Margaret Tong has been coming to St Bakhita Centre since 2005. A community leader in Kakuma Refugee Camp, her biggest challenge in resettlement has been her teenage children and their lack of interest in Dinka language and culture.
Where were you born?
I was born in a village near Aweil in South Sudan.
How many brothers and sisters did you have?
Two brothers and two sisters. One of my brothers was a soldier and was killed during the war. I also have half-brothers.
How many wives did your father have?
He had three wives. My Mum was his first wife.
'Many of the teenagers when you speak to them in our language they reply in English. We are not saying, 'Don’t speak English' but they need to keep their mother tongue.'
Is it better to be the first?
Yes. In Sudan, the first wife is the boss of the other wives.
Did you go to school when you were little?
I believe girls work very hard in South Sudan. Is that true?
Yes, we do. A nine-year-old girl can do the things that an eighteen-year-old girl does here.
We are shocked with our girls because everything is different here. They don’t work hard like we did.
When I tell my daughter, 'When I was her age, I was responsible for my brothers and sisters'.
She replies, 'Well, that was you'.
How old were you when the Second Civil War started?
I was about nine when the war started. During the war, I ran from the South to the North with my mother and my elder sister. We got separated from the rest of the family.
First, we went to Darfur for about five years and then we went to Khartoum.
I got married in Khartoum and went with my husband to Egypt in 1995.
We spent a few months there and then we went to Nairobi in Kenya and then to Kakuma Refugee Camp.
Why did you go from Egypt to Kenya?
My husband is an Anglican Minister and we were transferred there so he could go back to South Sudan to do mission work. However, the war was still on and it was difficult to go into southern Sudan.
What happened when you got to Nairobi?
We didn’t have enough money to rent or buy food so we had to go to Kakuma. It took about one and a half days to get there by car from Nairobi. We spent two years there until my husband found a job and we rented a house in Nairobi. Although I still used to go back to Kakuma to visit people.
What was Kakuma like?
It was terrible. It was a rough, dusty place. It was a difficult life there.
Is Kakuma big?
Yes. It is very big. Every country is there: Somalian, South Sudanese, Eritreans, and others. You live with your own people in an area called a 'Group'. You have Group 1,2,3. When you hear the group number, you know who is living there. But people mix together when they go to collect the food, wait in queues and in other places.
Was there enough food in Kakuma?
Not really. People eat once a day there. We have lunch and that’s it. You couldn’t have breakfast, lunch and dinner because the food would run out. You got food once a fortnight. You had to go to the big centre when it was your day. You stand on the queue and get a little bit of oil, a little bit of corn. It was not like our food; everything was dry. I remember the first day there, I couldn’t eat anything.
Could you get food from anywhere else?
No. So you had to economise.
Was it hard to get water?
It wasn’t easy. The first day I was there, I went to get water. I filled the container and put it on my head and I had all this pain down my neck and arms. After a while, I had to carry it in my arms.
But I was very lucky because there was another lady from the church who saw me coming back and sent her kid to me. She told him, 'Go and help her because she doesn’t know what to do here'.
After this, her son would sometimes collect the water for me.
How was it for the kids?
Kids get used to things so they managed. I would wake them in the morning and give them a little bit of porridge so they had something to start the day. We gave them something for lunch and dinner but my husband and I ate only once a day.
Weren’t you a community leader in Kakuma?
Yes. We formed a community there like we have done here in Australia. We had an Aweil community there too. They chose people to lead the group. I was involved in the community so that we share things together.
So what sort of things did you do together?
We prayed together. If something happened to someone, we went to visit them, talk to them and comfort them. We had a group of women who prayed together and for others, like the Legion of Mary.
Were there other things the community organised like some sort of education?
Yes. We had classes for the children in the morning and for the adults in the afternoon.
Who ran those?
They were run by people from the community. There were classes for adults so they could learn English and how to write.
Who was teaching those classes?
The teachers were South Sudanese who had been educated.
