John Cinya has spent much of his life mentoring Sudanese youth. And whether teaching in an Ethiopian refugee camp or supporting kids at school in Western Sydney, his message is the same: 'Aim high'. A community leader, John is about to become a deacon.
Can you tell me a little about your background?
I am from the Madi tribe and was born in Nimule, a town near the Ugandan border. I did not spend much of my childhood in this village.
During the First Civil War, my father joined the rebel Anyanya group and my parents had to flee to Uganda. Following the Addis Ababa Peace Accord in 1972, we returned to South Sudan. After some time in Nimule, we went to live in Torit where my father worked as a bookkeeper.
'You couldn’t talk politics. You don’t open your mouth. You had to be very careful. Even turning on SPLA Radio in Khartoum was dangerous. Some people were harassed, beaten, even killed.'
Did you go to school?
I completed primary school and intermediate in Torit. After that I was accepted into the Commercial Secondary School in Juba. This school was only for top people who performed well. I was there until 1989.
Were you from a Catholic area?
My area was mostly Catholic. Most Equatorians are Catholic.
Where were you when the Second Civil War started?
When the war started, I was still in Torit with my parents. In 1984, I started at Juba Commercial School. It was the only boarding school in South Sudan. Juba was safe at that time.
In 1986, my Dad was transferred to a town called Magwi County. My Mum stayed in Torit with most of the children. While I was there for the holidays, the SPLA attacked Torit. One of my uncles who was working with the Norwegian Church Aid Program drove to our village to rescue us and take us to Magwi County to my father. We were still there when the SPLA attacked that town as well.
My Dad, my Mum and all the kids then had to walk to Nimule which is about sixty-five kilometres away. We had to walk in the bush because if you used the main roads the SPLA would get you. It took us two days and two nights to reach Nimule. We slept at night and walked during the day. We walked as a group of about five families through the bush together. The SPLA was moving across all the towns.
Why were you running from the SPLA?
They were targeting people like me to go and fight with them. I was about seventeen at the time and I wanted to finish my education. We were scared that we would get conscripted. The SPLA would get you and without an education what kind of future would you have. They were collecting young boys and calling them the Red Army. My father didn’t want to go to the fighting either. He had fought already with Anyanya and didn’t want to fight a second time.
How did you get back to school?
I travelled with a military convoy to get back to Juba a couple of months later. In 1987, my father and my sister moved to Juba. My mother and three younger brothers were still in Nimule when the SPLA attacked in 1989. That’s when they fled to a refugee camp in Uganda.
Were you able to finish high school?
I finished high school in 1989 just as the SPLA were shelling Juba. It was one of the only places in the South that was not under SPLA control. You couldn’t travel outside Juba because the surrounding areas had been captured by the SPLA.
I was accepted into the University of Juba which had relocated to Khartoum because of the war. It was established in 1977 as the university for Southern Sudan. Despite this, seventy percent of the students were Northerners. I moved to Khartoum to start university. I enrolled in the College of Social & Economic Studies.
How did you get to Khartoum from Juba?
By plane. All the food came to Juba by plane. But the planes had to land steeply because the SPLA was firing on them.
How were things in Khartoum for Southerners?
It was not good. They considered all Southerners to be rebels. If you were a Southerner, you were a rebel. There were two student associations for Southerners; the South Sudanese Students Association and the St Augustine Society. I was the President of the St Augustine Society in 1993. I finished university in 1994.
Where did you live when you were at university and how did you support yourself?
I was boarding at the university and the government paid. University was free.
But who paid your board?
The government of Sudan. Primary school, high school, it was all free.
Who paid your food?
The government. We ate breakfast, morning tea, lunch.
And they paid for your room too?
The government paid for everything. University in Sudan was like that. You paid nothing. The government even paid Southerners an allowance every month. It was 300 Sudanese pounds per month. The government also paid because we were displaced and there was no one supporting us. It was a lot of money for a student. Only the Southerners got this payment but the Northerners also lived in boarding. People from Darfur didn't get any payment.
