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Once deemed unfit for science, this former refugee is helping fight COVID-19 in Victoria

Abul Manyuon at the pharmacy Source: supplied

Abul Manyuon Mayen came to Australia as a child refugee. She is currently working with the Victorian government as a public health officer, helping manage the state’s health response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a young refugee girl, Abul Manyuon Mayen dreamt of changing the world through science as her family moved from South Sudan to Ethiopia, then Kenya, and eventually to Australia, in search of good life and education for their children.

Ms Mayen was born during the war between South and North Sudan.  Her family sought refuge in Ethiopia but were forced out of the country in 1991.

During the subsequent years, she and her siblings studied in Kakuma Refugee Camp, as the family moved to Kenya.

She was offered a scholarship by Jesuit Refugee Service to continue her secondary studies at a secondary school in Kenya. Life in the refugee camp was not easy, especially for girls who had to do household chores besides school.

“Life in the camp was pretty much like what you see today on television; with a shortage of basic human needs like food, shelter, water, health services, and being a girl just added another layer of burden on top," she says.

“It was almost obligatory to engage actively in domestic duties from a very tender age, unlike our male peers.”

Abul and professor during the graduation
Abul and professor during the graduation
supplied

Then the family arrived in Australia in 2006.

“Australia finally looked like the home we had been searching for,” she says.

She enrolled in Year 10 at a public school in NSW.

The following year, she wanted to study biology, chemistry, physics and advanced maths. She says she had never thought someone would judge her ability based on her background.

“I was told that I could not do these subjects because first, ‘you are new in Australia and second people who look like you have done badly in these subjects’. I was told to study general science instead."

“The very people that I was supposed to rely on to guide and shaped my path in education had already made up their mind of what I was capable of based on how I looked. This experience almost broke me,” she told SBS Dinka.

She was eventually allowed to study her chosen subjects but only through a ‘pathway exam’.

She says the experience left a lingering feeling of “being doubted”. The experiences of Australia as the new home started to go wrong, and at some point, she asked her siblings if she could “go back” (to the refugee camp).

“My parents were worried that I would lose my ways to teachers who were not so sure whether I was teachable or deserve a place in their classroom.”

Why you look different, where you came from or whether you can speak English efficiently to a bus driver who was most of the time not willing to pick you up in the morning even with the uniform on. I was lost and disheartened.

 

Abul and one of her friend during high school in Kenya
Abul and one of her friend during high school in Kenya
supplied

But she persevered through this as she had done before coming to Australia for so many years. And she was named the winner of the Regional Chemistry Prize in 2008 when she passed her HSC.  

Ms Mayen went on to get a Bachelor of Medical Science and a masters degree in pharmacy. She worked as a registered pharmacist for more than two years until the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

In February 2020, she moved to Victoria to work as a public health officer in the state where she is helping manage the state’s health response to the pandemic - a job that she says she is immensely proud of. 

 

Founders of Twic East Scholarship Program
Some founders of Twic East Scholarship Program Awek Akech, Abul Mayen and Samuel Majok
supplied

The 29-year-old former refugee is now doing her second postgraduate degree – masters in public health at the University of Melbourne.

To advance girl child education in South Sudan, Ms Mayen, along with some of her friends, founded the Twic East Girls Scholarship Program, a charity which is educating academically promising girls in Kenya. She says the society should invest in the girls’ education and not their dowries.

Educated women space in our society is a heavily patrolled zone; society continues to titrate and cap the dose of education for women. We want women to be educated, but not too much, we want them to speak up, but with a subordinate tone, we want them to be breadwinners but not to earn more than men, we want them to have careers but not too much success, we want them to be leaders but to do so behind their male counterparts.

Source SBS Dinka