So after about two years you left Kakuma and moved to Nairobi. Was life better there?
Life was better in Nairobi. You could get everything to eat. You could have something for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Did your children go to school in Nairobi?
Yes. They did. They went to an English school.
Didn’t you do some English study in Kenya?
I did some English at Kakuma but I didn’t understand that much. There is a school called ACK Language School in Nairobi and my husband asked one of his friends in America to lend him some money so I could do an English course there. That man paid for me to do English for six months. At that school, they sat down with me and put a tape in a machine so that I could listen to English. After that, they would talk to me so I know how to talk. So when I came here I was lucky because I could understand people. I could greet people and say 'Hello'.
What a lovely gift that was…
I know. I know. I really appreciated it. That school was very good. They taught me grammar so well. And now I love grammar. It is my favourite subject.
When did you come to Australia?
I came here in 2005 with my husband and children. It took us about two years to get approved after we applied. My husband’s friend sponsored us. We asked my cousin to buy tickets for us and then we came.
What were your early days in Australia like?
You do miss back home but it wasn’t too bad because my uncle and cousins were here. My cousin Tresa came to the airport to pick us up.
And so you had a community to welcome you?
Yes. We did.
When did you first come to St Bakhita Centre?
I came to St Bakhita in 2005. There were a few ladies having English lessons in the church hall.
How did you hear about St Bakhita’s?
My cousin, Tresa was leading the centre then. She was the one taking care of the Sudanese Catholic community. She told me about it and I came here straight away. She said, 'There is a place where we learn English and it belongs to Sudanese women'.
How important was it to be able to meet other Sudanese women and learn together?
It was very important. We didn’t know each other from back home but we were able to meet at morning tea, talk a bit and then go back to class. It was wonderful.
So you continued to work on your English…
Yes. I first went to ACL (Australian Centre for Languages) to do the 510 hours of English that the government gives people who come here.
After that, I went to St Bakhita’s. I have been coming here for many years.
The volunteers look after the kids and they give us a chance to go to classes to learn English, computers, dressmaking. I have brought most of my children here.
I have learned a lot at St Bakhita’s.
When I talk to people and they say, 'Your English is good', I am proud of St Bakhita’s.
How did your kids adjust to school in Australia?
It wasn’t hard for them because they went to the same school as my Uncle’s kids. His wife was very good and she had already applied to the school when we arrived. We found a house near them and I took my children to the school. The teachers were very happy with them because they understood a lot of things. So they were very good, Thank God. They had already been to school and they knew English so it didn’t take too long.
How are your children doing these days?
Life is good for them but having teenagers in Australia is not easy.
As I told you, I explain to my daughter about life in South Sudan and she says, 'Well that was you before'.
When they do the wrong thing, we sit with them and tell them, 'Look in Africa, life was rough and that is why we have brought you here so that you can have a good education, get good qualifications and do something with your lives'. We tell them about the difficulties we have been through so they can do something better.
Do you think they understand?
No, not really, not really.
Some are okay but most of the kids we have a terrible time with them in the community right now.
How do you educate children about their culture when they grow up in Australia?
We run workshops in the community and we try to tell the younger generation to come and attend.
We try to involve them so they know their culture, what it means, where we come from and where they belong.
We try all that.
Is it harder with the boys or the girls?
Why is that?
I don’t really know. Some of our children get confused because they are mixing with other cultures.
This is okay for the ones who understand our culture well.
But for others, it means they can get a bit lost between cultures and then we have problems. It is quite hard.
So you think some of the teenagers are caught between two cultures?
Yes. Many of the teenagers when you speak to them in our language they reply in English.
We are not saying, 'Don’t speak English' but they need to keep their mother tongue.
They have to know their language and culture; where their mother and father come from so they themselves know where they belong.
It is sad but the community is fighting for that now.
Do all your children speak Dinka?
Yes, they do but not that much.
Do your kids feel Australian?
Yes. They do.