How was your time at uni?
It was good but of course you couldn’t talk politics. You don’t open your mouth. You had to be very careful. Even turning on SPLA Radio in Khartoum was dangerous. Some people were harassed, beaten, even killed.
Were they watching university students closely?
They were watching us all the time. There was Sharia law so you couldn’t wear shorts. But the Southern girls didn't cover like the Muslim girls. And you had to be careful about getting drunk in the suburbs.
By this time, there were shanty towns or displaced camps and some Southerners would go there for a drink. But if you were caught drunk, you went to gaol. You were not allowed alcohol but Southern women were brewing it at night. Sometimes the police came and poured all the alcohol away. If you were caught brewing beer, you could get lashes or six months in gaol.
Were you ever harassed when you were at uni?
Yes. When I was the President of the St Augustine Society, we produced a pamphlet. One day, I went to the Comboni Mission in the centre of Khartoum to collect pamphlets to distribute. But as I was leaving I noticed security forces following me and I ran back and hid in the mission. I had to leave the pamphlets there, wait a while and then walk the long way to catch a bus. There was a lot of harassment of Southerners and if you were caught, they considered you a rebel.
So it must have been difficult for Southerners in the shanty towns?
Yes. There were millions. The shanty camp was on the other side of the fence of the University of Juba. But sometime after 1992-3, the government dismantled all these shanty towns and transferred the people to another place.
Was it difficult being a Christian under Sharia law?
Yes. It was very difficult. You could not ring church bells. You could just go to mass and then go home.
So you couldn’t celebrate special events such as the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday?
No way. When there was an ordination and other sacraments, it was done on Comboni grounds. There were choirs and a big band but it had to stay within the mission. You couldn’t give away Bibles or pamphlets. You couldn't go out to preach. We were free to do these things on campus but not outside. We used to hold the meetings of the St Augustine Society on campus or on the church grounds.
You never got harassed because people thought they were political meetings?
Yes. We got harassed sometimes. You don’t speak politics or condemn the government. Even if you were giving a speech, you didn’t talk politics.
What about the other student association?
There were a lot of issues there. It was more political. A lot of people there were harassed. Even one of the Presidents was killed. He was studying to be a doctor. After we escaped to Ethiopia, we heard he had been killed trying to leave through western Sudan. People still don't know where his body is.
So what did you do when you finished uni?
I finished university in January 1995 and as President of St Augustine Society, I was selected to represent the youth of Sudan at World Youth Day (WYD) in the Philippines. I spent two weeks in Manila. The church helped a lot, especially the Catholic missionaries who sponsored us to go to WYD. We came back after two weeks and in February 1995, I graduated but it was very difficult to get a job because I was a Christian.
Did you go for many jobs?
Many but I didn’t get any. Most of the Southerners who were living in Khartoum were working for NGOs and not the government. There was no way you would get a government job when your name was John.
Was it because you were a Christian or a Southerner? What if you were a Muslim Southerner?
One of the guys who finished uni with me was a Southerner, a Madi but also a Muslim. He was accepted as a teaching assistant by the University of Juba. He got the job because he was a Muslim even though my Grade Point Average (GPA) was better than his.
So you had no chance to be a teacher?
No way. Most of the educated Southerners set up schools in Khartoum helped by the Comboni missionaries. They helped other Southerners, coached them in English for the Sudan School Certificate so they would score high marks. But most of them ended up working with the church or an NGO or something like that.
What language did you do your study in?
I did all my study in English, even primary. In Juba Commercial School, it is English. I can’t write Arabic. In those days in Southern Sudan, you could choose between the Arabic school or a Christian education in English. So I went to the English school. The University of Juba was all in English.
Would that be a problem when looking for a job in Khartoum because your Arabic would not be as good?
Yes, but even the Southerners that spoke Arabic were not employed. In 1990, the Sudanese Government declared that Arabic had to be the language of instruction in South Sudan. I was part of the last group from the South who were taught in English. After that, Arabic was the first language for all the schools in the South. At the University of Juba, the students had to learn to read Arabic. The classes were still taught in English but you had to know Arabic. I speak Arabic but I can’t write it.
