Deng Thiak Adut’s story is remarkable: a child soldier in war-torn Sudan, he arrived in Sydney as a teenage refugee. Today, he is a successful criminal lawyer and the 2017 New South Wales Australian of the Year.
Despite his achievements, Deng warns against expecting all refugees who arrive in Australia to become overnight success stories.
“Refugees are not here to do miracles,” he says. “They are here to be assisted. They suffer from long-term trauma…You can’t expect them to get out there and succeed. They need help. They need personal contact. They need psychological assistance, they need counselling. They need support in terms of jobs.”
“They are here to be assisted. They suffer from long-term trauma…You can’t expect them to get out there and succeed. They need help."
By now, Deng’s backstory is well known. Born in 1983 in Malek, a fishing village on the banks of the Nile in modern-day South Sudan, Deng was taken from his family when he was six and forced to fight for Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) in a civil war that claimed two million lives between 1983 and 2005.
The young Deng endured a 33-day march to Ethiopia, where he underwent military training. Plagued by illness and injury, he spent long stretches in hospital. He saw countless numbers of his fellow child soldiers die from disease, execution and suicide.
When he was 12, he was reunited with his brother John, who helped him escape to Kenya. In 1998, Deng arrived in Sydney with his brother and his brother’s family, ready to start a new life in western Sydney. They were just the third Sudanese family to arrive in Australia as refugees. Although everything about Australia was alien, for the first time Deng felt safe.
“After the long journey to Australia, I laid my body down on the first real bed I'd ever seen, under my first duvet, and I slept in a country at peace,” he recalls in his book, Songs of a War Boy.
Deng, who had never been to school, enrolled in an intensive English course at Blacktown TAFE. All he cared about was playing football and learning English. He studied every night and in 2005 won a scholarship to Western Sydney University to study law, supporting himself by working menial jobs at supermarkets, service stations and factories.
“What motivated me were those people who think I’m not equal to them, or inferior,” he says. “This country has given me an opportunity.”
In 2015, he appeared in a moving video depicting his life made by Western Sydney University. It quickly went viral (to date it has had 2.7 million views).
Today Deng is a partner in his own law firm, AC Law Group. Up to 40 per cent of his caseload is pro bono work. Based in Blacktown, his clients come from a cross-section of the community.
“My firm is the most inclusive firm in the country. Whether you are black or white you’ll be treated the same. If you don’t have the money, you’ll be treated the same way as if you have money.
"What motivated me were those people who think I’m not equal to them, or inferior..."
“There is a problem in this country,” he says, calling attention to the many forms of discrimination – based on race, religion, sexuality, ability – found in the community. “Those who are on the fringe, they are people who look like me. We sit at the same table. I have to protect them. I have to voice their concerns. I will listen to them.”
Deng’s brother John was also a university graduate, with a double degree in anthropology and international development. He was “discriminated against”, says Deng, and unable to find work in his field in Australia. He returned to South Sudan where he was tragically killed in 2014.
Deng started the John Mac Foundation in his brother’s memory. So far, the foundation has awarded three scholarships to students from non-English speaking backgrounds – two Afghans and one Iraqi.
Deng feels it’s his responsibility to give others the same opportunities he has received “so they can go and work in their community and feel like Australians,” he says. He wants to help them “to contribute something positive here rather than be angry.”
“Those who are on the fringe, they are people who look like me. We sit at the same table. I have to protect them. I have to voice their concerns. I will listen to them.”
Anger is something Deng can relate to, despite his success. Racism makes him angry, but it only strengthens his resolve to succeed.
He’s outraged at our country’s policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers. “Not a cent should be spent on locking up these people,” he fumes. “That’s not how we are supposed to spend taxpayers’ money. It should be spent in schools, hospitals, [given] to police officers, to nurses who need the money.”
He’s angry at the lack of support given to refugees in the community. It takes time to manage the trauma of these people, he says. “When they fall down the criminal justice system locks them up.”
“There is no difference between in prison in Africa or being in a refugee camp or being locked up in this country. It’s almost like being dead."
But, as he awaits the birth of his first child later this year, he’s optimistic about the future.
People “tried to criticise me by saying I wasn’t Australian enough. Well I proved I was Australian enough, I am the New South Wales Australian of the Year,” he says. “I can unite all people in New South Wales under the one umbrella.”
We need inclusive policies that accept migrants as Australian and value their contribution, he says. “Our kids will represent Australia…My child will grow up with the mentality of being Australian.”
“If we can bring up children in that manner, Australia will be a great country and won’t be divided. That’s the legacy we have to create.”
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.