For South Sudanese youth in Melbourne, basketball is more than a game—it’s a place to belong. In World Refugee Week, Jessica Morris looks at one Salvo church helping these people make Australia their home.
A typical Monday or Wednesday night for Captain Troy Pittaway consists of going to a sports centre around suburban Melbourne and playing a round of basketball with 30 teenagers. They all proudly wear ‘Salvo Heat’ or ‘Berwick Lions’ jerseys and have wide smiles on their faces.
It is evident that the teens feel right at home on the court and in the company of Troy. But this connection didn’t happen overnight, as they have come from one of the most war-torn countries on Earth—South Sudan.
According to the UNHCR, one in every 113 people across the world is either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee. And while numbers on how many Australia take are sketchy as a result of our country’s ever-changing border security laws, we know that in 2013 Australia received 24,300 applications for asylum.
The youth that Troy has taken under his wing have come to Australia as a result of the first two Sudanese civil wars between 1955 and 2013. Most arrived between 2001 and 2006 before the nation declared its independence, and in total, around 24,000 South Sudanese people now live in Australia. Thirty-six per cent live in Victoria, and Troy works with many of these people on a daily basis.
Since they fled, the country has entered a third civil war, and the statistics that accompany the crisis are staggering: up to 300,000 deaths, 3.5 million citizens of nearly 12 million have been displaced, with 1.5 million fleeing to neighbouring countries due to famine, starvation, racial violence and war crimes. On top of this, more than 60 per cent of these refugees are children.
The UNHCR has declared this Africa’s largest refugee crisis, and the third in the world after Syria and Afghanistan. Yet when many of these people have come to Australia, they have not found the safety they long for. Cultural differences, lack of education and racial stigma mean their integration into society is difficult, leading some members of the community to participate in violence and join gangs, like the infamous Apex gang which rioted in Melbourne’s CBD in 2016.
Yet watching these teens on the basketball court paints an entirely different picture of the South Sudanese community to the baseball bat-wielding miscreants portrayed in the media and discussed in water cooler conversations across Australia.
“The UN has advocated sport as a community capacity-building tool, and in my experience, it is one of the best tools available,” Troy told Eureka Street. “Southern Sudanese teenagers love basketball and soccer, and as I look out at the court I see young people experiencing great joy.”
For the past seven and a half years, Troy and his wife Peta have focused their ministry as officers at Berwick Corps (church) on supporting and integrating South Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers. Currently completing a doctorate in Sudanese Youth, Troy’s connection with the community seems natural, and after combining congregations with Noble Park Salvos, their positive relationship with South Sudanese families in the region has thrived.
Joined by Lieutenant Dit Chokeun—who himself lived as a refugee for a decade due to the Sudanese civil war—they lend a hand to help bridge the cultural gap for the South Sudanese community.
“What you imagine an African village is like, [that’s] where they’ve come from,” says Troy.
“A lot of times there’s cultural misunderstanding around the law, so education around the law and what our expectations are in Australia are needed. They have to manage their money, but they’ve never had to do that before. It can be hard and get them into trouble before they realise it’s really important.”
These everyday practices that we take for granted can have disastrous consequences when they are not taught to people settling in Australia, leaving them without a foothold.
So Berwick has implemented legal assistance through Dandenong Salvos and recently began a drug and alcohol program to fill the gap.
The results speak for themselves. Their once purely Caucasian congregation has since become 75% South Sudanese, and Berwick Corps has grown so a variety of cultures, ages and ethnicities are celebrated and young people are championed to become Australia’s future leaders.
Many teens have gained scholarships to local private schools, people are successfully completing the alcohol addiction and recovery course, the children’s ministry is flourishing and many participate in the worship band.
In many ways, Berwick corps has become a reflection of the diverse country Australia actually is. And Troy’s hope is that this is reflected more and more.
“I think the reality is that, number one, we’re a multicultural country. We’re fairly monocultural in The Salvation Army, and that doesn’t accurately represent the Australian community,” he says.
“The Salvation Army was created to help those with the most need and at this time, the way the world is, those in the most need happen to be people seeking asylum and refuge from war and disasters. That’s where we should be; I think that should be our priority.”
As a myriad of teens race across the wooden boards of a Berwick basketball court, they shout at each other in jest and giggle incessantly. These Caucasian and South Sudanese youth have found a home on the court and in suburban Melbourne. They are brothers and sisters—and they are living happily, fearlessly and with great joy.
For them, this is Australia. And as Troy watches them, it’s all he wants our country to be. A place to belong.