"I can't leave my Grandma and the little kids to die."

If this was a story about one family, it would be uplifting and disturbing in equal measure. It is in fact emblematic of many refugee family stories, and a salutary reminder that the African families settled in Newcastle retain close ties with those at home and are profoundly affected by events there. Dominican Sister Diana Santleben of Penola House spoke to Trazia Akec of Newcastle, whose daughter Ayen Dong is, at the time of writing, in South Sudan. Ayen travelled there to reconnect with the extended family she left as a very young child. Trazia takes up the story…

"I can't leave my Grandma and the little kids to die."

Ayen came to Newcastle as a refugee in 2004 with her family and had really become another ‘Aussie kid’. She attended Corpus Christi, Waratah, and last year completed Year 9 at St Pius X High School, Adamstown. Ayen is the eldest girl in a family of eight children – mostly boys – so her home life is busy and without too many luxuries.


Ayen went to South Sudan to visit her grandmother and the rest of her family before Christmas. Her older brother, Matur, had been the year before and had such a fantastic time reconnecting that Ayen was looking forward to a similar experience. She left Australia on 22 December and flew directly to Juba, the capital of South Sudan. My sister, Angelina, was to meet her but she never arrived. We have no idea if she is alive or dead. She had left five children at my mother’s and went to collect Ayen with her two babies. We have not heard a word since.


Ayen phoned and told me that no one was at the airport to meet her so I phoned my cousin John. He met her at the airport and took her to my mother’s house in Juba. When she arrived, they found Grandma with the five kids, alone and crying. There were dead people everywhere and no one had come to take their bodies after more than a week. Grandma is old and sick. She has very bad arthritis and can only walk a little; pain fills her life. Grandma was so scared – for her family; her daughter, Angelina, who had disappeared; the terror of the killing. People have run away, people have died, people are hiding in the bush. Ayen quickly saw that she was young and fit and could help Grandma and her little cousins.


She phoned me and said they couldn’t stay there; it was too dangerous. I told her to go to the UN compound and be saved, but she refused because, “I can’t leave my Grandma and the little kids to die.” She is so brave, I am proud to call my daughter a hero.


She told me that if I could get some money she could take them to Kampala in Uganda. Normally it would be a journey of about nine hours; it took them three days.


I told her I would find someone to help us with money. I knew it would cost a lot – tickets for everyone to travel from South Sudan would cost about US$1300, and then a refugee stamp at the border is US$50 per person. Another $200 would be needed to get to Kampala. I went to see Sr Diana at Penola House with other families needing help to rescue family members.


Ayen was back in Juba hiding under the bed with Grandma and the children. They had eaten nothing for days. All they had was a jar of dry peanut butter and some water.


I was put in touch with a soldier whose duty was to look for people trapped in their houses. He went to the house and found Ayen, Grandma and the kids and drove them in an army motorbike with a sidecar to the base where they would be safer.


When money arrived from Sr Diana, John (my cousin) brought it to the base. The soldier took everyone to the bus station, paid their fares, then paid someone to watch over them.


Ayen left all her luggage behind and just wore her backpack. Grandma and the kids had nothing. The soldier took Grandma to the plane and Ayen to the bus. Because Grandma is a Dinka (ethnic group) elder she had traditional face marking, and would have been recognised as they passed through the rebel area and shot, or worse, so she had to be flown to Kampala while everyone else went by bus.


Ayen and the kids pretended to be Aussies, with no Dinka language and Australian names. The kids had no papers, but no one bothered because Ayen was obviously an Aussie kid with an English language passport. That was their protection. She trained the kids and they were all ready to say, “We’re Aussies, mate. We went to visit Grandma for Christmas but now we are getting out and on our way back to Oz.”


The bus was stopped by the rebels at Numile. They were all checked to see if anyone had missing bottom teeth. If they were Dinka elders, they would have six missing. The kids got away because they had no evidence of their tribal ancestry. They were really terrified of the rebels because they had seen many dead people as they looked out of the bus windows, and thought maybe they would be next. Some people were taken off and shot because they answered the rebels’ questions in Dinka. Thank God, Ayen said to them, “I only understand English”, so they let her go.


When I knew they had arrived in Kampala, I phoned a man who had been recommended, Double Alundit, and he picked them up and took them to the house of someone he knew. He stayed with them for two days and helped them to look for somewhere to live. Sr Diana gave me further funds which I sent to Double and he took them to find a two-bedroom place and buy some mattresses and food.  They are safe in Uganda but my daughter is now missing school because she can’t leave her Grandma and cousins alone. Grandma knows no English and can’t even manage to go to market or cook so Ayen is alone with her responsibilities. We can’t find out whether Angelina is still alive.


I have a brother in the north of Sudan. If we could find the funds, my brother, his wife and children could fly from Khartoum to Juba, then go across the border to Uganda and take responsibility for my Mum and the children until there is peace in South Sudan.


At the time of writing, Ayen is still in Kampala although of course her family hopes she can return home, and to school, soon.



Recently Bishop Bill Wright launched an appeal in the diocese to support Sudanese families assisting their relatives in dire straits in South Sudan. As Bishop Bill wrote, “One of our Newcastle Sudanese families has four nephews who have been kidnapped on their way to school and are now probably dead. Another lady says she is desperate as her grandmother was beaten in her house. She says the soldiers will be back. She needs to be evacuated. Al Jazeera and the BBC World Service have withdrawn their reporters from South Sudan.”


The appeal has raised $20,000 and this is being wisely administered by Penola House. If you would like to contribute, please contact Manager, Fundraising and Donor Relations, Mark Lees on 4979 1124 or E mark.lees@mn.catholic.org.au. Please visit the Penola House section of this website for more information.


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