Refugee lawyer and former child soldier Deng Thiak Adut says Australians should cherish the freedom from fear that comes with living in the country.
Mr Adut arrived in Australia in 1998 from South Sudan, along with his brother, and went on to study law and work as a refugee lawyer in western Sydney, he told the audience at his Australia Day address for NSW.
Speaking on Thursday, he recalled a past speech by Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, in which she said all non-Indigenous Australians are newcomers to the land.
“I wonder what the Gadigal people in 1788 thought as they watched the ships sailing, coming up to their harbour?” Mr Adut said.
“Did they realise that their civilisation was about to be uprooted?”
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Mr Adut recounted his life story – made famous in Western Sydney University TV advertisements, which he said he did to “emphasise how very lucky we are to enjoy freedom from fear, and how very unlucky are many.”
Born as one of eight children in a small village called Malek in South Sudan, Mr Adut was taken from his parents at the age of six and conscripted into the People’s Liberation Army in 1987.
Mr Adut told the audience at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, which included Premier Mike Baird, he could barely comprehend the freedoms he had lost.
“I lost the freedom to read and write. I lost the freedom to sing children’s songs. I lost the right to be innocent. I lost the right to be a child.
“Instead I was taught to sing war songs.
“I was taught to love the death of others,” he said at the Australia Day Council of NSW’s annual address.
He said as a child soldier he was expected to “kill or be killed”, and reflected upon the small things Australians take for granted, such as education, plentiful food and clothing.
“I remember the deadened face and the gaunt skeletal body of one of my nephews lying on a corn sack,” he said.
“I saw too much abuse and death among my friends during the war.”
Denied an initiation into his tribe, Mr Adut said he did not know how it felt to belong until he received Australian citizenship many years later.
“The mark of inclusiveness was denied to me,” he said.
He said Australia opened its doors to him and gave him the opportunity to educate himself.
“How lucky I became. How lucky is a person who receives an education in a free land and goes on to use it in daily life.”
He said he wondered what his fellow child soldier conscripts would have thought of him becoming a lawyer in Australia.
“I grieve for them. For them the freedom from fear was death – I was lucky,” he said.
After arriving in Australia, Mr Adut learned English and completed a TAFE degree in accounting before studying at Western Sydney University and Wollongong University.
He called on every migrant to cherish their new land, but to never forget their origins.
He said all new Australians must put trauma behind them and follow their dreams.
Settled Australians must be wary of allowing “local opportunists” to exploit emotions of fear and doubt.
“What makes this nation one to be proud of is the willingness of most in our communities to be accepting, tolerant, inclusive and welcoming,” he said.
Mr Baird said Mr Adut’s story was of a man who overcame every barrier before him.
“I don’t think any of us could imagine the challenges and obstacles that were put before Deng in his life,” Mr Baird said.
“But, in those challenges, he not only overcame, he found himself here as part of this great country, and he is determined to give back.”