So life in Khartoum was getting difficult?
You couldn’t get a job because you were a Christian. The war was going on and you were being harassed. I wanted to get away. There were many Southerners running away. Some were going to Egypt, some were going to refugee camps but everyone was trying to leave Khartoum.
Was it easy to leave Sudan?
No. You had to escape. So we took the bus from Khartoum to Wad Medani in eastern Sudan. The eastern part of Sudan is Gezira which is the agricultural backbone of Sudan. It is a big place. So most of the Southerners who couldn't get employed went there to work on the farms. So six of us went to Wad Medani and started working on a farm.
So the government wouldn’t just let you leave the country?
No way. You couldn't go. Because they thought you were escaping to the rebels, that you were going to the SPLA. No Southerners were allowed to go to Ethiopia. They wouldn't let you go to Uganda. And for Egypt you needed a visa which was difficult to get. You had to pay a bribe. It was very hard to leave at this time.
Where were the SPLA then?
In Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Central Africa Republic, Zaire, Kenya and especially in the south of Sudan. They were even up to Kassala in Sudan. The SPLA was attacking Kassala too.
So what happened once you were in Gezira?
We worked on the farms so we had to dress shabby. We made our clothes dirty. You look like somebody that has completely nothing. You go to one farm you work there for one week. You get paid. Then you say this job is no good and you go to the next farm.
And who owned these farms?
The Arabs, the Northerners. Gezira is owned by the Arabs. You work there pruning the weeds, harvesting. So you have to go from one farm to another until you reach the border with Ethiopia. It took us almost two weeks. You work on one job one day and then you say this is no good and move to the next one. This was how Southerners escaped.
It was 1995 and this was the last time for people to escape peacefully without any harm. Of course, there was harassment too, they were sending security after us and monitoring us as we moved.
Sometimes they asked us, 'Where are you going?'
And with each job, each day, we were getting closer to the border.
The last town we came to in Gezira, the person in charge of the military post was an Arab and he left.
The second-in-command was a Southerner. We told him frankly, 'We are escaping'.
He said 'okay' because they wanted Southerners to go to the SPLA.
From there, it was a six hour walk across fields to the border with Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Were you nervous?
We were nervous. We were moving on the street and people asked us, 'Where are you going'.
We said, 'To that farm' because the closer the farm is to the border the better the pay.
How did you know where the border was?
There's a sign and there is also a military post at the border. But there were Southerners in that post too.
They said, 'Now, guys, we are going to escort you to the border'.
They escorted us a different way right up to the border.
Then we took off.
We ran until we were inside Eritrea. We ran about five kilometres.
We didn’t look back.
When we arrived in Eritrea, we just walked across the bridge from Eritrea to Ethiopia. If you are shabby, you just look like locals. It's the same at the Ugandan border. They don’t ask you if you are Madi from South Sudan or Uganda.
The river is the border and on one side is the Eritrean army and on the other, the Ethiopian army. You just act normal because there were South Sudanese who were going to work in the farms in Eritrea and Ethiopia as well.
So what did you do then?
When we were planning our escape, we opened a tube of Colgate toothpaste and rolled up some American dollars and hid them inside. We carried it with our things and every time we were searched along the way, they thought it was just a tube of toothpaste. When we were in Gezira going from farm to farm we don’t need the money because the farmers feed and pay you.
What were the farmers like? Did they treat the Southerners okay?
They were all right. They wanted people to work for them. They didn't worry about politics. But there was security around. They were not in uniform but we knew how to talk to them. We were not aggressive, we said, 'We have just come here to work'.
So when you crossed the border you still had the toothpaste?
At about six that first evening, we opened our toothpaste, took off our rubbish clothes, changed the money and slept in a hotel. There are hotels everywhere in Ethiopia not like Sudan and they are very cheap.
The next day, we took a bus to Addis Ababa. My aim was to join my Mum and brothers in Uganda. My Dad was still in Juba. The SPLA did not get hold of Juba.
