The journey from Sudanese boy soldier to successful Sydney lawyer was a road map of resilience for the NSW Australian of the Year. As told by Ben Mckelvey.
Malek, South Sudan
1984: I was born in the village of Malek in 1984. When I was seven, I was conscripted into the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. I haven’t lived in Malek since but I often think of my village. I close my eyes and I can hear the animals, smell the Nile and taste the ugali [maize bread]. It was – and still is – a very elementary life with no electricity, no vehicles and little communication with the outside world; just mud-and-thatch buildings, farming and tribal law.
I didn’t return to my village until a few years ago but I had remembered so much. I found the tree I’d hidden in when the soldiers came and I was very happy to find that my mother was as I’d remembered her.
I try to visit Malek once a year but the village was attacked a few months ago and has now been occupied. The joy and sadness of that village lives inside of me and always will.
1998: When we arrived in Sydney, my [late] brother, John, was told we’d be living in a place called Blacktown and he was deflated. He thought it was [going to be] another refugee camp so he was pretty relieved when we got to the suburb. We had a lot of difficulties but it’s where I learned English, did my law degree and set up my practice, AC Law Group.
It’s also where I learned to live in a multicultural society. Before Sydney, I’d spoken to very few white or Asian people and the only Muslims I’d met were on the battlefield or in prisoner-of-war camps. But in Blacktown, I made friends with all types of people. I’d only ever eaten African food, too, and now I love the multicultural cuisine available there.
Blacktown is also the only place where I lived with John. We had a sometimes fractious relationship but I cherish the time we spent together.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
2016: After being taken from my village, I was marched to Pinyudo, a camp just across the border in Ethiopia. While it was a terrible place, I always enjoyed the company of Ethiopians, and a lifelong interest in the country and the people of Ethiopia started there.
I didn’t get to return to Ethiopia until last year but I arrived with the wide eyes and expectations of a child. I wasn’t disappointed. Addis Ababa is hectic and the traffic awful but the people are exceptionally warm, the food is great and the coffee is probably the best in the world.
Each day, I’d set myself up in a café and write. I think it helped to evoke the vibrancy of Africa. It was interesting to visit the museums and historical sites of the city, too. They gave me a better understanding of the conditions that made the war I fought in possible. ￼
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