Unlike many girls in South Sudan, Anna Dimo was blessed with a father who believed in educating his daughters. She has used this gift and her deep faith to lead her community and advocate for others, whether in Khartoum, Alexandria or Sydney.
What are your earliest memories of life in Sudan?
My earliest memory is going with my Dad to enrol my older sister in school. They told me that I was too young to start school because I still had my baby teeth. You had to be six. My sister was accepted but they didn't accept me. I was crying and crying.
My Dad was Principal of the school and so they let me sit in the class. Then I wanted a uniform but they told me I couldn't have one. A year later, I started school. I loved school.
'The hardest thing was the language. It is hard to be in a different country, a different culture, different experiences. You have to start from zero.'
So your father wanted to educate his daughters?
My Dad was a teacher and a principal for 37 years.
When we were older, people told him, 'Your daughters have to marry now'.
He said, 'My daughters have to finish school and they have to be able to work like men. They can also be married. Then they can do both things'.
The man I was engaged to, waited for me for five years.
He used to come and say to my father, 'I have come to take Anna'.
But my father would say, 'No. Take your cows. My daughter has to finish high school'.
My sister's fiancé waited for four years and the fiancé of another sister for six years to marry.
How young do girls normally marry?
In our culture, we get promised in primary school so at fifteen or seventeen you go to your in-law's house. I was married at 18.
So your father said his girls had to finish school?
Yes, he said we had to finish high school. We are five girls, all of us finished high school. My sister finished university. We are all working now.
What was life like for a young girl in South Sudan?
Life was very tough. It is not like here. When you are six or seven years old, you have to carry water, you have to start cooking and you have to dig the garden. You are the girl. You have the responsibility to do the work at home. You go to school then you come home to do the cleaning, cooking, everything. Your Mum does not do the cooking. The girls do it.
What would your Mum do?
The Mum looks after the house but the girls cook, do the washing and cleaning and look after the younger children. That is your job.
So what did your brothers do?
They have to sit. They have to sit and talk. They have to look after the cows and sheep but they don’t cook. The kitchen is for women. Anything about the kitchen is for women.
Did you go to live with your husband's family after you married?
Yes. When I was married I had to live with my husband’s family and look after the house. There were a lot of relatives living in the house and I had to do everything for them. I had to cook food and serve them and do the washing for them.
But what about his mother and sisters?
They can't do anything, they sit and wait for you to bring everything. They sit like this, looking for you to bring the tea to them.
But why do you have to do all this?
It is your responsibility because you got married with the cows.
How long are you expected to work so hard?
When you have a baby it gets better. You still have to work but the girls help a lot. When the baby is bigger, you go back to your job. When your children are older everyone respects you and calls you 'Mum'. They call me 'Madam Anna'. When you are older like me now, they do everything for me when I visit. They respect me.
So you became a teacher?
I became a teacher in 1984. I was teaching in a primary school in Wau from Year One to Year Six. I was doing the work in the house and teaching in the school. We had to work very hard.
Is the church an important part of life in South Sudan?
Yes. It is very important for all of us. In South Sudan, when someone is sick, you go to church and the community will pray for you and give you a blessing. When there were no priests available, my father used to say the prayers of the mass for the village. When I was in boarding school in Tonj at the Institute of Teaching, if there was no priest available on a Sunday, I would say the prayers in Arabic. My father taught me how to do that.
Do you remember the First Civil War?
The First Civil War was when I was a baby. I didn't know about it.
Where were you when the Second Civil War began?
I was in high school in Tonj It was very hard for us. I remember the driver of the truck bringing the food was killed. We didn't have food for one month and we had to eat only green mangoes. They killed people in the street. The civil war was very bad in 1983. They burned my father's house in Wau.
When did you leave the South?
We left Wau in 1986 because the soldiers were killing everyone. Everyone had to leave. We walked for three months to get to Khartoum. Many people died, pregnant women died because there was no water. There was no food. We had to walk at night, only at night because in the daytime, they could see us and kill us. We hid in the bushes. It was very hot. When we are walking, we saw people dead but not buried. The soldiers cut their throats and left them.
Who walked with you?
I walked with my father and my daughter. My father helped me carry my daughter. One day, there was a bombing. I got separated from my father. I didn't see him for seventeen years. I didn't find my husband until I got to Khartoum.
Where did you live in Khartoum?
We lived in a camp outside Khartoum in the desert. The Archbishop of Khartoum, Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako called the teachers to a meeting with him. The Archdiocese of Khartoum wanted to open schools for refugee children. He provided the teachers with money and food. He said that we are running from our country and if our children don’t have an education, they will miss out on everything. I was accepted to be Principal of a school. The school was very successful.
