Abe Nouk’s first nickname was “alssjin,” Arabic for “prison.” He was born behind bars in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. His pregnant mother was imprisoned for brewing and selling alcohol, practices illegal under the Sharia law introduced in the country in 1983.
Nouk and his family of nine fled the ongoing civil war in Sudan in 1999. After spending four years in Egypt, their refugee status was approved and they arrived in Australia in early 2004 (around seven years before South Sudan gained independence from Sudan).
“Sudan is a generational inheritance of warfare, of poverty: something that we could have inherited. Luckily, it’s been different for us.”
Merely a decade ago, Nouk could not speak a word of English. Now, an award-winning slam poet, educator and creative mentor, he uses poetry humanise the refugee experience; to raise awareness of the struggles faced by refugees settling in Australia and to break the misconceptions about refugees.
“It was a way of overcoming traumatic experiences,” he says. “Poetry has been an outlet that came by chance.”
Now that people are listening so closely to his words, Nouk sees that his poetry can be a powerful change agent: it's a way to address misconceptions about refugees and spread a message of harmony and justice for the disadvantaged.
This power is not something he's taking lightly. “Whenever you sit down and write about something, you become the vessel of justice for their stories," Nouk explains. "That’s a huge responsibility. You can’t do that for pleasure, you do that for representation and empowerment."
“Getting up on stage and vocalising those pieces, to not do it would be neglecting the alliance of speaking for someone who has no voice.”
Between writing and performing poetry, Nouk gives back to the community by connecting young people who lack opportunities with a creative outlet. He set up Creative Rebellion Youth in 2013: a 24-hour recording studio in Collingwood, and it’s totally free.
“You start to see a sense of purpose when a kid expresses themselves on an instrument.”
The first slam poetry event Nouk performed at was in Melbourne’s iconic indie creative space, the Bella Union, in 2013. Since then, his career has rapidly progressed. He has toured the country, including a performance at the Sydney Opera House, published two books and won numerous awards for his poetry and social initiatives.
“The fact that it resonates with the public still leaves me baffled. I’ve only just learnt the language.”
It's true: the English language and sheer determination has taken Nouk to places he couldn't have ever imagined when he was living in the Sudan. Even still, the poet attributes his success to a combination of initiative, curiosity and chance.
“You cannot reap what you have not sown,” Nouk tells SBS. “But making it here, it’s kind of like a fairy tale.”
To Nouk, a ‘fairy tale’ existence means residing in metropolitan Melbourne, enjoying peace and freedom: elements of Australian life, which he says are often taken for granted.
“You’ve got to cherish these things for what they’re worth. It’s worth so much, it’s priceless.”
Above: Abe Nouk discusses the everyday realities of leaving your country for another and the internal conflicts related to being a refugee.
The acclaimed poet is energised by the opportunities he has reaped in Australia, but during events like Refugee Week and other events 'celebrating' refugees, he feels conflicted.
“Now it’s battling the guilt and gratitude,” he says. The “guilt” he speaks of comes from the lack of opportunity available to those who seek asylum in Australia today.
"How is it that, as a people, we justify that we’re going to celebrate refugee week but there are still people locked behind closed gates.
"The people we demand that they justify the reason for them seeking asylum. My family could have easily been there."
“Is it luck? Maybe, it’s chance!”
Sunshine, a four part drama that explores the hopes and heartbreak felt by those forging a new life in a foreign land, will air over two big weeks, premiering on Wednesday 18 October at 8.30pm on SBS. You can watch an encore screening on SBS VICELAND at 9.30pm after it airs or stream it online on SBS On Demand.