Nyanut Lual's story is similar to that of many Sudanese. Loss and grief, a dangerous journey to Khartoum where life was better for a while. But her experiences there were particularly harrowing and the trauma of that time remains.
Can you tell me a little about your background?
I am Dinka from Aweil.
Do you come from a big family?
Before we were seven: four boys and three girls but three boys and one girl died.
Now I only have my sister and my brother.
How many wives did your father have?
My father had only one wife.
'But one day, the army people came at night. They took me and my husband. They were talking about the SPLA'. You can’t talk about the SPLA in Khartoum. They will kill you straight away.
Where were you living when the Second Civil War started?
We were in Wau. My father was a policeman. They killed my father because they thought he was connected to the SPLA. My youngest brother was four months old.
Did they target anyone else in your family?
The same year they killed my uncle. They came to ask information about the SPLA.
They said because he was his brother, he must have information. They shot my uncle and his wife.
We went to Aweil but the same problems happened in Aweil. We ran again.
What was happening in Aweil?
At that time, they were killing people with fire. They killed a lot of people. They came to set fire to our roof.
My Mum had gone to do the shopping.
It was a good thing I was sitting with the door open. I was playing with my younger brother and sister inside.
And the man, the Arab came to put the fire. I thought to myself, ‘Why does it smell like this?’.
I turned around and saw the man. I got my brother and sister and ran away.
And the man followed us but my Mum was coming from the shopping.
She threw everything down and we ran away together.
The soldiers were chasing us with guns. I was carrying the food and my mother was carrying my brother and sister. They were shooting at us and I fell down in a hole.
Later when I came out, I went to find my Mum and the soldiers came on horses.
They tried to cut me down. I fell down and they cut my leg and then went after other people.
I crawled under the bushes to hide.
When they went away, I came out and found my mother. It was really bad.
They would shoot you in the daytime. You heard the guns.
After that, I slept outside. I didn’t sleep in the room because I was scared that this man may come again.
But in Aweil, if they set fire to the roof, we could make another one. The walls stayed.
At that time, a lot of people ran away to the SPLA.
Was it hard to get from Aweil to Khartoum?
Yes. It was hard. We had a lot of problems on the road. People were walking.
There was no transport. Just the people walking in the night time.
In the daytime, you need to sit in the bush so no one can see you.
People walked at night but we were walking quietly.
No one talking because maybe some people hear the poor people talking and they come to shoot them down.
That was hard, a really bad thing.
From the time my father died, I saw a lot of bad things.
What was life like in Khartoum?
I got married. We stayed there for ten years but then we had the same problems.
We were living in an area where they had Arab people, Muslim people. At night time, we had a lot of different cousins who came to visit. People talking and laughing.
But one day, the army people came at night. They took me and my husband. They took me to the army. They were talking about the SPLA. You can’t talk about the SPLA in Khartoum. They will kill you straight away. They said we were having a meeting about the SPLA. I said that I don’t know information about what they say. Then they put something on my neck. They meant to kill me. They hit me like this. They made me bad thing.
After one week, the priest in Khartoum went to talk to the government and they let me out. After that, people watch my house. When I go to church, they follow me. The Principal at the Catholic school helped me leave Khartoum because any time the army could kill me.
The Principal arranged everything for me and my children. They took us in a car for about five hours and then we got a train to another city to catch a plane to Egypt. They said it would be quicker by airplane because if you go by the river someone could get you.
At that time, I didn’t know where my husband was. My Mum was still in Khartoum.
They took my Mum and said, 'Where is your daughter?'
My Mum said, 'Since the time, you took my daughter I don’t know where she is'.
Then they said, 'Where are the children?'
She said, 'I don’t know'.
And then my Mum kept talking like this and then my sister talking and my brother, then they said 'okay'.
Then the same man made a process for my Mum and my husband. My husband came first and then another process my Mum came to Egypt. It was very hard to leave Khartoum to come to Egypt.
And was life better in Egypt?
Yes, Egypt was better because you have the Sisters. They look after people. They give you food and clothes.
They find you a job to do cleaning. I worked as cleaner for four years in Egypt.
We loved to go to the church to pray, to do the Legion of Mary.
I volunteered for the church. People prayed and we looked after the children.
We did a lot of things with the community in Egypt.
How did you come to Australia?
I went to UNHCR. They approved me. I was really happy. I came in 2002 with my Mum, my brother and sister, my husband and my children. We came together. I would not leave Egypt until we were all accepted to come together.
What were those early days like in Australia?
The Immigration people looked after us. They took us shopping. That time was bad for me because my Mum was sick. They made appointments for my Mum. It was hard because at that time I didn’t know English. Mum had to go to hospital. I had to sign something to admit my Mum.
One day I went to visit her at Westmead Hospital. My brother told me it was three stations to get there.
I walked to the station. It was the first time I got a train. I go to the ticket window and didn’t know what to do.
The man asked where was I going. I gave him the money and said, 'Westmead'.
I found the train but I started crying. People asked me what happened. I couldn’t answer.
When it comes to Westmead, I get off the train. But I don’t know the way to the hospital. I keep walking.
I found the hospital but I don’t know what floor in the hospital she is. I keep crying and praying.
Then I see the nurse who looked after my Mum. I run to her because I don’t want to lose her.
Then I go up to my Mum. I hug her and I keep crying.
Another time, I go to buy the meat and I get lost. I don’t how to ask the way back to the station.
Our community here was very small then. There were less than ten families.
I’m walking all day until I see a black man.
I said to him, 'Do you speak Dinka?'
