, a greater and tougher police presence and even new laws to help contain Victoria’s youth gang crisis risk condemning the entire South Sudanese community as unlawful thugs.
But there are many law-abiding people living here who were born in South Sudan and raised in mostly Kenyan refugee camps before migrating over the past 10 years. They are making a positive impact on society beyond being simply good role models within their own community.
And they are all trying to halt the shocking and violent rampages and attacks seen in recent weeks across the western suburbs and in Essendon.
While the state government has already committed to spending $269,000 on more than 15 projects and programs to help integrate and heal the South Sudanese community, the key issues, according to African youth leader Ruai Reech, are parenting and education.
He is particularly concerned with education.
“These kids are often in a very negative school climate, including low expectations from teachers and bullying from fellow students,” Mr Reech said.
“It would help to bring in diverse members of the community to the schools but the parents should also become more involved in the schools whether by working in fetes or canteen duty. It would help their own integration as well as their children’s.
“At the moment, the parents might just go to a parent-teacher night and they have low-level engagement in the schools, so the children’s standard of education is not well monitored.”
Being born in South Sudan is regarded as a handicap by teachers, according to some South Sudanese who have tertiary qualifications and now work professionally.
His advice is to attend TAFE courses when they have other tertiary institutions in mind and believe they have more potential than their teachers recognise.
Mr Reech, who works with African Australian Multicultural Youth Services, said his work focused mainly on children in Years 8 and 9 to help keep them at school before they can turn to truancy.
They have many challenges, including feeling more like parents to their own mothers, often single parents because their husbands were killed in the Sudanese civil war.
“A lot of the time, for the children, they assume the parent role because they are able to at least read and speak a bit of English when they first arrive here so, in one sense, they are educating their parents,” he said.
“But I also think it’s crucial that we teach personal accountability. The children have to be held accountable and learn not to underestimate the impact of their unruly actions.”
African advocate Berhan Ahmed says there is a social crisis among the South Sudanese, driven largely by idleness and lack of direction.
“Most of these boys are failing at school so they stay at home and wait for weeks, sometimes months, to find another school,” he said.
“Imagine a child sitting at home for six months. They have too much energy and they have to go somewhere.
“We need to look at culturally appropriate processes to help them with interim study rather than leaving them idle — then their parents put their hands in the air wondering what to do.”
DANIEL AJAK, 26, SEDDON. LAWYER
HE MAY be working as a defence lawyer with a city law firm now, but Daniel Ajak has no hesitation in planning to one day run a national law practice. He would even like to work as a magistrate, often representing his clients at Melbourne Magistrates’ Court.
“I’m going to continue to work hard and will continue to grow in my work over the next five to 10 years,” Mr Ajak said.
Mr Ajak credits his success to living with his sister and uncle, who was an academic, when he moved here 13 years ago. His parents stayed in South Sudan but also contacted him regularly, reinforcing messages to behave well.
Daniel Ajak in the offices of Papa Hughes Lawyers, where he works.
“Mum and dad played a massive role, because if I was acting up they would call and say, ‘listen to your uncle and sister,’” he said.
“They still had control over what I did. I really think it’s so important to have that support and a good role model as well as having positive peers around you. If they’re not positive, remove them.”
Yet he admits he was not immune from trouble.
“But by the time I got to Year 11, I decided I wanted to go to university and moved to an all-boys school where no-one picked on me and I didn’t have a reason to fight any more,” Mr Ajak said.
“The kids were more well-mannered and they all wanted to become doctors or lawyers. It was a school where they didn’t tolerate bad behaviour so I just became like my mates.”
He was lucky to get a scholarship to attend the school and, apart from forming good friendships, his uncle was providing solid support in the background. His family is extremely proud that he is working at Papa Hughes Lawyers.
“I just wanted to be like my uncle,” he said.
“Now I’m happy here. Life has its ups and downs but I couldn’t complain. I play soccer every weekend with good friends, I go to church and I do a fair bit for the Sudanese community. In the next three to four years, I will definitely have a girlfriend too.”
JOHN KUOT, 27, FOOTSCRAY. BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT MANAGER
TRAUMA has been part of John Kuot’s life for many years. He arrived in Australia from a Kenyan refugee camp in 2004 with his mother and younger sister. His father was killed in the Sudanese civil war.
He worked his way through school and completed a double business degree returning to Africa in 2016 for a holiday — but that was when the greatest trauma began because he was shot in the head during a carjacking in Kenya.
John Kuot has seen every negative side of life including being shot during a carjacking but he is determined to stay positive. Picture Andrew Tauber
“One of the things I encourage a lot of people to do is to remain positive about things in life,” Mr Kuot said.
“My injury was quite horrific and I was in an induced coma for a month, not returning to Australia until two months after the shooting. I’m still waiting for a skull place replacement. When you have gone through a journey and seen every possible negative thing in this world, it comes down to whether you continue to do well despite all the adversities you have gone through and choose to carve out a new mindset for yourself.
“I decided to not sit around and wait for the world to come to me after my injury so I got about my business and continued on,” he said.
He has just completed an MBA at RMIT and sits on several boards, trying to help improve circumstances for many in Melbourne’s African communities.
He is now third in charge of Blazeguard, a cyber security company. Previously, he worked at Westpac as a lending specialist.
“People don’t understand how many barriers we have to go through but I’m working with the community as a mentor to help lead many of the kids towards a more positive life,” he said.
“There is no quick fix though because these kids are struggling with cultural complexity. As a society, we have a knack for pointing out the negative but, for me, what I see as the key is to capitalise on community based programs, particularly with the youth.”
YONG DENG, 26, DANDENONG. CLINICAL PHARMACIST
IT WAS Yong Deng’s dream to become a pharmacist, but he exceeded his own goals when he became a clinical pharmacist at Monash Health.
He began his pharmacist internship at Epping Plaza two years ago, and now works one-on-one with patients and doctors developing treatment plans for patients. He has completed four years of tertiary study.
Yong Deng is thrilled to be working in his dream job as a clinical pharmacist at Monash Health.
“I was super excited when I got this job because it’s really hard to get into hospital as a pharmacist,” Mr Deng said.
“When you really want to do well in life, you have to look within. If you can’t see anything in your environment that you want to aspire to, you have to look within yourself.”
For the past couple of years Deng has been tutoring South Sudanese students in a group he established, Weekend Academics, to help with homework and offer counselling where needed. He also works with South Sudanese Australian Youth United where people from a range of organisations talk to young members of the community.
His father was killed in the Sudan civil war, so he was raised in Australia by his mother when they moved here with his six siblings in 2009. His grandmother had the strongest impact on his value system.
He also learnt a lot from his older brother, who is a civil engineer.
“I look up to him a lot and would say that he is my role model,” he said.
“When we arrived here from the refugee camp in Africa, we just felt so lucky and we saw so much opportunity. All we had to do was be better.”
He decided to pursue pharmacy while living in the refugee camp and watching people suffer because of a lack of medicine.
He is still driven by empathy and a strong sense of personal identity.
“What gives me the most drive is that I’m one of those people that doesn’t venture into things just because my friends are doing it,” he said.
“I make up my own mind and I’m always inquisitive. That means tomorrow will always be different for me and the next day will be different again. I’m always seeking to find out new things.”
Source: Herald Sun