The assistant bishop in the Diocese of Melbourne, Philip Huggins, has come to the defence of the South Sudanese migrant and refugee community in the Australian state of Victoria, after a local “media frenzy” about African gangs. There have been a number of high-profile crimes blamed on groups of young African men, including assaults and vandalism, mainly in Melbourne’s western suburbs. Some matters are now before the courts, and politicians have been quick to weigh-in with their thoughts. Coalition MPs in Victoria say that African gang crime is out of control, and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said that “people are scared to go out at restaurants of a night time because they're followed home by these gangs”.
“There are very many fine people in the Australian South Sudanese community doing their utmost to be good citizens in a new land,” Bishop Philip said in a message published in his Oodthenong Episcopate newsletter. “As I have listened to their stories over the years, the traumas they have endured but have survived in order to give their best, I am filled with deep respect for them.
“Even on Tuesday, in understated fashion, some were telling me how they’d just come back from Africa after funerals for murdered siblings. On top of all this, now they have to deal with a media frenzy over a few of their children who have gone off the rails.
“As if the anguish of seeing some of their children in trouble was not enough, they are dealing with negative stereotyping of their whole community. ‘Our youngsters feel frightened now to even go down the street to buy milk because of the things people say to them.’
“Away from the media, in our mean-spirited suburbs, cowards call out from cars as they walk along.
“On top of this we have had senior political leaders fan these negative stereotypes for their own miserable political purposes. Seeing some electoral advantage, in their vanity, playing with the most dangerous of fires, they have sought to amplify the fears in the community.
“One talks even of the dangers of going out to dinner!”
Bishop Philip convened a meeting last week, bringing together clergy and lay leaders from the South Sudanese community in the diocese. It proposed solutions to prevent future problems for young South Sudanese, deal with those already in trouble with authorities, and seek meetings with political leaders and police.
There are also plans for a national conference of South Sudanese community leaders to discuss major issues and find agreed solutions, in partnership with governments and wider civil society, and for “counter-narrative” advertisements to be produced, especially for social media.
Next month (Sunday 4 February), an ecumenical service of worship for the South Sudanese community will be held at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne.
In his newsletter message, Bishop Philip said that many South Sudanese had arrived in Melbourne traumatised and unprepared for the dissonance between secular Australian culture and their own.
One South Sudanese church leader at the meeting had told him that “The culture of Australia has made us the enemies of our own children” and cited a number of difficulties, including with police and child protection agencies, language and employment.
“There was much elaboration of these matters as folk restated their efforts to settle well without the resources to properly keep everyone together,” he said. Proposals for dealing with the crisis were suggested “after some expression of the frustration of being relatively powerless and not feeling heard as the train wreck approached, as kids prematurely exited school into drugs, alcohol and the negative self-identity that leads to gangs and prison.
“Some parents now wish they’d never come to Australia. (They) would prefer they’d died in South Sudan, such is the shame and grief of losing their kids in these ways, and feeling powerless to prevent this happening.
“Then to now feel humiliated in the media and the streets, as if they are all criminals!”
The meeting suggested that the church should better resource the South Sudanese community’s large Sunday Schools, provide youth camps and more Homework Clubs for a positive transition from primary to secondary school. Capable South Sudanese clergy and laity should be provided with a stipend or salary so that they could work with these young people, other than as volunteers.
“The State Government needs to fund more teachers’ aides, South Sudanese liaison staff in schools to be advocates for their kids, countering racism,” he wrote. “The State Government needs to resource parents to be better teachers of their kids at home.”