Bendigo / The Lost Boy finds refuge and a bright future in Bendigo

Lost Boy. Child Soldier. Refugee. These are the bare facts of Galou Mabior’s life. He needn’t say any more to convey the horrors and challenges of his younger years, but he does. For Galou, it’s important for others to know something of a refugee’s life, to help build on the understanding essential for the peaceful multicultural society he has found in Bendigo.

“I speak to many people about Bendigo,” says the 43-year-old La Trobe business student. “It’s one of the best places to move to because it’s small, it’s quiet and people in the community are very friendly. They look at themselves as one community, regardless of where you come from or your colour. This is what I really noted about Bendigo.”

Galou came to Australia on a humanitarian Visa on November 25, 2003. “I got that chance because my uncle had a friend in Australia,” he says. “I had to send my life history. The government of Australia made an assessment and I was accepted.”

A child during civil war in Sudan

The first defining moment of Galou’s life happened in October 1987 when he was 11 years old and living in a village in Sudan. Government and rebel fighting erupted in his village. “Shooting, burning our homes, killing. We were running randomly at night. When you hear a gun sound at night, you run. In the morning we find everything is lost. There is no food, no shelter, no luggage, and there is no way to go back. We have to look for a way we can salvage a life.”

Galou had become separated from his parents and four siblings, so joined the estimated 20,000 Sudanese boys left to fend for themselves. “We were given the name The Lost Boys. We were kids without our parents,” he says.

Galou walked with the thousands for a month, from Sudan to Ethiopia, surviving off fruit and leaves and wild antelope and gazelle when it could be hunted, before stopping in a place that would become his home for the next three years. It was a nothing place, which would become the Pinyudo refugee camp, built up from mud and grass by the boys that inhabited it.

Death and danger in a camp

“Life was not easy,’ he says. “It was hard. At that stage there were no UN agencies bringing food or other shelters. We lived there for two months without enough food.” During that time just one aid truck arrived and supplied maize to feed each person around 20 grains per day. “We would survive on that until the next day,” he says. “After two months the UN started to bring food, tents and medicine to us.”

It’s estimated around half of The Lost Boys didn’t survive that time. They died of starvation, exhaustion, and mental illness. Galou says depression and anxiety was rife. “When you’re a little kid you think about your mum and dad and whether they are alive. That’s what makes life hard. At night it comes as a dream. And if you’re lucky, you survive, if you’re not lucky, you die.”

In this campy, Galou and a number of other boys, were taken by rebels in the night. He served the following two years as a child soldier. “It was not my choice – I was forced to do so.”

He eventually escaped, back to the refugee camp, to the protection of the United Nations and Red Cross. Despite the day-to-day challenges of survival, education was a priority in the camp. “Now we start growing bigger. We start a school under the tree. We start writing on the floor, writing the alphabet. The teachers come and ask us to write an ‘A’ and we write it on the floor, in the soil. UNICEF gives us exercise books and pencils.” Galou remembers sharing one pencil among three students.

“We start building our own classrooms, we make our own desks by mud,” he says. It’s in this school that Galou discovered his love of mathematics, which would later lead him to study accounting at La Trobe.

Fleeing fighting again

In 1990 African rebels took power of Ethiopia and the camp was no longer safe. The boys made their way, by foot, back to Sudan, again loosing many lives along the way. Galou recounts trying to cross the Gilo River, where many children were shot or drowned.

Galou made it to a camp where he received international aid, but this relative security was shattered again late in 1991 when fighting erupted and the children were on the move once more, headed for Kenya.

Galou settled in the Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya, where he was assigned to “Group 46”. The camp was in a dessert. No trees, no water, no rainfall. Residents and aid groups built it up to a stage where the children could again attend school. Galou received his High Primary Certificate here in 1996. He later graduated from Kauma Secondary School in 2000, three years before arriving in Australia.

A new life in Australia

“The life of a refugee and the life of a person in a developed country is so different. Very, very different,” he says.

“Even though there were some challenges, I know I have come somewhere very good. I got a good place to sleep, good water, electricity, hot water to take a shower. I start meeting people from different nationalities and some Sudanese people who came here before me.”

A case worker in Melbourne helped Galou navigate Centrelink, Medicare and job agencies. They showed him how to go shopping in a supermarket, how to use gas appliances, even how to behave in the community.

“It’s a culture shock,” Galou says. “In our culture, if I’m sitting with you, I don’t directly make eye contact. In Australia if you do that people think you’re hiding something and you might be a criminal, but in our culture it’s a sign of respect.

“Also, we live in groups and we walk everywhere together. Groups of ten or more. In Australia if you’re in a group people think you’re going to attack them or do something. That’s another thing we didn’t realise.”

Galou’s first consideration in Australia was to find work. “I thought I better look for a job so I can help support the people I left behind,” he says. He began a factory job in Melbourne, which paid $600 a week, which he shared with many. Galou sent money to pay for food, water and medical expenses of friends in Kakuma. Some money he used to pay people to look for his parents and siblings.

Finding family

“In 2007 I went to Sudan to look and I found them,” he says. They were living in a swamp area near his childhood home town. “It was amazing. We didn’t believe each other. That was an excitement and they brought out the bull for the celebration and killed it. Many villagers came and we celebrated together.”

During that visit, Galou discovered Care International, which was working in his childhood town, was an Australian agency, “ I was proud about that. This is my country and I’m proud of Australia.”

Galou hoped to bring his youngest brother to Australia. That didn’t eventuate, so instead he paid for his education. He now works for an NGO in the South Sudanese capital of Juba.

Galou’s father passed away in 2013 and his mother in 2016. The following year one of his sisters and her seven children joined him in Bendigo. His nieces and nephews are all attending local primary and secondary colleges, and one is studying at TAFE.

Committed to helping

Galou has chosen to study a Bachelor of Business, majoring in Accounting, to use his natural aptitude for numbers to help the Sudanese community in Bendigo. He says they will benefit from small business and taxation assistance.

He says while he savours the safety and freedom of living in Bendigo, his mind is always in Africa. “The only thing mentally I have is despite the different times I’ve passed through there are still people living in that situation. I am here in this beautiful country, but what about those people who are still in that situation now? That is my disturbance.”

On making it through

The majority of The Lost Boys who survived are still in the camp. Galou reflects on why he lived and made it out. “I don’t think that was my making,” he says. “Maybe it was God’s protection, with the help of the UN and well-concerned groups for humanity, helping people who were unable to help themselves. That’s what made me survive. And my strength. If you consider yourself weak, you will die. If you make it through where you are, you will live on that day.”

This story by Lauren Mitchell first appeared on the La Trobe University Bendigo campus blog on June 20, 2019