When we got to Addis Ababa, we registered with UNHCR and got a bus to Panyido camp in western Ethiopia. It was close to the border with South Sudan.
We didn’t want to go to the camp so we took a bus to the border with Kenya. But there was no way they would let us in. We paid people smugglers to go another way. It took us two days to reach Mandera on the Ethiopian side of the border with Kenya. But again, the Kenyans would not let us in. They beat us. We stayed there for three months.
So the people smugglers could not get you in?
No way. We were six Madi stuck there. There were a lot of other South Sudanese there too. There were some guys with us who had a sister who was one of the top people with the SPLA. She sent money to one of the priests in Mandera and they were able to get a plane from Mandera to Nairobi. But I was stuck there because I didn’t have any influential relatives. We had to sell our clothes because we had no food. One of the priests, a Franciscan in Mandera was feeding us. There were over two hundred South Sudanese refugees stuck there in No Man’s Land. It was the hardest time in my life.
Why didn’t you go back to Addis Ababa?
We couldn’t. We had finished our money. It was three days by bus to Addis Ababa. The Catholic priest gave us sacks of rice and red beans. We went fishing in the Dawa River and sold some fish. It was a tough life.
Some people managed to bribe their way into Kenya but we didn’t have any money or a relative who could send us some. Others left by going through Somalia but that was risky so we decided to wait. By then, we had accepted that there was no hope of getting into Kenya. You had to stay in the first country that you entered. You cannot go to another country.
One of the Ethiopian women who was with us was married to a South Sudanese man. She had an Ethiopian passport so she could get into Kenya. She went to the BBC and told them that there were Sudanese stuck on the Ethiopian-Kenyan border. The BBC did a story and it went all over the world. It told how we were stuck there and being beaten by Kenyans.
When the UNHCR from Addis Ababa heard about this, they brought three buses to take us to Panyido camp. On the way they said, 'Oh, there are houses for you, we have got everything'.
But when we arrived they gave us an axe and shovel and said, 'That’s it, go build your house'.
We arrived in Panyido in December 1995.
How many people were in Panyido camp?
There were over 80,000 South Sudanese.
What was life like in the camp?
There were 12 big blocks like suburbs. Block 12 was for minority tribes from South Sudan. The other eleven were all Nuer because the border with Ethiopia was a Nuer area. The minorities from Equatoria were housed in Block 12. There were also Dinkas, Madi, Anuak, and Nuba in that block.
It was tough there. We had to build a tukul. I had not built a house before but we had to do it. We had to fetch water. We had nothing. They gave us five kilograms of dried corn, two kilograms of red kidney beans and one litre of oil per person for two weeks. They gave us a bucket for fetching water, one saucepan for cooking your sauce and one for mixing your cider. You kept them in your tukul.
Block 12 had one borehole. They used a generator to pump the water. They operated the generator from 6am to 9am in the morning and from 3pm to 6pm in the afternoon. If you missed those times, you had to walk to the Akobo River to get water. It was ten kilometres there and back.
By 1996, we started to know the camp. UNHCR was running a school. The kids were taught by Ethiopians but it was not enough. There was one primary school in Block 12 and another one in the majority block but the UNHCR schools could not accommodate all the children.
There were also schools that were set up by the South Sudanese. When we came, we started to work in these schools. The kids paid us two Birr every fortnight. When the family got their fortnightly ration, they’d sell something to pay us.
So you began to make a life in the camp?
Yes. We started teaching the kids there and our teaching was very good. Our English was better than the Ethiopians. We joined the church, teaching kids about the sacraments and teaching kids with songs.
At the end of December 1996, the UNHCR decided to employ us as teachers. We were paid 310 Birr every month. There was no tax because we were refugees. 310 Birr was a lot of money. The local teachers only got 270 Birr because they had to pay tax. It was wonderful. At that time, life was good although water was a problem.
What were the hardships in the camp?
The water, the food. If you got sick, you had to be taken to Gambella or Addis Ababa.
