Refugee’s long journey to safety
When Celian Kidega fled South Sudan at just 17, he was setting off with his classmates on a long and hazardous journey on foot through jungle, war zones and across national borders.
It was the start of an even longer journey that has seen him find a new home in Australia, raise a family and work to help other displaced by conflict and persecution.
Celian is the co-founder and Director of Magwi Development Agency Australia – a foundation working on issues of education and female empowerment in South Sudan and Uganda.
The foundation, which was created in 2018, has founded a school that now employs 16 teachers full-time, has 550 students; and, has graduated three groups of students with Year-12 equivalent certifications.
It also sponsors 25 women in Ugandan refugee camps, where it campaigns against forced marriage and assists women with the costs associated in breaking such arrangements.
Back in his homeland, it was Celian who began his journey of displacement under the care of a woman.
“The rebels attacked and took the villages first, making things very insecure, so that is why people such as me were displaced to the city where the government could provide some safety,” Celian said.
“From the village to Juba, my sister went with us and took the younger brother of mine and looked after us,” he said.
Like many others, the family were caught up in the early stages of one of the longest and bloodiest of Africa’s many post-independence conflicts.
Over its twenty-two-year duration, the Second South-Sudanese Civil War claimed the lives of more than two million people, and displaced more than four million at least once, and usually repeatedly.
“The first war was from 1955-1972, the second war was from 1986-2005, between the government and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA),” Celian said.
“The main cause of the war was that the South Sudanese people felt very marginalised by the mostly Islamic government in Khartoum, who took away South Sudanese autonomy. So, many people joined the rebels leading to a high-intensity war and the displacement of many people.
“These issues have their roots in the negotiations for independence (from joint British/Egyptian rule), which led to the marginalisation of the south with poor systems of health and education,” he said.
While the rural areas’ isolation made them a first easy target for the SPLA, the group’s ambitions and brutality were always destined for the cities too.
“The rebels started attacking Juba, bombarding the town almost every day, and the government had changed the policy so that everybody had to learn in Arabic, making it very difficult for those who hadn’t learnt it,” Celian said.
“Sharia law was also being implemented, and there was the policy of forceful military training after completion of high school,” he said.
“I participated in organising a group of my schoolmates to leave. It was organised by a group of students. It was an organic movement among the people.
“I was a part of that group, and this put me in a lot of danger, and as a part of that my father was arrested after I left. But we got out of Juba successfully,” Celian said.
Starting in Juba, South Sudan, Celian’s journey by foot took him through more than 500 kilometres of jungle and rebel-held territory to Uganda. Most of the group never reached their destination.
“From Juba we cut through the bush into the villages, making our way towards the border,” Celian said.
“At first, the main threat was from the government because it didn’t like people defecting to rebel territory. We were very fortunate in our group – there were people who tried to follow us only an hour later, many were arrested and we don’t know what happened to them.
“There was a lot of hardship walking, with the lack of food and water, just walking through the bush and drinking any kind of water we could get on the roadside. As we walked, we saw that all the animals had left the jungle because of the fighting,” Celian said.
Despite keeping to the villages, the group was unable to avoid detection.
As the death toll for both sides steadily climbed, the SPLA began to utilise all possible sources for potential soldiers, including children.
When the student-group’s journey was waylaid by the rebel group they were at first met with kindness in the form of food and water.
Yet the rebels’ true intention for the boys was forced conscription, to put guns in their hands and psychologically mould them from students into killers.
“The whole group was conscripted by the rebels, but I escaped,” Celian said.
“I was successful in escaping because my elder brother was in the rebel forces, so he was responsible that we got in the truck to the training camp. It was not a good place to be, people were being asked to kill, to be in danger.
“The night when the leader came to take people in the truck, those people snuck me out of the camp with them and three friends of mine. They brought some military raincoats and put us in them, then had us walk with another soldier carrying a gun and we passed through the gate and out. We walked out like we were going for a smoke, but it was a sneak-out,” he said.
Celian had managed to slip through the cracks, and while he could have been beginning his training with the rest of the group, he was instead back in the jungle, fixed once more upon the safety of Uganda.
This time, he and his friends were successful, and were taken from the border area to the UN refugee camp in Adjumani.
Here, he recounts, the conditions were comfortable, and he was able to feel safe again on a block of land where he could grow his own vegetables and mingle peacefully with the local people while receiving support from the UN.
But it was not a home, just another temporary encampment liable to the volatile political shifts of the region at the time, and thus Celian was once again forced to flee the activities of an armed militia.
“The political situation was very unstable. It’s not a new thing, most of this area of this Africa has spent a lot of time in war – since the 60’s there has always been war in one of those countries, it flip-flops. One will always be in chaos. There is always war in one of those areas, because of people in power trying to gain influence for the resources, supporting rebels instead of marketing for peace or another approach,” Celian said
He said the Lord’s Resistance Army, a heterodox Christian militia groups, would attack people along the road between Kampala and Adjumani.