Were you able to practise your faith in Khartoum?
When we were in South Sudan, we could go to mass without any problems. In Khartoum, some things were difficult. When the government brought in Sharia law we could not live our faith.
Why did you leave Khartoum?
When Sharia law came in, our school was closed and I had to leave Khartoum.
I took my four children and went to Egypt by train. It took one week.
What was life like in Alexandria?
We were relieved when we went to Alexandria. We could go to church again and we did not have to live under Sharia law but it was hard to get food. Rent was very expensive. I was looking after a boy and a girl whose mother had died and another boy whose father had died.
Did you get involved with the church in Alexandria?
I was very happy in Egypt because it was easier to go to church and to participate in our church community. The Sisters and some of the priests helped our community a lot. I volunteered with the church and was the leader of the women's group in Alexandria. I was leading two hundred women and was a coordinator with St Bakhita, Cairo and St Bakhita, Alexandria. The Bishop paid for our children to be enrolled in a very good school. I was the one who had to go and get the money from the Bishop to pay the school.
Where did you live in Alexandria?
I lived in a unit with four other families. I had my children, another lady had six children, another had seven, another had three, another had four and we were all living in the same place.
Were you all sleeping on the floor?
Yes. We had no mattresses. We were five women living together and working hard. We worked from morning to night cleaning houses for ten Egyptian pounds. Then we got the money to rent another house, get mattresses, blankets and everything.
So you were working in Egypt?
Yes. I was a cleaner and I was working in the church as a volunteer.
I know there was a difficult time when you went back to Khartoum. Can you tell us what happened?
My brother-in-law had an operation and after eighteen days he died. According to our culture, the body has to be taken back to his wife and his children in Khartoum. After the body was buried, I was there with my husband.
The head of the SPLA, Dr John Garang had visited Alexandria, the previous year and I went with the women to have a meeting with him. Someone took a photo of our group with him. When I went back to Sudan, I was arrested because they thought that I was a spy.
But how did they know you were there?
I think some people gossiped about it. So the police came and put me in prison. I was in a room with about forty women. There was a small window in the corner. There was no air. The toilet was inside. They threw us bread and they gave us only a small amount of water. I was pregnant with my youngest child. Some women died. It was really smelly.
I had my rosary. I prayed to God every night and every morning, 'Oh God, let me out of this place'.
It was a very bad experience for me.
Did praying help?
Yes, it helped me. When I prayed, I could sleep again. It was very difficult, what you saw, what you smelled. My husband had to pay to get me out. It was not safe for me to go by train back to Egypt. They put me on a plane for Alexandria.
You had a friend who sponsored you to come to Australia?
Yes, my friend sponsored me to come but then the government accepted me as a refugee. I was looking after five children of my own and three other children. The government paid for me to come.
Were you sorry to leave Alexandria?
It was hard to leave Alexandria because the people there were like my family. I was leading the women for ten years. They gave me a big party: the Bishop, the priests, the Sisters and the community. I will never forget it. There were eighteen gifts from everyone. The line of the presents was very long. I still have the video and when I feel sad I put it on.
So you arrived in Australia in 2000?
Yes, 17 October 2000. It is a date I have never forgotten in my life.
What was the hardest thing in those early days?
The hardest thing was the language. It is hard to be in a different country, a different culture, different experiences. You have to start from zero.
Was it hard to find somewhere to live?
When you come, the government gives you accommodation for four weeks and after that you have to look for your own accommodation. It was very hard for us to get a house. The real estate agent would give us an address and we didn’t know where to go. And I couldn’t talk to the real estate agent. It took two months to get a house.
When we moved after two months, we didn’t have any furniture. We were sleeping on the floor. I didn’t know where to go. That's when Wik met Sister Maria. He told her about me and my eight children and that we had no beds, nothing. He asked her to go see me.
And that is why Sr Maria and Sr Helen came to my house. When they came, I didn’t have a word of English. Sr Maria took us to St Vincent de Paul at Burwood and they gave us a lot of food, cushions and everything. Another day, Terry and Sr Maria brought us beds and blankets. Then we relaxed.
Is it true that some of the Sudanese families had trouble finding a Catholic church when they arrived?
Yes. When I first came, some of the Sudanese families that were already here said, 'Anna, tomorrow I will take you to mass'.
I was very happy. I got my children dressed because they were young and we went.
I was sitting there and the mass finished but there was no communion and other things.
I told Deng and Tresa who were with me, 'This is an Anglican church. It is not our church'.
