South Sudanese patrols reach out to youth in Melbourne

18 Mar 2017By Sacha Payne


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SBS World News Radio: A concerned group of South Sudanese adults is patrolling Melbourne's western suburbs.



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The elders are reaching out to young people blamed for disruption and violence at local fast food outlets and shopping centres.

"We are not coming to policing, we are coming to create a relationship."

Community Patroller Henry Koor is talking to young people in Tarneit in Melbourne's outer west.

He's one of a team of South Sudanese volunteers who decided to take action after young South Sudanese were blamed for violent and disruptive behaviour in public places.

In one incident in December, police were called to a local fast food outlet after reports dozens of youths were brawling.

Police say there was no evidence of criminal activity and no charges were laid.

But elders were concerned about the anti-South Sudanese sentiment in the community following media reports of the incident.

So the South Sudanese Community in Wyndham Patrolling Team was born.

One of the driving forces behind the patrols, is Jok Mach.

"We're trying to change and tell the other community, that it's not bad things that we do, we do a lot of good stuff, but we're not being reported."

Team member, Henry Koor, says they had to take action.

"We came up with this idea, we say let's do something, let's form a team that could see exactly what's happening. And to find out if that's true or not and we found out that 'yes', there was an issue with young people coming in big numbers."

Henry Koor says part of the problem was simply the visibility of the young African people.

"In Sudanese culture, people share food, so if one of their young person end up with $50, they will end up calling another five people, or ten people to share food together and then what happens when they are in big numbers, the community starts to get scared."

The Chairman of the South Sudanese Community in Wyndham, Richard Deng, says the youths were unresponsive to police.

"These kids are frightened because a lot of them believe that the police are not friendly to them. So we thought as a community, this should be lead by the community leaders, and that's why we're here."

The team is a highly visible presence on the streets in areas young people congregate, until late in the night, seven days a week.

And the initiative has the support of local councillors and police.

Local officer, Senior Sergent Peter Bitton, says young South Sudanese people are often unfairly targetted as being involved in crime, when they are actually just socialising.

He says in one incident, police were called to a park because residents were concerned about a large group of South Sudanese congregating.

He says when officers arrived, it was a scheduled community event.

"The reality is that we have some youth issues, youth crime issues not only here in Wyndham, but throughout Victoria. The perception that it's this group, the South Sudanese group, I would say is incorrect."

Wyndham Mayor, Henry Barlow, agrees there is no evidence of gang-related or other serious criminal activity related to the South Sudanese community in his area.

"There's a perception out there, that young sudanese youth are actually running rampant, which is not the case. Like all young people they want somewhere to hang out, they want to be with their friends. One may lead another one to do something silly and people see this and think well they're actually doing something criminal, they're actually breaking the law in some way. Some may end up breaking the law, but it wouldn't be any different from any other community."

Senior Seargent Peter Bitton believes the community patrols can stop simple loitering, littering or being rowdy, from turning into something more serious.

And it means police are freed up for other work.

"It is early days but what we've been able to see is that we don't need to respond to every incident or every report to us, that some times they can get down there and engage, because a lot of the time there's no criminal behaviour involved and they can get in and just speak to the children or youth about their behaviour and maybe resolve the problems that we're seeing."

After several weeks of patrols, elders say they're starting to see a difference and are hoping to continue to break down negative stereotypes.

Chairman of the South Sudanese Association, Kot Monoah, believes it's about reinforcing community values.

"When we were beginning we were running away literally. At the moment you see a few of them stopping and engaging and interacting with us. We're beginning to put names to their faces and get to know them and obviously getting to know them, getting to identify some of their relatives and they are really receptive. They have lost that communal connection."

Similar patrols have started in nearby Melton, and there are also plans to conduct regular patrols in Melbourne's CBD.

Richard Deng says they hope to stop young South Sudanese from losing their way.

"A lot of these kids are good kids, but if we allow them to stay out that long, there may be trouble, they may cause problems, they may commit crime, and this is what we need to prevent. As community leaders we are worried that young kids age of 10, 11 stay out until midnight, so there is a big concern and that's we need to prevent, we need to make sure that these kids are returned home."


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