South Sudanese Australians find ‘sense of belonging’ in sport

USA & World

South Sudanese Australians find ‘sense of belonging’ in sport

With the Commonwealth Games set to begin in the British city of Birmingham, Australian runner Peter Bol is bringing both his record-breaking pace and a fresh new face to the team.

Bol is part of a new wave of South Sudanese Australian sportspeople challenging what it means to be “an Aussie”.

The athlete shot to international fame during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where he became the first Australian in 53 years to reach the final of the men’s 800 metres.

Bol came fourth and the achievement electrified a sports-mad Australian public.

“My goal has always been since moving to Australia to embrace the new culture but also Sudan is part of my story and who I am, so I embrace both,” Bol, who was born in Khartoum to South Sudanese parents, told Al Jazeera.

The 28-year-old has also been breaking records, setting a new men’s Australian and Oceania record in his signature race in the recent Diamond League athletics meet in Paris.

And despite the disappointment of finishing seventh in the recent World Athletics Championships, he is hopeful of bagging a medal in Birmingham.

“I’m happy about how I am performing on and off the track at the moment,” he told Al Jazeera.

The commonwealth games mascot 'Perry' the bull

This year’s Australian Commonwealth Games team features 22 athletes born overseas, a diversity that Australian Team Chef de Mission Petria Thomas says “reflects the broader Australian public”.

“For this year’s Commonwealth Games team we were fortunate to have a large pool of talented athletes to choose from – some who were born here and some who weren’t, but all who now call Australia home,” she told Al Jazeera.

While South Sudanese Australian athletes like Bol, and footballer Awer Mabil, might now be representing their country at a national level, Australia has not always been so inclusive of migrants and refugees.

Despite earlier migration from countries including China and Afghanistan, Australia implemented the notorious ‘White Australia’ policy in 1901, which effectively barred migration from non-European countries and preferenced migrants with British backgrounds.

Along with prejudiced assimilation policies directed at Australia’s Indigenous peoples, the policy contributed to the development of a white majority – by 1947 just 2.7 percent of the population were born outside Australia, the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The policy ended only in the mid-1970s when Australia began accepting refugees from war-torn Vietnam.

Australians now come from nearly 200 different countries, with the 2021 census showing that nearly 30 percent of the population were born overseas.

But despite former Prime Minister Scott Morrison boasting Australia was the “most successful” multicultural community in the world, racism towards non-white people still prevails, with a 2022 report finding that 43 percent of ethnic minority employees commonly experienced racism at work.

Challenging racism

The majority of South Sudanese started coming to Australia between 2001 and 2006 with most of then arriving under a humanitarian programme organised by the Australian government as a response to war, drought, and famine,

But while one of the country’s newest refugee communities, they have not always been welcomed.

Between 2016 and 2018, a slew of media reports fuelled an image of South Sudanese teenagers as gang members, with then-Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton falsely declaring that residents of Melbourne were “scared to go out to restaurants” for fear of “African gang violence”.

If not portraying African Australians as criminals, Australian media have fuelled the perception that they are always refugees who spent years in camps. For Bol, this was not the case. He migrated to Australia by way of Egypt on a humanitarian visa.

“It was written everywhere that I lived in a refugee camp,” Bol told Al Jazeera.

“I’ve always said I will embrace wherever I come from and if it was a refugee camp then I’ll embrace that as part of my story – but it just wasn’t.”

The misrepresentation even led Bol to write a column in the Western Australian newspaper to clarify his background.

“I just wanted to get that straight last year – where I came from and what my story is, rather than being misrepresented,” he said.

But other South Sudanese Australians say the refugee experience is part of their migration story and one they will embrace – even if it is not the whole story.

Akec Makur in the yellow and black vertical striped jersey of AFL team Hawthorn.

Akec Makur Chuot is the first African Australian woman to play the quintessential Australian sport ‘Aussie Rules’ or ‘footy’ at a national level.

The game is unique to the country and attracts hundreds of thousands of supporters nationwide.

Chuot says her involvement in the game is challenging both Australian stereotypes and South Sudanese cultural norms, and that Australians are often “really shocked” that a South Sudanese woman is not only a huge football fan but also someone who has played for three different national clubs.

“Then you get to talking about footy and you know more about footy than them,” she said.

The 29-year-old is also breaking stereotypes within the South Sudanese community.

“Our traditional ways have always been that you are a woman, you will get married,” she told Al Jazeera.

“I’m now at an age where I am supposed to be married and have children, but I am doing the complete opposite – playing sport in a field that’s dominated by males.”

Chuot was born in South Sudan in 1992 and, after her father died that same year, her mother fled with her seven children to a refugee camp in Kenya.

After 12 years, the family migrated to Australia and after dedicating her early life to soccer, Chuot played her first game of footy when she was 16, describing the sport as “the language of Australia”.

“This sense of belonging is why everyone probably plays this sport or why people support these teams,” she said.

“That’s what stuck out to me when it was time to make the decision to switch over to footy.”

South Sudanese Australians are being scooped up by AFL training programmes throughout the country, primarily for the height and athleticism they bring to a game that is played predominantly in the air, with high kicks and overhead marking.

“We bring flair, we bring athleticism, we bring so much to the game,” said Chuot who, at 178cm tall, describes herself as “one of the shortest in my house”.

New role models

While Chuot has found acceptance in footy, the sport has a history of racism directed towards Indigenous players and, more recently, those of other diverse backgrounds including from South Sudan.

In 1993, Aboriginal footballer Nicky Winmar famously lifted his jumper to point at his black skin in response to racist taunts from the crowd.

And in 2013, Aboriginal player Adam Goodes – who won numerous awards for his outstanding on-field achievements – was booed repeatedly by crowds after reporting a spectator who called him an ‘ape’.

The continued abuse forced him to retire from the game two years later.

Most recently, Brazilian-born player Heritier Lumumba has begun legal proceedings against his former AFL club for racist abuse he alleges he experienced, including being called ‘Chimp’ by teammates.

Majak Daw, the first South Sudanese Australian to be drafted into the AFL, experienced racism and suffered mental health issues, leading to three suicide attempts.

South Sudanese Australian Bi-Cultural Consultant Adongwot Manyoul says that the pressure on young South Sudanese Australians comes from their new country, but also from their families.

She says there is a prevailing stereotype that South Sudanese Australians “were all born under trees, that we are traumatised and came from war-torn areas”.

While acknowledging that “a lot of [South Sudanese] people who found sport found themselves,” Manyoul also argues that South Sudanese people are only accepted as “true Australians” when they excel at sport.

“When someone who is South Sudanese do great in sports only then are they considered Australian,” she said. “It is a conditional thing.”

Australia's Peter Bol squats on the track to catch his breath after a heat at the World Athletics Championships

Chuot says she believes South Sudanese have come a long way over the past 30 years, and sporting success is helping.

“We are now those role models that are saying ‘hey, we are Australians and we are South Sudanese Australians and we are trying very hard to fit in to our new home – give us a chance.’”

As he gears up to take to the track in Birmingham, Bol says he has not experienced racism within the Australian athletics teams.

He believes that in an individual discipline rather than a team sport, there is less room for discrimination.

“Our sport it is pretty hard to discriminate,” he told Al Jazeera. “If I’m fast, I get selected.”