Sr Maria did another very good thing for us and we will never forget it. She helped us find a Catholic church. So I started going to mass in Croydon Park. And then I found a Legion of Mary group and I called Tresa. We joined the Legion of Mary. It was in English and although I had no English, I went anyway.
It was around this time that we started to think that we needed our own church.
Were you involved in setting up the Sudanese Australian Catholic Community?
Yes, I was. It started in 2002. John was our first Chairman, Deng was Secretary and Tresa was Treasurer. I was the coordinator of the sacramental program and Wik was responsible for communication.
Did you draw on your experiences in Alexandria when you were thinking about what a Sudanese Australian Catholic community would look like?
Yes. Wik, Kuac and I said to Sr Maria, 'Look we have to have a Catholic community here, we are Sudanese Catholics. There are a lot of us here. We have to do something'.
Then Sr Maria sat with us and I told her what we were doing in Egypt as a Catholic community. I showed her my reference from the Bishop of Alexandria which explained what we were doing. We were running a sacramental program for the children, sewing and craft groups for the women, the Legion of Mary and Bible Study.
Sr Maria said that we should make an appointment to see Bishop David Cremin. We met him and he was a good man. We told him about the things we had done as a community in Egypt and he said now we need to see the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell. The Cardinal was very keen to give us a place and to employ someone as a Pastoral Care Coordinator.
Was it hard to get work after you arrived?
The first job was hard to get. I was cleaning for two months.
Then the Father at my church asked me, 'Anna, could you volunteer to go to the nursing home?'
I went there with the ladies from the Legion of Mary. I didn’t have any English but I knew what was going on. So they accepted me as a volunteer. I was a volunteer for two weeks when the manager asked me to come and work there. I was there for two years.
After two years, Sr Helen told me, 'Anna, we need you to write down your history because your history is good to help people in Australia'.
I said 'okay' and we sat down together and wrote my history. I was then asked to speak at a Principals’ conference in Gosford.
Sr Helen came to the nursing home in the morning to get me because I was working night shift. We went to Strathfield and I took the train to Gosford. There were forty principals there from primary schools in Sydney’s Inner West. I told my story.
Afterwards, the Principal of St John's Auburn, Mary MacDougall said, 'You have to come to work for us'.
I went for an interview and was accepted to be a teacher's aide.
In October 2003, I started working at the school. I worked with Helen Campbell.
Did you enjoy working at the school?
I was very happy at the school because I was a teacher in Sudan and loved working with children and helping parents. I was sad to leave St John’s because they helped me a lot and I was respected as a member of staff and by the parents and children.
When did you start work at St Bakhita Centre?
I was involved as a volunteer from the beginning. I was the Sacramental and Bible Study Coordinator as well as doing other things. In 2009, I was employed as Pastoral Care Coordinator.
What does your role as Pastoral Care Coordinator involve?
My job is about helping people in need within our community. I help new arrivals settle into Australia and know that the life here is good. I want to help our women become educated because in South Sudan only a small percentage of girls go to school.
I help people who are sick or have traumas. I talk to them and visit them. If someone is lonely, I go to see them. I enrol children in schools and if they are not going to school, I go and talk to them. This is a huge job but I love to work with people. This is my life. It started back home when I used to make porridge for the girls who were sick at boarding school.
Have you sponsored people since you arrived?
Ten days after I arrived, I went to Immigration. I have to fill out forms because there are people suffering over there. I sent them the money because there is a new life here.
And when you sponsor them, do you have to pay for their airfares and accommodation?
I have to pay the airfares and send money for medical checks. When they arrive, I have to have them in my house. Some people stayed for four weeks, some for eight weeks.
Is there much government support for refugees?
The government pays for 510 hours of English classes but it is not enough. You get out with zero. It is good for those of us who went to school but for the people who haven’t been to school they get nothing from it. And without English, it is hard to get work.
What has been the main challenge for the Sudanese community?
The biggest challenge is the language.
How are the children doing?
Sometimes, the teenagers don't listen to the adults because they have got English. They learn English quicker and it is harder for the adults to learn English and be understood. Sometimes they go with the wrong friends and end up with alcohol and drugs. That is something we never had in our community before.
And what about the women, how are they doing?
Many of the women have not had education back home. They need education in Australia and St Bakhita Centre provides classes where they can learn. Our women are lucky to be here. There is a lot of freedom.
What are your hopes for the future of the Sudanese community?
For our people back home, I want more of our girls to be educated. We are doing that through an organisation called South Sudan Educates Girls (SSEG). We are trying to build schools over there.
And for our Sudanese Australians, I wish for them to be educated and to become respected members of a multicultural Australia.