Interview with Australia Day Award Winner – Andrew Gai

6th March 2020

Where do you live, how old are you, what do you do for work?

I am 33 years old and I live in Cranbourne. I currently work as a Therapeutic Practitioner with families impacted by Family Violence.

How long have you been at AV for? How long have you lived in Australia?

I arrived in Australia in June 2006 and I have been at Anglicare Victoria for over eight years now.

What did your life look like when you first arrived and how is it different now?

I came to Australia as a refugee so I literally had nothing and I had to begin my new life chapter from scratch. However, I was full of hope and determination and all of the sudden I was in a land of opportunities and possibilities. What quickly became apparent was how to access the right opportunities. My parents remained in my home country and I had left them four years prior to coming to Australia. I am thankful for my parents because they showed me at a very young age how to make a living just by working hard and forward thinking. I had my small maize garden alongside my parents’ garden a young boy and I also looked after our livestock. So I was ready for the challenge when I arrived in Australia at the age of 20.

I had an indescribable hunger for education and I wanted to finish high school but I was too old to go to school. I started off my studies at English Language School and then I went to TAFE to do VCE. While I was studying, I used to work part time pushing trolleys at the supermarket and I did fruits picking during holidays. Later on at the University, I attended classes during the day and I was working night shift. I used to sleep for 4 – 5 hours on weekdays.

As a young man, being in a new country with totally different culture and lifestyle was challenging but I was lucky I migrated to Australia with brothers and sisters and we kept checking on each other. I was also very fortunate to come across good people in the community and in the church, who were very supportive of me, particularly in finding housing, jobs or help with assignments.

I started from scratch in Australia so I count everything that I have or have been able to do as an achievement. I feel like I have a foundation now, mainly be because God has blessed me with a family and a job where I can make a difference in people’s lives. My hunger has now shifted to being part of bringing about positive social changes in Australia. As a parent I want my children to grow up in a cohesive society in which race, skin colour or ancestral background is not a barrier to accessing any opportunity they which to have a go at.

When did you find out you’d been nominated for an Australia Day Award?

I received a call while I was going home after work and it was exactly a week out from Australia. It was a staff member from Hon. Anthony Byrne’s office and she started by congratulating me for being nominated for 2020 Holt Australia Day Award. The whole thing caught me off guard and I honestly didn’t know how to respond. The first feeling was I don’t deserved this and the may be calling me by mistake… then she asked for my mailing address to post the invitation letter so I thought ok, this is real.

Do you know who nominated you?

It was privileged to have been nominated by Pauline Richards, MP for Cranbourne. Since Pauline got elected in 2018, I have been very impressed by her enthusiastic approach to engage with ‘everyone’ in her electorate. South Sudanese young people in Cranbourne are now very optimistic about their future because they have a local member who give them hope and a sense of belonging to their local community.

What were you nominated for?

I was nominated for my contribution to the local community, particularly the South Sudanese community in the City of Casey.

How did you feel when you were presented with the Award?

Being presented with the 2020 Holt Australia Day Award by Hon. Anthony Byrne MP, was a very humbling experience and I was inspired by the stories of my fellow recipients who have served the community for decades.

Where did the presentations take place? How many recipients were there?

The presentation took place in Hampton Park and there were 37 recipients.

What have you achieved to date within your community?

I co-founded South Sudanese-Australian Academic Society 5 years ago with aim of empowering South Sudanese-Australians, particularly youth to reach their full potentials and make meaningful contribution to Australia. One of our most successful projects has been the University Open Day Excursion which we run in partnership with Future Start Now Inc. The aim is to help young people to stay focused and motivated about their career pathways and aspirations. Many of the young people who have taken part in this project are now studying hard as they want to get into the University to do law, Medicine etc.

Personally, one of my important achievements within my community has to be my opinion piece that was published by The Guardian in January 2018, titled “As South Sudanese community leaders we must give our youth a sense of belonging”. This article was later nominated for the UN Day Media Awards 2018 under the Promotion of Social Cohesion category. I believe my article was just one out of very one-sided hundreds of articles that dominated news headlines about the so-called ‘African Gang crisis’ between 2016 and 2018. The feedback and the commentary made me realised that this article was worth the effort, particularly in this age of “fake news” and “disinformation”. Some of the comments were as follow:

“Andrew’s analysis about how to engage young Sudanese-Australians is an important voice of reason in a debate that is increasingly marked by hysteria and dog whistling. A must-read for all policy makers.” Mark Dreyfus, QC, MP. Shadow Attorney-General

“Andrew wrote a moving and insightful article from the perspective of a person with lived experience of what it means to be a new and highly visible minority being constantly portrayed by others through a deficit lens and how that can impact young people and communities of colour.  He gave voice to those of us who have been rendered voiceless by the powerful and did it with grace, eloquence and deep personal insight”, Zione Walker-Nthenda, Co-founder of Incubate Foundation

“We read your Guardian article and it makes so much sense – I just wish that our politicians would read it and get it”, Phil Johnson, Retired Senior Lecture.

“In a ‘debate’ that seems void of common sense, and racially tinged, we need to reach out to these young people, argues Andrew, that takes the reader to a way forward that, till now, has struggled to be articulated in such a cogent and insightful way”, Paul McDonald, CEO Anglicare Victoria

“Andrew Gai describes how the injustice in racial stereotyping consistently and passively affects every day life for South Sudanese-Australians at the personal, professional and socio-economic levels,” Former VMC Chair, Helen Kapalos

Andrew’s article on the situation facing South Sudanese members in our community in the wake of widespread media reporting of a so-called ‘African gangs crisis’ was sincere, nuanced and educational – particularly for those who may not have been aware of the difficulties new migrants face in gaining access to meaningful work, and the challenges young people endure when they may not feel part of broader society, Dylan Bird, Talks Producer, Triple R FM

What do you want to achieve in the future within your community?

I will continue to be an advocate for my community on issues such as injustice and racism that continue to have negative impact on people’s wellbeing and access to job opportunities.

I will continue to contribute to the betterment of the Australian society. All of us including the Indigenous people are very fortunate to be in this blessed country. However, a lot of people have yet to taste the benefits that Australia has to offer. I made a pledge in my final class of the Masters of Public Policy in 2015 that my goal was to fight for the “in between Australians”, other words, those Australians who fall through the cracks and they only make the news headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Who was there to support you on receiving your award?

I invited a lot people to the Award Ceremony because this was about the community. Those who came included my wife and our two daughters (Ayen 2 and Aluel 4), two of my brothers, five community members and a couple of friends. I really wanted my children to be part of the ceremony because community service involves making sacrificial decisions which can be quite challenging for a young family like mine. I asked the girls afterwards and they said they had fun…of course they did because they had ice cream as it was a very hot morning. We got in the car after the ceremony and Aluel asked me, why did you get the award, daddy? I said that daddy got the award for being busy and Aluel said, oh yeah…busy busy.

Is there anything else you want to share with me about your award/work/community?

Receiving this award has made me want to do more, mainly around social cohesion as the key to address racism and marginalisation in Australia. I am forever grateful to be a South Sudanese-Australian but I am well aware that many people, particular young people from my community do not share my feeling about Australia. Thus, I want to do whatever I can to ensure that our young people can feel at home here in Australia.

I am currently working on a project to create a safe and culturally friendly space for young people, mainly of African background to come and hang out and receive support, e.g. mentoring and career development while they are there. There are very limited services for young people in the outer South East so this project is needed urgently.

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