International Women’s Day: Akuot Wundit proud of her past

Bachelor of Nursing student, Akuot Wundit, has embraced her past to help a generation of youth in Shepparton.

Being a woman means something simple to Akuot Wundit - having all the opportunities a man has.

“It's knowing you're so capable of doing anything and everything without a man,” Ms Wundit said.

“Coming from a place where that's not the case - I hold onto that so much, I don't take that for granted.”

Ms Wundit's mother was wedded in South Sudan at just 16 years old, and had her first child at 17.

“She didn't go to school, because she was married,” Ms Wundit said.

“Her kids are her life, but she was very young, and that's very much the culture in South Sudan... if they have a chance to send a child to school, they'll send a boy first, and you're expected to cook for your husband and provide.”

Now living in Shepparton, Ms Wundit regularly tells her mother: "I will not be doing that, if he wants to divorce me because I didn't make him a sandwich, feel free.”

“They expect you to be this person who doesn't challenge things, and that's what I want to encourage the youth to do - challenge the norms,” she said.

“I used to be so scared of my dreams because they seemed so impossible for a child like me, from a background like mine.

“But I want young women to have a voice - go for their dreams, even if it's scary.”

Since arriving in Shepparton as a bright eyed 12-year-old, Ms Wundit has not shied away from following her own.

Straight after landing in Victoria, she set out assisting older arrivals with translation in her cultural language of dinka, and worked as a Sunday school teacher at a local church.

Then, at just 16, Ms Wundit became a South Sudanese youth leader in the Shepparton, and helped young migrants balance community involvement with their cultural responsibilities.

Today, Ms Wundit works at African House as a senior coordinator while completing a degree in nursing at LaTrobe University.

“My main passion has always been for people to know Africans and for Africans to know their new home, to encourage better relationships so we can have a cohesive society,” she said.

“Coming to Australia as an immigrant can be traumatising - you don't know anything or anyone, you're at school where nobody looks like you.

“It can be hard to learn English, and even when you do, getting a job can be difficult.”

Born in South Sudan, Ms Wundit moved to Kenya at nine months old.

When she was six, her mother and four brothers flew to Sydney, leaving behind Ms Wundit's sister, who passed away in a refugee camp, unable to receive medical treatment.

“When we first came from the airport, my mother really wanted to go to the toilet, but she didn't know what to say,” Ms Wundit said of their first day in Australia.

“I swear she nearly cried.

“I was holding her hand, and somehow they figured out what was going on and showed us where to go.”

Coming to Australia without a partner and five children in tow, the first few years were hard on Ms Wundit's mother, and on her children.

“When we first came, we were just dumped in Sydney and we had social workers, but what did we understand of what they were saying?" Ms Wundit said.

“With mum not having her license, not knowing English, depending on Centrelink, it was very difficult for her to raise her kids.

“How terrifying for her, as a single parent, not having anyone to support you.”

At school, Ms Wundit grappled with frequent racism and bullying, all the while adjusting to the newness of Sydney's bustling CBD.

“In school, when you're young, you don't feel like all the other kids,” she said.

“I was the only (African) one, kids always used to touch me, touch my hair... I was like ‘oh my god, I should be touching you people, none of you look like me'.”

Ms Wundit still remembered one incident when she got into an argument with a girl, who urged her friend not to throw away food because "all the kids in Africa are starving".

“I'm like - do you know what they would think if they thought you didn't throw your sandwich away because of them,” she said.

“They don't even know you.

“All these things you grow up with, if you're not strong enough to get support, they're going to defeat you.”

Now an adult, Ms Wundit said the fact there were still new arrivals grappling with the difficulties adjusting to a new home drove her work in the community.

“I'm trying to support them when they come here,” she said.

“Getting them groceries, giving them my number, introducing them to people in the community, because I can't think of anything more horrifying than coming and having nobody that you know.

“Everybody deserves to feel part of something, and there were times when I didn't, and I was so different to everyone.”

For Ms Wundit, it was only when she started reaching out to the community, through family development, early childhood development and sports, she began to find her place.

But the dualities of her identity remain a bind.

“It's hard for me, I'm South Sudanese, but I'm also Australian,” she said.

“That's why I try to help youth find that balance, to be an example for the younger ones that if you want to be a part of the community, you've got to be involved.

“It's not them and us, we're a community, and there's very much of that in Shepparton.”

Nevertheless, misunderstandings between immigrants and the Australian community, and the way they played out online and in the media, took their toll.

“Seeing the media perceive Africans as gangs... young people feel like they can't do things because of where they came from and the things they've been through,” she said.

“If you already feel like that, and then you turn on the news and you see that people think of you that way already, you probably think, ‘what's the point, I'll just go be that'.

“I see a lot of kids, that's how they feel and it's bad, it's conditioning them.”

Ms Wundit was not immune to those feelings herself.

“I was bullied at school, I dealt with racism, I didn't feel included, and I was one of the ‘good’ kids,” she said.

“But I had support.

“That's what I'm trying to do, give them support, so they have a chance to be something great, despite the trauma, despite the racism.

“We're not just going to cast people aside and say it's not our problem - it is our problem now.”

Now a young woman, if there is one lesson Ms Wundit has learned, it is "don't carry the weight of the world on your shoulders".

“When I was young I used to be so depressed... I questioned these things, why did we have to leave our home?" she said.

“My sister passed away in a refugee camp when she was ill, and I'd ask myself, why did she have to die?

“Why are there wars?

“You ask all these questions and you're only six years old.

“You can't fix every problem in the world, but you can fix what you can fix - your effort matters, it makes a change.”

This article first appeared in Shepparton News, 6th March 2021