June 2017

“Shame on us!”

Protecting our borders overrides protecting the very few courageous people who manage to risk their all to come to Australia, writes Good Samaritan Sister Clare Condon.

BY Clare Condon SGS

In the recent June edition of The Monthly magazine, I read Helen Garner’s reflection on the tragedy of Akon Guode. The article was called “Why she broke – The woman, her children and the lake: Akon Guode’s tragic story”. It left me bewildered and numb as I read about the tragic annihilation of young lives and a woman destroyed by her desperate actions. It all took place in an outer Melbourne suburb.

As Garner explains, in 2015, Akon Guode was a 35-year-old South Sudanese refugee, a widow with seven children. On an April afternoon in 2015, three of Akon’s children – four-year-old twins Hanger and Madit and their 16-month-old brother, Bol – drowned in Lake Gladman, Victoria, passengers in a car that was driven into the water. Their five-year-old sister escaped the car and survived.

Akon drove the car into the lake. Her state of mind was beyond ordinary comprehension. Yet, on May 30 this year, Akon was sentenced to 26 years and six months in jail. Virtually the rest of her life will be spent in prison.

Helen Garner’s account of Akon’s story vividly describes how her life became one of violence, desperation and isolation for both her and her children. They were the victims of a tragic civil war in South Sudan and then the aftermath, which ended in them being refugees in an alien country. Yes, “alien”, here in Australia; alien because her cultural identity, language, and companionship were no longer accessible to her.

The details of her desperate life were spelt out during the court proceedings, particularly by her counsel, Marcus Dempsey. Garner writes:

“Dempsey’s account of his client’s life had a stride to it, and more nuance than the committal transcript offered. Her father had six children with one woman and five with another; the families lived in separate compounds. Guode’s was a love marriage. Dempsey sketched the disruption of their lives by the civil war, her move to Eritrea with the children, while her husband fought, his death. He described the conditions of the walk to Uganda with her children, in the endless column of refugees: the violence of the soldiers, the ubiquity of rape, these historically documented facts.”

This account of one woman’s life has left me pondering the tragic, long-term destructive impacts of war and violence experienced by so many women and children in the world today, forced to leave their homeland seeking refuge and protection in alien countries.

Now I find myself unable even to watch TV news as we are exposed to the horror stories of the continuing devastation of peoples’ shattered lives in the war zones of the world – Syria, the Sudan and Iraq, to name just a few. We peer into the lives of homeless people forced into canvas refugee camps, totally reliant on the goodwill and compassion of strangers. They are a people of the exodus; a people in search of a new homeland. Our viewing from our comfortable lounge rooms is almost voyeuristic.

This week, here in Australia, we as a nation observe Refugee Week. It is an annual week-long reminder of the positive contribution that refugees have made and continue to make to Australian society. It is an opportunity to acknowledge all those who have joined this society and have brought the gifts of their lives, their skills, their cultures and expertise to this country of “boundless plains”. We celebrate all those who accompany them on their journey with welcome, resources and friendship.

Yet, the acceptance of refugees and asylum seekers into our society continues to be a vexed and controversial matter. Those who have sought to come here by sea are labelled illegal maritime arrivals, IMAs – labels which aim to dehumanise desperate people.

The Minister for Immigration and Border Protection and others continue to demonise refugees and asylum seekers by labelling them as such; they are constantly told in various ways, particularly by politicians, that this nation does not welcome them.

They are falsely identified as terrorists. They have been physically and psychologically abused in detention centres in Australia and offshore. They are a homeless generation through no fault of their own.

Akon Guode’s tragic story of rejection, violence and abuse is repeated over and over again as millions of refugees seek protection across the world. It seems our country’s stance is simply one of self-serving selfishness and fear. Protecting our borders overrides protecting the very few courageous people who manage to risk their all to come to these shores.

Shame on us!

Clare Condon

Sister Clare Condon is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She served as leader from September 2005 until September 2017. In 2013, Clare was awarded a Human Rights Medal by the Australian Human Rights Commission in recognition of the Good Samaritan Sisters’ work with asylum seekers, Indigenous Australians and the victims of domestic violence. In 2022, Clare was awarded an Honorary Doctor of the University from Australian Catholic University.

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