Interview: Former South Sudanese refugee leads the way for education and women’s rights
Interview with Anyier Yuol.
Anyier's family fled to Kenya in 1992 when violence forced them out of their homes. Anyier was born in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. When she was just one year old, her mother returned to South Sudan to look for Anyier’s father, and passed away after learning that he had been killed by a land mine. Anyier spent the first 10 years of her life in Kakuma before being resettled in Australia aged 10, where she still lives today. Anyier has become a leader and model, both in the community in her hometown of Sydney, and in Kakuma where some of her relatives still live. As the current Chair of the Australian National Committee on Refugee Women, she is a strong advocate for refugee women’s rights and a fashion model. At just 24, she is an advocate and fashion model.
I quickly realized that education was key to my future - Anyier Yuol
Tell us a bit about your work advocating for refugee womens’ rights.
Anyier Yuol: The Australian National Committee for Refugee Women works to promote peace-building and peaceful coexistence among Australians and resettled refugees who have come to call Australia their new home. We support women – especially refugee women and girls – to better address their needs within the community. We help them access jobs and we build their capacity through skills training. Ultimately, we want to empower refugee women so they are equipped to integrate in their new communities the culture. Many women and girls come with trauma, some have lost families in the war or they have left families behind – as I did. We advocate on their behalf and call on the Government and other actors about what they can do that will allow them to address their own needs and increase their self-reliance.
As a former refugee, a strong female voice and a fashion model, you are a role model for many young women. How do you feel about this?
A.Y.: The biggest shocks I faced when I arrived in Australia as a child, was getting an education. In Kakuma camp, education was a real challenge – schools were overcrowded, school materials were scarce goods – sometimes, up to 20 children shared one text book, and the average student-teacher ratio was 100 to one. When I arrived in Australia I realised education is compulsory. I felt like was being forced to go to school (laughs). This would be a miracle in most refugee camps. But this was transformative and I quickly realized that education was key to my future – that is why it’s at the heart of my advocacy: all children should have access to primary and secondary education. It is amazing to be recognized as a young leader – this helps me to promote education, in particular for women and girls. As for modeling, I realized I was quite good at it (laughs) so I thought I could use it to motivate other young women. I feel strongly about this issue because African women are underrepresented in the fashion industry. That very industry can also be a source of employment for refuges and migrants. Coming from an advocacy background, I thought why not combine what I know about advocacy and advocate on behalf of other refugees who want to work in the fashion industry? (smiles).
Can you give us an example of women who have kind of gotten into the sector with your support?
A.Y.: This year I launched a social enterprise called Miss Sahara – it’s a huge national beauty pageant for women of African heritage. It aims to strengthen women’s leadership skills and self-confidence, and raise awareness of African cultures. Some of the women refugees who have newly arrived in Australia get involved in Miss Sahara and my idea is to create employment opportunities for them in the fashion industry but also to encourage women and men to think beyond it as mere fashion. There can be more to it. You can be beautiful but you also need to think about education. What would you do after the pageant? We not try to encourage these women to build a business aside the fashion industry? So far we have had great results. It served to accomplish three things. One, it encouraged and empowered young women to do greater things; two, it promoted women’s rights and their integration; and finally, it helps them see themselves as drivers of change in their own lives. Many tell me they feel more powerful. The Miss Sahara 2018 winner, Helina Musgun, an Eritrean runner and football fanatic is now empowering other women as a strong role model and participates in conferences on women’s empowerment in Sydney. We are also exploring options to sponsor young women in Kakuma camp through the pageant. I myself have been privileged to be resettled to Australia and I want to use that power and help others make their way towards even greater inclusion in the society.
If we can’t provide quality education to all refugees, how can we equip them to be agents of change or help them rebuild their home countries? - Anyier Yuol
Next week you will visit Kakuma camp, 15 years after your left. It is rather unusual for a refugee to return to the camp they once lived in. Why are you going back? What are your expectations?
A.Y.: I am excited about the visit but also quite nervous. My focus will be on education. In Kakuma there isn’t enough funding for education and the majority of refugee families must pay school fees. But education is a human right. If we can’t provide quality education to all refugees, how can we equip them to be agents of change or help them rebuild their home countries? I plan to connect with some people living in the camp to build a forum for young women and girls, to understand some of their needs. In the future, I hope to use Miss Sahara as a forum for refugees to voice their needs and promote an exchange between refugee girls in Kakuma and the young women who are part of the pageant in Australia. Together they can explore options and support each other to grow and help each other.
By Anouck Bronee and Pauline Haupt