Going back: A South Sudanese refugee's journey home

Tom Perry
Joseph Lukudu

Imagine travelling for six years across three countries to get away from your war torn homeland. What would make you want to go back? That's a question Tom Perry put to South Sudanese Australian Joseph Lukudu, who now works for international aid organisation CARE.

I made a long journey. It was a journey of endless eternity. Because I wasn't sure I was going to end it alive. - Joseph Lukudu

The first thing I notice when I sit down to speak with Joseph Lukudu is his careful, considered use of words. Joseph speaks in measured statements. Every word has a reason for being spoken.

A new home from a life in exile

Yet every now and then, the influence of Australia, the country that he now calls home, is easily spotted. When we first met, the Australian in him is unmistakable. Following a tap on my shoulder, I turn to see a man standing in front of me with a wide grin:

"You must be Tom, from Melbourne?" the man says.

"Yep, that's me," I reply, extending my hand, the usual form of greeting here in South Sudan.

"I'm Joseph – from Brisbane. It's so good to see you, my Australian brother!" With that, Joseph pulls in my handshake and turns it into a wide, double-armed man-hug.

Joseph's journey to safety

Like many South Sudanese, Joseph was raised in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan during the many years of civil war that eventually led to the creation of a new nation, South Sudan, in 2011.

In 1996, having experienced too many years surrounded by fighting and the loss family and friends, Joseph and his wife Grace left the home that they'd lived in for nearly a decade. With just a few bags of clothes and possessions, Joseph, Grace and their sons Emmanuel and Paul travelled for days by bus, and then by foot across the border into neighbouring Ethiopia.

But their journey did not stop there. With the threat of Joseph and his young sons being forced to join a South Sudanese militia, they continued on to Kenya. After four days locked in a prison cell in the Kenyan border town of Garissa for entering the country illegally, the family registered as refugees, and ended up in one of the world's largest refugee camps, Kakuma, home to 140,000 displaced people.

There, Joseph took on any opportunity that came his way, determined to improve his family's circumstances amidst the difficult conditions of Kakuma camp. He became a primary school teacher, an agricultural trainer and, eventually, the manager of a day-care centre for the children of fellow refugees.

Journey to Australia

In 2001, five years after arriving at Kakuma, Joseph and his family's application for humanitarian visas for Australia was accepted. A few months later, Joseph, Grace, Emmanuel and Paul were settling into life on the outskirts of Brisbane, Australia's third largest city.

With Emmanuel and Paul enrolled at school, and Grace studying English and taking care of their children, Joseph saw his new start in Australia as a chance to do something he'd never had the opportunity to do before: study.

Using his experience at Kakuma camp, Joseph enrolled in a two-year Diploma in Community Services course, soon transferring to a Bachelor's degree. Within a few years had developed an impressive reputation across the university.

"I was the first African who studied Community Studies in [the Australian state of] Queensland, and everyone was surprised to see that. I became something of an example in the university. They put me on posters: 'This is the work of Joseph, from Sudan.'"

Since graduating, Joseph has worked in call centres for community organisations Anglicare and Lifeline, before moving to a role in disability support and aged care for St Vincent de Paul.

But for Joseph, his fellow South Sudanese countrymen were never far from his mind.

I was making a difference

I could see that I was useful, I could see that I was making a difference. So I said to myself, 'OK, let's go and see what I can do back in Africa.'

In October 2010, Joseph returned to his homeland, the then soon-to-be-independent nation of South Sudan. He worked on an HIV/AIDS prevention program for a local NGO, before joining CARE International in 2012 to oversee the organisation's farming and seed program in South Sudan's Unity State.

Through his work with CARE, Joseph has now helped support hundreds of families with the seeds, tools and equipment to plant, grow and cultivate vegetables in communities where most have very little. With violence and heavy rains having stopped millions from planting their crops throughout most of this year, this work is of critical importance for the coming harvesting period.

It's clearly life-saving work, yet Joseph's decision to leave his family behind in Australia and return to South Sudan cannot have been an easy one.

"When I worked in Australia, I gained a lot of experience. But I wanted to come back; to come and support to help."

I came back because I know how the situation is here; it's hard to lift yourself out of the tough life.

We can change the world

"I now have the skills and the experience. If I can implement those skills here, [South Sudanese communities] will see their lives change."

The challenge facing people like Joseph, who are working to support the people of South Sudan in their time of suffering, is immense. I ask Joseph what he believes is the biggest obstacle is to ending the suffering that so many South Sudanese are currently living through. In typically pensive, South Sudanese style, Joseph pauses to think over his answer, and responds slowly. Yet rather than talk with sadness about the conflict that has crippled his country, Joseph responds with quiet hope and optimism.

"I know if we have the resources, we can change the world, we can change the suffering of the world." He pauses, making sure I believe him.

"We can change it."

With more than 1.3 million people having fled their homes and villages for the bush or to neighbouring countries, and an estimated 1.5 million people facing hunger and malnutrition across South Sudan, I desperately hope that Joseph is right.

Tom Perry's picture

Tom Perry is Senior Media Advisor for CARE Australia