Because of that it reduced the movement and communication and it caused starvation; because the UN vehicles could no longer come with the food. We lost our support and life became quite difficult in the camp,” Celian said.
He then journeyed to Kenya, with his next place of stable residence the infamous Kakuma refugee camp, which at the time housed refugees from 7 different armed conflicts in the region.
Today, it is the world’s biggest refugee camp, with more than 185,000 residents. Compared to the lush jungle of Uganda, however, the arid and harsh climate of the region gives the refugees there little means of supporting themselves.
“Kakuma is a desert, so you rely purely on the UN to distribute what you need,” Celian said.
“In Uganda it is a jungle, so it was very easy to grow food yourself to supplement what was provided, but in Kakuma if no food was distributed you did not eat, and water was itself a constant issue,” he said.
With the malnutrition and ethnic violence that too often characterises Kakuma, it is common for people to spend years there, stagnant as they await the peace they need to go home.
Celian did not become of these people. While the rebels had intended to make him a soldier, he remained a student. To rebuild his life, he turned once more to education.
Through the Dominican Order of Friars, Celian begun training in religious and philosophical studies at the Consular Institute of Philosophy in Nairobi.
Here he learnt English and became a missionary, skills which would directly inform his eventual success in trans-national activism as well as migrant community engagement here in Australia.
Like most refugees at the time, the invite to come came from a cousin, who agreed to sponsor Celian’s migration to join him in Perth in 2002.
At the time, Australia’s migrant services were just a fraction of the network available now, and the onus was instead upon the migrant’s sponsor to integrate the individual.
“The sponsor had more responsibility for 202 visas then, my cousin took me to Centrelink for registration and everything,” Celian said. “The only thing available from settlement providers were beds and everything, which I didn’t need.”
“When I came down here, I enjoyed the support of a catholic group called a group of brothers. Through the Church, they gave me a job counting all the money on a Monday to be taken to the bank just because I was a member, four weeks after arrived, and helping out with the church,” he said.
He then moved again to study Social Sciences at the University of Tasmania, majoring in Public Policy and Human Resource Management.
It was here that he was first engaged in community work. The University of Tasmania utilised Celian’s lived experience towards remedying a specific issue they were facing- keeping young migrants engaged in their studies as they struggled with issues of integration.
Celian presented to them as an equal, with shared experience he himself was succeeding in, and the challenge established his passion for community engagement.
“I would go house to house interviewing people about their settlement experience,” he said.
“I enjoyed this work. When I finished in 2006, I wanted a job anywhere within three months. I did not mind where, but this was my mission, to be employed quickly and begin to work.
“I achieved this with the Australian Refugee Association in South Australia. I worked there for 8 years in several roles. When I started in 2006 it was as a case worker, then a training officer, then as an elite training office in cross-cultural communication, competency, profiling and public speaking,” Celian said.
With time and opportunity, Celian has continued to steadily develop his impact, working across various organisations as he looked to contribute.
“Eventually, I became involved with AMES Australia in 2017,” Celian said.
He now works as Case Manager with migrant and refugee settlement agency in South Australia.
“I was also very involved with the rotary club. I was the president there until a year ago, as a business director for all community interactions and local projects, contacting team leaders and directing them in their activities,” he said.
For his contribution to the Rotary Foundation of Australia, Celian has been awarded the Paul Harris fellowship- just recognition for a man who has directed his own hardship not into anger but to alleviating the hardships of others.
Amid all his achievements, however, he is most proud of the Magwi Development Agency Australia, which he founded in 2008 to help his countrymen and women back home, connecting his work to his own struggle and identity as a South Sudanese refugee.
“Our focus is on 18 and under, but there are instances where we wrk with young women as well on the aspect of education. We work with women who are facing violence, and we campaign to end forceful marriage. There have been instances where there is an individual who has been forced into marriage, and we pay the compensation to the family to bring her back to school,” Celian said.
“There must be payments made to free her from this situation, and here we find the opportunity to help her,” he said.
For Celian, his mission through Magwi will always be in tribute to the care he received from his sister, and his understanding of what would never be provided to her because of her gender.
“My sister stayed in Juba until the war ended and has now returned to the village. Her name is Luci Anyiri,” Celian said.
“During all this time of struggle and running, my mum has passed away and Luci looked after us. She never got a chance to go to school, so in 2004 when peace was coming to South Sudan, I thought I should contribute something to appreciate and recognise her, and also acknowledge that our culture still doesn’t give opportunity to girls,” he said.
For Celian himself, today he conducts his philanthropy from his home in Adelaide, where he lives with his wife Naa Koshie, as well as his fifteen-year-old daughter Esther and eleven-year-old son Jeremiah.
After moving first for safety, then to give from his knowledge and lived experience, Adelaide is the first place he has allowed himself to become comfortable since leaving his village as a child.
“I call this place home, we are settled,” he says. “We are happy.”