Kuac Mathiang and his wife Ashuil came to Australia in 2001. Born just before Independence, Kuac remembers a childhood lived in the shadow of the First Civil War. An elder, Kuac worked for many years in five star hotels in Sudan and Libya.
Can you tell me a little about where you are from?
I was born in 1955 in Aweil in South Sudan in the area of Bahr el Ghazal. I am a Dinka.
Did the First Civil War affect your life?
It really affected our lives. One day, we were playing and the soldiers came and attacked us and we ran away. That was a big shock because we were kids and had never seen anything like that. Whenever we left home, our parents used to tell us to be careful because soldiers may kill you. Sometimes they killed kids.
'In summertime, my family and some other families would go and stay by the river. We would fish, swim and play. It was our summer holiday because our whole life was the farm.'
Tell me a bit about your parents?
My father was a very active man. He was working for the post office. In that time, you had to walk a long way to deliver letters. He didn’t work at the post office all the time. He also worked on the farm. He didn’t go to school.
How many wives did your father have?
He only had three wives. My mother was the second wife. The families lived separately. I had fun with all my brothers.
What was your mother like?
She was a very, very good lady. She looked after us a lot and she helped us a lot. She was a lovely lady. She has passed away and so has my father.
Are children expected to respect their elders in Sudan?
You have to show a lot of respect. When an older person talks to you, you don’t look them in the eye, you look down: that shows respect. When you become a man, then you can look them in the eye.
So what sort of things do little boys do in Sudan?
We have a lot of activities. The boys look after the cows and they bring the wood for the fire. There is not a lot of water in Aweil so we had to walk about twenty miles to get water. You help grow the food but the girls organise and prepare the food. Your parents send you here and there to do things. You are very active. You can’t relax. Never. You are always very busy until sleeping time. Everybody is busy.
What did you do in your spare time?
We would hunt, we would go to the bush. In summertime, my family and some other families would go and stay beside the river. We would fish, swim and play by the river. The place was called Chealcou. It was our summer holiday because our whole life was the farm and looking after the cows, goats and other animals.
Was Aweil a Catholic area?
Yes. We were Catholic.
Did you go to school?
Yes. I went to primary and secondary school. My education was affected by the first war. In Sudan, you go to school when you can, it doesn’t matter about your age. I was going to school after the war. I finished school in 1983.
How did life change when the First Civil War finished?
Life changed a lot. It was so much better. You are not scared about anything. You feel free because you can go wherever you want. That was very exciting.
During the school holidays, we travelled to Khartoum to work in the factories. There were lots of opportunities there. You could get work. It was different in our area. You could get a lot of money. Then, when you came back home you could buy your clothes and other needs for school.
Did you mix with other ethnic or religious groups when you were growing up?
My Mum was Luo like Anna. She came from a village far away. Diversity in Sudan didn’t mean that we lived together. We lived separately in our own groups. At school, I had friends from different groups but they didn’t live near me.
What languages do you speak other than Dinka?
I read and write Arabic very well. And I learnt English at school.
Where were you when the Second Civil War started?
When the Second Civil War started in 1983, I was still living in South Sudan. In 1984, my wife and children came with me to Khartoum. It was not safe in the South. They were targeting educated people. You had two choices either you go to the rebels or you go to Khartoum.
What did you do in Khartoum?
I worked at the Hilton Hotel as a waiter. Then I went to Libya and worked as a Supervisor in the Grand Hotel in Tripoli from 1987 to 2000.
What was Libya like?
It was good. I made money that I could send back to my family. I used to visit them every six months. When life in Khartoum became difficult, I sent them to Alexandria. Egypt was much better. Then they were accepted by UNHCR to come to Australia so I left my job and we all came together.
What was difficult about coming to Australia?
Because I was used to living in different environments, coming to Australia was not that hard for me. I knew a lot of European people when I worked in the hotels so I was used to a lot of different faces. But for my family it was more difficult and they had to get used to the language. But it was much better than Egypt.
Have you worked since you came to Australia?
Yes. When I came here, I started a course in Commercial Cooking and I worked for five years at the Grace Hotel. Then I worked in different restaurants.
You have had a long career in hospitality…
Yes. I have. I like it, I enjoy it so much.
How did your children manage?
It was hard for my older children because they were put in classes according to their age. It was hard to learn English. It was okay for the younger ones who started Kindergarten here. They learned a lot. It was very different for them.
Did you sponsor any people to come here?
I sponsored a lot of people to come here. I helped them to settle in, introduced them to how to do things in Australia. I worked with the community a lot.
Were you one of the leaders who met with Cardinal Pell in 2002?
Yes. I was. We started the Sudanese Catholic community here. Three of us: me, Wik and Anna met with Sr Maria to talk about starting our own Catholic community. That was the foundation.
What led you to found the Sudanese Australian Catholic Community?
We used to go to Blacktown to a mass that we were told was a fellowship for the Sudanese. We used to travel all the way from Bondi. But when Anna came, she said, 'This is an Anglican church'. Madam Anna was a hero for all these things. She is a very strong lady. She has done a lot.
So you were going all the way to Blacktown to an Anglican church?
Yes. That’s when we decided to find a Catholic church for the Sudanese people to go to. Sr Maria helped us a lot. She arranged a meeting with Bishop Cremin. He talked to Fr Gerry Iverson in Greystanes who started to say a mass for us.
Are different things expected of a Sudanese man in Australia compared to Sudan?
It is a little bit different but our people can live anywhere.
Do your children speak your language?
My children speak Arabic and Dinka but some of the younger ones don’t speak Dinka properly.
Do your children want to go back to South Sudan?
For the children, no, it is different for them because they know nothing about South Sudan.
Do your children feel Australian or South Sudanese?
They feel Australian. This is the life they know. They are used to living here in Australia, they are speaking English. They speak good English; better than us. They have become Australian and they are happy.
But they are different to us. There is something different. When I told you about the elders and how I wouldn’t look them in the eye, I’d look down: it is not like that for our children. But we have to let them be like other Australian kids.
Have you been back to South Sudan?
I went to South Sudan in 2015 and I stayed for a year to visit my family. The people are suffering in the war now. You can see it on their faces. The country is not stable. But they are still getting on with their lives.
Are you happy that you came to Australia?
I am very happy here. It is good to go and see my people in South Sudan but then come back here.
What are you most proud of having achieved in Australia?
We have formed a lot of communities here. We have the Sudanese Catholic Community and the Aweil community. We have made a lot of progress and done a lot.