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A long way from the violence in Sudan, they now call Australia home
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Nov 17, 2008 - 7:06:17 AM

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  • Andra Jackson
  • November 18, 2008
Plenty to dance about: Former primary school teacher Peter Ajang (left) and other members of the south Sudan Cholo tribe at the Tarerer Festival.

Plenty to dance about: Former primary school teacher Peter Ajang (left) and other members of the south Sudan Cholo tribe at the Tarerer Festival. Photo: Cassie Cowling

FOR one of Warrnambool's Sudanese refugees, taking out Australian citizenship was not complete until he heard the word "gnatawa" (welcome) pronounced in the local Gunditj Mara language.

Nick Hayne, a former refugee support officer with Warrnambool council, relayed the story to illustrate the bond forged between the newcomers to the area and its oldest inhabitants.

That bond helped the small community of Sudanese refugees who arrived in the region four years ago integrate into the wider community.

They were recruited because of a shortage of workers for Warrnambool's abattoir. They have settled in so well, they have done Mr Hayne out of his job.

"They are now all self-sufficient," he said.

Under a program to explain citizenship, the refugees were told how Aborigines were Australia's first inhabitants, and about their system, culture and laws.

"Some practical similarities" were found between the two cultures, Mr Hayne said.

In February, some of Warrnambool's Sudanese joined local indigenous people on a trip to Canberra to hear Prime Minister Kevin Rudd deliver his historic apology.

The empathy between the communities was on show on Sunday when Sudanese dancers performed at the Tarerer Festival at Killarney, near Warrnambool, in south-west Victoria.

There was a collective gasp from spectators as the imposing Sudanese men, in traditional costumes with leopard skins wrapped around their hips, and clasping shields and long, decorated sticks, ran around the festival site, chanting.

They performed traditional dances: the yaay, a movement invoked when warriors fight a lion; the bool, symbolising the ascendancy to adulthood; and the thom, which celebrates a good harvest.

Indigenous musician Brett Clarke presented them with a message stick as a sign of goodwill.

Accepting it, Peter Ajang, 37, explained to the audience that the painting of animals on their shields "does not mean that we kill animals or do anything bad to them".

Rather, each was depicted because "they have qualities we can learn from" courage from the lion and patience from the giraffe, said Mr Ajang, a former primary school teacher who fled Sudan's civil war. The father of four now works for Alderdice Brass Founders.

Otha Akoch, 45, said the Sudanese, now numbering 98, had embraced Warrnambool because it was social, friendly and had "a very unique lifestyle, with a lot of migrants".

Far from the threats they were under in their former homeland, many Sudanese refugees now consider Warrnambool home.



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