Refugee family find a home in regional Victoria
The rocky granite hills and Grevillia scrub around Ararat are a long way from the flat grasslands of South Sudan.
And the sleepy streets of the former gold rush town are a world away from the brutal violence that has beset the world’s youngest nation.
But one refugee family from the strife-torn African country has found a new home in the quiet western Victorian community.
Michael Dang, wife Mary and their two daughters found jobs, educational pathways and a new peaceful lifestyle.
“Life here is good for us. The people we have met here are very nice and there is a great sense of community,” Michael said.
“Even though we are the first Sudanese and the first refugees in Ararat, everyone has been welcoming and friendly,” he said.
“There are some other communities here – Indians and Chinese people – so maybe in the future we will see more South Sudanese people come here,” Michael said.
The family is part of a the ‘Bridge to regional employment opportunities’ project which aims to support refugee families find jobs, homes and social and educational networks in regional towns.
The family spent difficult years in Gippsland and Melbourne unable to find sustainable work and uncertain about their future after arriving in Australia as refugees in 2008. They came under the Humanitarian Settlement Program (HSP) funded by the federal government’s Department of Social Services.
They left South Sudan because of the civil war there. They fled to Egypt where they were processed as refugees by the UNHCR.
South Sudan gained autonomy from Sudan in 2002 and became the world’s youngest state. But a series of conflicts erupted between the northern Sudanese army and former rebels and between rebel groups themselves.
In 2006, hundreds of people died in fighting around southern town of Malakal, near where the family lived.
Mary Deng recalls the conflict.
“We had to leave South Sudan because of the war there. There was fighting everywhere, just terrible war,” Mary said.
“It was a very difficult journey by bus and train but the UNHCR helped with food and the things we needed,” she said.
Mary and her children made it to Egypt where they stayed with family members for about two years until they were accepted for resettlement in Australia in 2008.
“It was not a quick process and things were difficult in Egypt because we had no income. We waited three years for the papers to be completed and the UNHCR again helped us with what we needed,” Mary said.
Mary says that after arriving in Ararat in May, the peace and quiet of the town is a stark contrast to the chaos and violence of her homeland.
“When I came here I found a quiet place, a nice place to live where everything is easy for my family. The schools are good for my kids and finding work has been easy,” she said.
“We have no problems here. It’s good. I love it. My kids can grow up here and get an education. I have no fear for them,” Mary said.
With the support of migrant and refugee settlement agency AMES Australia, the family moved to Ararat after Michael, a welder and engineer, relocated to the town in February 2020 to take up a job with a meat processing company. He now works with agricultural machinery firm Gason.
Michael says the town has been a boon for himself and his children.
He said some of his kids were vulnerable to falling under the influence of street gangs in Melbourne.
“This is a safer and better environment for the kids,” he said.
“There is a really good future for us here in Ararat. For me, when I came to Australia in 2013 I had to start from scratch and take any job,” said Michael, who worked with the US Embassy and international aid agencies in Sudan.
“But now I am working back in my field, in engineering. We have an excellent life here. The people are very nice, they have accepted me and I’m happy,” he said.
“And I tell them they have a responsibility to do something with their lives. Australia has taken them in and given them safe lives and an education so they must pay that back by becoming good citizens and making a contribution,” he said.
“They can do that here in Ararat,” Michael said.
The ‘Bridge to regional employment opportunities’ is a project supporting refugees and migrants, who have so far struggled to find work and put down roots properly, to settle in regional Victoria.