Nyawech Fouch has become a recognisable figure in the South Sudanese community this year, after becoming a fierce opponent of the Australian government’s ‘African gang’ rhetoric.
“They have made us feel powerless, and make us feel like a target, and generalise our whole community,” she told SBS News.
These feelings of powerlessness are not new for Ms Fouch, who lost her cousin in a racially charged attack in 2007.
“His death impacted my family greatly. Everybody was afraid for their children, and for their siblings.”
“For 11 years we didn’t speak out, because when my cousin died he was criminalised,” she said.
Ms Fouch was one of many young South Sudanese leaders who sat on a panel on Thursday, alongside their Indigenous counterparts.
Hosted by Melbourne University, it was the first formal meetings of the two minority groups, in a bid to discuss justice, challenges, and the resilience of their cultures.
Ms Fouch said she was inspired by the stories of Australia’s First Nations Peoples.
“Having this discussion with the Aboriginal community has taught me that we need to work together and we need to empower each other to do more about the problems impacting our community,” she said.
Executive of the Koori Youth Council, 26-year old Indi Clarke told SBS News there was great power in knowledge sharing, and supporting each other.
“For one of the first times ever we’re genuinely listening, valuing and acting on the voices of young people who are behind the scenes, and who are normally silenced and unheard,” he said.
In his role at the Koori Youth Council, Mr Clarke articulates the stories, needs and desires of young Indigenous men and women in a way that policymakers can understand.
He said young leaders from both communities have to use their platform to make their voices heard and push for change.
“Us in Victoria, we can lead the way, and lead the country to ensure that we don’t see this again. So it doesn’t happen again to another generation of our children,” he said.
It was an emotional experience for many on the panel, as they retold stories of racism and struggles with identity.
South Sudanese man Sebit Gurech spoke of how “racism isn’t new”, but that having these open conversations were.
“It’s nice to know that someone has been in the same world that you’ve been in, and when you’ve tried to tell other people about that world, those people will say it doesn’t exist,” he said.
“But it does.”
All panellists agreed they wanted to no longer focus on the negatives, and highlight the achievements of the young people in their communities, reviving a sense of hope, resilience, and pride.
Mr Gurech said “unity” is their greatest weapon.
“I know how that feels, that pain you’re describing. I know what you’re talking about. There’s this connection between us that seems… It’s not something that can be explained.”