New Zealand: A place to call home
With a cheerful handshake and a kiss on the cheek, Abann Yor smiles and welcomes me to the Refugee Youth Action Network (RYAN) Centre in Auckland. He seems genuinely pleased at the opportunity to tell his story. He admits he hasn’t told it for a long time.
Journey to refuge
Abann grew up in Malakal, an Upper Nile State city of what is now South Sudan. The country has been plagued by ethnic conflict and violence for as long as he can remember. Both his grandfather and father were slaughtered by warring militia.
For Abann, the decision to leave South Sudan was obvious, a matter of need over choice. His journey began with five years in Syria, where he was imprisoned for several months while trying to claim asylum. In 2005 the UNHCR granted him urgent refugee status and he was resettled in New Zealand, where he was finally safe to begin a new life with his wife and young children.
Since his resettlement Abann has been busy. He has been involved in several community development projects alongside the Ministry of Social Development and Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. He has worked hard to ensure that the Sudanese community keep their culture alive. In 2013 Abann was elected as Chairperson for the Auckland Refugee Community Coalition (ARCC).
Those left behind
When I ask Abann if he is in contact with his family in South Sudan his expression sinks and his composure is shaken. He tells me “I have lost more than 24 members of my extended family during this latest conflict”.
His younger brother Obaj was living in a city that was attacked by militia. Abann’s contacts say it took 10 days for help to reach the site of the massacre. By the time they did the bodies were mostly indistinguishable; some decomposed and others eaten by dogs. Obaj’s body has not been identified, but he is presumed dead.
“When you go there now, you see only bones,” he says softly.
Abann’s mother, Nyakal, recently fled from South Sudan. She has reached the northern city of Khartoum, Sudan, but without official refugee status she receives no support beyond what Abann can send her. She is elderly and in poor health, with four grandchildren and her youngest daughter in her care. Before reaching Khartoum they spent a month on the road without shelter, running for their lives from the bloodshed and terror in Malakal.
“She needs someone to take care of her. Even if I send money, it’s not enough.” He hopes that the UNHCR will grant her urgent protection and bring her to New Zealand.
“Only God knows if it will ever happen, but I am still trying to find who can help me be united with my mum again. She is my only hope”.
Life as a survivor
When asked, Abann says he wants to tell his story partially to dispel the negative connotations associated with refugees.
“When you’re a refugee you don’t have a country or anywhere to go, but when you’re resettled this is another stage in the journey”. He wants people to know that at this point refugee status comes to an end. “It is part of your background, but not who you are now.”
It is saddening to be labelled a ‘refugee’ by society indefinitely; “I’m part of this society now. I have a country where I belong [New Zealand]. This is my home and I am proud of it,” he says.
More importantly, Abann wants to tell his story because he hopes that the international community will wake up to the scale of atrocities occurring in South Sudan. From the stories he has heard Abann fears the escalating violence and ethnic slaughter could soon amount to genocide.
Soon after our interview, Abann calls with terrible news. His brother’s co-workers have confirmed Obaj’s death. During the attack Obaj was shot; along with his injured colleagues he swam down the Nile. He was unable to make it all the way. He told them to go on without him.
Understandably upset by the news, any glimmer of hope Abann had for his younger brother is extinguished, and now he worries for the four children Obaj has left behind.
But he needs us to tell his story, now more than ever.