How did the local Ethiopian people treat those in the camp?
The local people were very poor. You couldn’t go and fish in the Akobo River but you could get water. The UNHCR gave chickens and cows to large refugee families. Sometimes the local people raided the camp to take the cows and other things. You lived there separate from the locals.
Was it easy to leave the camp?
There were road blocks around the camp. You were not allowed to go outside to nearby towns and you needed a permission form from the Protection Office to travel to Gambella.
When did you first hear of the possibility of resettlement?
When we were there in December 1996 the program of resettlement came in. The first one was with the Canadian government. They came and said they wanted to resettle refugees from that camp. They did it according to blocks. Each block had a leader who selected about 80 families that would go to Canada.
So how did they decide who got to go?
People decided. Many people did not want to go. There were rumours that if you went to the West, you would be brushing the teeth of donkeys, you would be brushing the teeth of horses and working as a slave. The rumours discouraged people from going. Instead some who were discouraged with camp life went and joined the SPLA.
In 1997, the USA and Canada continued resettling families.
That year, a UNHCR Protection Officer from Nigeria who had travelled around said to us, 'You are teachers. Don’t go to America or to Canada. I will get you a form to the best place'.
So she got us a form for Australia.
Why did she think Australia was better?
She knows, she travels around. There is social security, there is a good life here; no problems, no shooting, no killing. Life is good for you in Australia.
She got thirty forms for Australia but only five of us came.
Were you the first ones to come?
No. Two came at the end of 1997 and after that three of us came on 1 March 1998.
We were three young men on our own. None of us were married.
The Australian Government sponsored us. We lived in Hobart in a house owned by the St Vincent de Paul. Usually when refugees come, they have a case worker who receives them at the airport. And the one who received us was Fr Chris. He was a good man. He took us around Tasmania.
You went straight to Hobart?
We just saw Sydney airport.
We went from Addis Ababa to Singapore to Sydney to Hobart.
Were you nervous?
We were nervous but excited to leave all the troubles and the suffering.
When we were leaving, the kids in the camp were crying because good teachers were going.
What was life like in Hobart?
Life was lonely in Hobart but it was good that five of us were there together. Fr Chris was good, he entertained us a lot. He introduced us to TAFE classes and to the University of Tasmania. All five of us were from the Madi tribe.
And all of you had good English?
Yes. Nobody was going to English classes. I went to the University of Tasmania for the second semester. I did two units there; Accounting and Financial Theory.
Then what did you do?
I stayed in Hobart for the semester studying but there was no employment, nothing. So two of the guys moved to Sydney and I followed them.
So when did you arrive in Sydney?
In January 1999.
Where did you live in Sydney?
I lived in St Mary’s with my friends. After that, I started working at National Foods in the main factory.
Was it hard getting a job?
No, it was good here. In Tasmania, it was hard.
So I started working with National Foods as a casual then as a permanent. I went up to the level of Inventory Clerk. The Distribution Centre was at North Rocks. In 2004, the Distribution Centre was closed and the factory was sold.
The company wanted me to stay but I decided to take a redundancy.
What was resettlement like for you?
When you are resettling, there is happiness. The excitement is very high. But it went down because of loneliness. You miss your family and you don’t know anybody.
Did any of your family come to Australia?
When I came to Australia, I didn't know where my mother and brothers were. I traced them through the Red Cross. My mother came here in 2004 and my brothers in 2002, 2005 and 2006.
In 2001, I went to a Ugandan refugee camp to get married to my wife.
Our first daughter was born in September 2003.
When I married my wife, my brothers came here and other Sudanese started settling, then my happiness started going up again.
When you came here were there any other Sudanese families?
There were a few families in Sydney, maybe two or three in 1999.
How did you find other Sudanese families?
We were all in Sydney. Sister Maria connected us a lot.
When did you meet Sr Maria?
I think we met her through Josephite Community Aid (JCA) around the Lidcombe area in 2001. JCA was helping the families. She brought a lot of the Sudanese together.
Did you become involved with the church?