Do they want to go back to South Sudan?
They say, 'Yes we can go' but they are not serious.
In South Sudan, is it important to show respect for your elders? Do the young people do that here?
No. Everything is changing.
We don’t mind so long as they have a good education and look after their life.
It is okay. It is not like before.
Do you feel sad it is changing?
We need them to be here, to be Australian. But we also need them to remember our culture.
It is not like in South Sudan where the kids have to help a lot, have to work hard every day.
There is nothing hard to do here because we have washing machines and other things.
And we understand that it is not easy to study here: to go to Year 10 or Year 12.
We have to let them study but they also have to follow our culture and show us respect.
You went back to South Sudan in December 2013. What are the young people like these days back home? Have things changed there as well?
Things have changed there too. It is not like before but the younger generation still has respect for their elders.
When I was there, the daughters of my half-sister and my cousin were very respectful.
They would say, 'Hello Aunty, where were you?' and 'We miss you' and 'We heard about you' because they had not met me before.
They used to collect my clothes and wash them by hand and iron them for me.
There is no running water in the village, so they would go and collect the water, put it on the fire and warm it up.
They would then take the container to the bathroom and tell me, 'Aunty, the water’s there, go and have a shower'.
And I would think to myself, ‘I’m back home’.
Things are changing but they are still keeping the culture and they speak very fluent Dinka.
When I came home I showed my kids a video of these girls who are aged between ten and thirteen years old.
I told them, 'See that little girl there, she is speaking very nice Dinka'.
And what did your kids say?
They just laughed and I said, 'No, you should keep your language'.
Was it a shock for you to go back to South Sudan after being in Australia so long?
It was a big shock for me because I was about nine when I left home. The picture of the village I had in my mind was different to what I found when I got there. Everything was changed.
First of all, when I arrived in Juba, the capital city, everything was so different that I wanted to cry.
And getting to my village was difficult. I took a car and there were no roads to go to the village.
We were driving under bushes and the car broke down more than once.
It took about ten hours to get there. The same distance in Australia would take about 45 minutes.
Was that from Aweil town to the village?
Yes. We arrived at night and when I got there everything about the village was different to how I remembered it.
I sat crying because I didn’t recognise anything. After a few days, I settled down.
People would come and talk to me but I had forgotten a lot of people. I didn’t know their faces but they knew me.
They would say, 'Ah, she looks like her Mum'.
And they were talking to me and telling me stories.
Then I got used to the village and to all the people there.
I stayed for two months and when I came home, I missed them.
Were you sad to leave?
Yes. I was crying when I left there. They just said, 'Don’t cry maybe next time you can come back'.
At that time, there was fighting in Juba. When we came back to Juba, we had to wait two days for our flight.
At night, we used to sit outside because it was so hot. But then the shooting would start and we would run to our room. And then, when everything had settled down we’d come out again because we needed some fresh air.
And then, 'tck, tck ,tck', the shooting would start up again and we’d run back inside.
I thought ‘My God, we need to push this day to be tomorrow so we can get away’.
It was terrible.
How has St Bakhita’s changed over the years?
There has been a lot of improvement. The first time, we put our kids next to us and we studied English.
Now we have nice rooms and volunteers for the children.
What other study have you done?
I have done a Diploma in Business at a private college and a sports coaching course.
What do you think St Bakhita’s has meant to the community?
It has been very important especially for the women. Some of the women when they came here didn’t know how to say 'Hello' or write. For me, it was okay because I could speak a little English and I could understand someone talking to me but I couldn’t write and I couldn’t read well. But some of the ladies had no English but now they have improved. We are very proud of this centre because a lot of women have got so much from it.
And Tresa, Sister Maria and Anna have been very important?
Anna, she is an amazing woman and Tresa and Sr Maria.
If we had any difficulty, they came to us and helped us out and settled everything.
When people were coming from Africa, they would visit them and give them food, clothes and other things.
They were very important to all of us and they did a great job.