He says, 'I am Dinka'.
I said, 'Thank God, I have been lost from the morning until now. I don’t know where I’m going'.
No phone, no anything, I am just walking like that.
So he says, 'Where do you need to go?'
I said, 'Lidcombe'.
He takes me to Lidcombe. He pays the ticket.
When we get there, he said, 'Do you know the way to your house?'
And I said, 'Yes'.
That time is a bad time for me.
What were the hardest things?
Two things in Australia were very hard. My daughter was sick at night and I didn't know how to go to a medical centre. My family doctor was closed. My daughter was really sick all the time.
The other thing is that it is very hard if you don’t have English.
It was better for the people who arrived after me because our community was bigger.
The one who helped me a lot was Anna.
I learned where to go, where to buy shopping, what I am doing. But it was really hard.
I met Anna in Egypt. Anna’s husband and I are both from Aweil.
Anna was working with the community in Egypt. I have known Anna a long time.
She opens her heart to work with any one any time. I still work with Anna.
Anna has done a lot for me.
When you came to Australia did you get in touch with Anna straight away?
I phoned Anna and she sent me the money to go to Cairo. Anna helped me a lot in Egypt because at that time I didn’t know Egyptian Arabic because it is different from Sudan. Some words are the same.
When did you first meet Sister Maria?
I met Sr Maria in 2002 because at that time, Immigration didn’t give you beds.
Sr Maria gave beds and blankets to one of my cousins.
My sister did volunteer work with Sr Maria in Ashfield.
In 2003, the community employed Tresa to work with us here. It was Maria and Tresa.
Then it was hard to get the pram up the stairs at Flemington station unless someone helped you. There was no lift. Everything now is easy. Everyone is driving.
How did the children go at school?
Okay, because they started school in Alexandria. They were learning English and Arabic in a Catholic school.
How did your Mum adjust to Australia?
Until now my Mum is sick. They killed her husband and then every day, the government took her and said, 'You have got information about your husband'. And that time, the children died.
My Mum is sick sometimes thinking a lot about her husband, about what happened to our family.
Did you go to school when you were little?
No. When I went to Khartoum, I worked as a cleaner in a high school. I cleaned the office.
I left at 3am in the morning to start my job at 5.30am. Sometimes I made a small shop to sell tea.
I sent my brother and sister to school and I paid for the school fees, for the clothes, for the food because I was the eldest of the children still living.
My sister and my brother can read and write in Arabic. I can read but not write in Arabic because I worked all the time. In my country, if you are not working, you can’t get anything.
How did you learn to speak English?
I did a lot of volunteer work with Australian people and that’s how I started. Then I went to the TAFE. I was walking my son to school and then going to TAFE. It took a long time.
When Tresa started work, I started coming here for English.
When did you first come to St Bakhita’s?
In 2008. I met Denise. She was my first teacher. She taught me English. Then the next year, June was my teacher.
They gave me more information about how to write my name, how to write my address.
Then I was doing sewing.
Then I had a baby and I stopped and I stayed home.
In 2009, I enrolled in OTEN and I came here to do my assignments. Denise helped me.
I told Rebecca at OTEN. I need to go back to St Bakhita’s to do more English.
After that, I was working with children so I did a Certificate III in Childcare.
When did you start working with St Bakhita’s?
I used to help with cleaning as a volunteer. In 2014, I started working here on Thursday and Saturday. I work with Helen and the girls on Saturday. I like working here because I am helping the community.
And I need to open my heart to do anything for Australia.
I need to do something good for Australia because Australia brought me here. I need to do good things.
Do you think St Bakhita’s has helped the Sudanese people?
TAFE is hard. They throw every paper like this one at you and say do it yourself.
But at St Bakhita’s, there is someone to sit with you one-on-one and tell you what this means or that means.
Some people run away from TAFE and come here to St Bakhita’s. You get more information here. But at TAFE, no one has the time to sit with you. They just write on the board and give you a paper to fill like this one.
That’s why St Bakhita’s is so important for us and for our community. We have a lot of people who do diplomas because they are learning at St Bakhita’s. Here people help you. That is better for us.
What do you think is the most important thing for the people when they come to St Bakhita’s?
Every lady needs to keep herself learning. The people come here to learn English because we have a lot of problems.
Sometimes, you don’t know how to help the younger ones with their homework. But if you keep learning, sometimes the mother of a Year One or Year Two will be able to sit down with her child and do the homework.
Before it was difficult. You get a form and you don’t know what is the first name or the surname.
This is why the women need to learn. Now we need to do things ourselves. Now we can go to the hospital or Medicare ourselves. Before I used to have to go a long way to see an Arabic-speaking doctor. Now because I can speak English I can go by myself, take my children and explain everything.
St Bakhita’s is very good for us.
How are your children? Do they understand how many sad times you have had?
Yes, because we talk about it. They ask me questions. I explain what happened. My son has made a book about our family. Every single day, they sit with my Mum. They ask her questions. 'What happened in this time?'
We keep explaining and my son keeps writing to make the book.
He says, 'I’ll make the book about your life. I will keep it so it will show what happened to my Mum, my Dad and my grandfather and grandmother'.
Every single day, they sit down and everyone has a pen.
You know nine, ten, twelve year olds, they ask, 'Grandma, what happened?'
She tells them and they write it down. And then they ask me, my brother and my sister and their father.
How do your children feel in Australia? Do they feel Australian or Sudanese?
They are happy in Australia. I thank God and the Australian people. And I thank you Françoise for writing my history.