Of course. We also decided that we should have a Sudanese Catholic Community. So that’s why we formed the Sudanese Australian Catholic Community in 2002. I became the Chairman of the committee.
You were one of the group that went to see Cardinal Pell?
Yes. We spoke to him about St Bakhita Centre, about the Pastoral Care Coordinator, about getting our children into Catholic schools and the mass. We wanted to have mass together as a community.
Were you happy with the support?
Yes. I cannot explain it. It was beyond any expectation. We have got valuable help from the church up to now.
All along the church seems to have played a big part in your life...
In Sudan, the church protected us. The Cardinal of Khartoum, Gabriel Zubeir Wako spoke out about the treatment of Christians in Sudan. The church sometimes paid for school fees and sponsored a lot of girls to go to a Sudanese university. There were religious who were doing a lot to help us.
People don’t understand that for us South Sudanese, we don’t separate our life into secular versus the church. In Sudan, we come together, know every family, every situation, share together. You cannot stay by yourself. You need to come together. When you are with friends, you forget all your problems.
What were the goals in setting up St Bakhita’s?
We wanted a meeting place and an education centre to come and share, learn about Australia.
Where did you work after you took the redundancy?
We went to Cardinal Pell and asked him to subsidise the school fees so that the Sudanese children could go to Catholic schools. In 2005, the Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta decided to employ somebody as a School Liaison Worker for the Sudanese community. I was employed and have worked there since July 2005.
So what is your role there?
I work with all the schools that have Sudanese students in the Parramatta Diocese.
So what sort of things are you doing?
I’m liaising with the families, dealing with issues of behaviour and learning.
What has that been like?
It has been challenging but I’m part of the community. I’m part of it so there is no need for me to get frustrated. I need these kids to learn to be good citizens of Australia. That is our aim.
What have been the biggest challenges those kids have faced in resettlement?
In the beginning, the kids who came when they were older couldn’t catch up academically. They were put in classes according to their age. They were in high school when they didn’t have English.
But now the challenge is the two cultures because the parents still hold onto the Sudanese culture and the kids learn the Australian culture so there is conflict.
The big challenge now is that kids are being caught between two cultures.
So the problems have changed during the years you have been in that role?
Yes, the problems have changed. Most of the kids who came with us have finished high school. Most of the kids who are in primary or high school now were born here or they came as little kids and started school here.
So with those earlier kids that were struggling, what did you do to help them?
I tried to support them. I worked together with the school counsellors to help them with their English and to get them to finish their HSC regardless of what they got and continue with their lives.
Has it been hard to get those kids jobs?
No, most of them have jobs. Before they didn’t know any English but now they know what life is like in Australia. Without a job, you cannot progress so that is why most of them have found employment, have gotten married. Most of them are working.
What do you do with the children who are caught between two cultures?
The problem is that the kids think they know better than their parents. When they come home, nobody helps them with their homework, they meet friends somewhere else, they go out. They are not doing their homework. Some run away from home because they think the culture here is that I’m now sixteen so I’m independent. Usually, they then realise it is no good and they come back. We are trying hard with these kids.
Have you had any successes?
Yes. A lot are going to uni. We want them to aim high.
In terms of the kids that are falling through the cracks what can you do?
Most of those who drop out when they are nearly eighteen you can’t do anything about it. But we have tried to get them apprenticeships.
How important is it to keep the community strong?
Our life is a community life. That is the South Sudanese culture.
So if there is sorrow or suffering, we share it together.
If there is a death, people go and pray, bring water, bring money and contribute to this family.
We share it.
A wedding, people share.
Even a new baby, people bring water, give money to the family.
We are a community so you help whether you are well off or not. You still share.
Nobody says, 'No. I’m not wealthy. I’m not contributing'.
I believe you are studying to be a deacon. What is a deacon?
A deacon is a servant of God. A deacon can do baptisms, weddings, funerals. I began studying a Bachelor of Theology in 2013. It will take about five years.
What made you decide to become a deacon?
I want to serve my community.