Andrew Gai has been a leader in the South-Sudanese Australian community for a number of years now and during Refugee Week last week, he was recognised with a Victorian Refugee Achievement Award. The Cranbourne Social Worker and father of three spoke to Gazette Journalist MARCUS UHE about his journey, his experience as a refugee in a new country, his ongoing community service initiatives and more.
Growing-up in war torn South Sudan, Cranbourne’s Andrew Gai knew nothing of Australia.
With extremely limited access to television and internet, from what he remembers of his childhood, any external media or pop-culture references from the Western world were considered a product from the United States.
Mr Gai fled South Sudan for Uganda in 2002 on recommendation from his elder brother, excited at the prospect of beginning an education.
It wasn’t until attending pre-departure orientation for to Australia on his way out of Uganda to join some of his siblings in 2006 that he began to learn about the Land Down Under, saddened to be leaving his parents and some family behind in Africa but excited at the prospects of what lay ahead.
“It was like being dropped into middle of ocean, or being born again,” Mr Gai recalls of his early impressions of Australia.
“I was confident that it would be a better place than where I was living but it was still a big surprise when I arrived.”
Fast forward to 2022, the social worker was recognised as part of the Victorian Refugee Achievement Awards on Monday 20 June.
“It’s very humbling to be recognised, especially on World Refugee Day,” Mr Gai said of his award.
Mr Gai is a team leader at Anglicare Victoria where he’s served a multitude of roles over his time, from helping to settle asylum seekers and refugees, and as a case worker at community detention centres, which he found “very rewarding”.
In 2021 volunteered his time helping underprivileged families to receive food packages and meals during Victoria’s lockdowns.
Having lived through famine in his youth, Mr Gai had an acute sense of what food shortages would mean for his community and the devastating impacts on health and wellbeing.
“I felt sense of responsibility to use my experiences of crises back home,” Mr Gai said.
“This was (likely) the first crisis for anyone and I thought it would be hard to take.
“I felt I had the opportunity and had the resources to help our community and particularly the multicultural and refugee community.
“We got some Government funding to deliver food relief to people who were mostly in quarantine at the time. We also worked with local churches to identify families that needed support.”
In 2014 he co-founded of the South Sudanese-Australian Academic Society (SSAS), with a vision of seeing a generation of empowered, educated South-Sudanese Australians contributing to society.
It’s something he can relate to as a migrant who faced multiple barriers when it came to settling the country, from his lack of education, social network and knowledge about his new home.
Embarking on a new life in his early 20s without the comforts of home meant he had to grow up fast, learning very quickly that he would have to assume a range of responsibilities without his parents and elders around to pull him into line.
He arrived in June 2006 with “just a suitcase” and little understanding of English, but the support of older siblings and a fierce determination to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by his new home country, including a “hunger” for education.
He enrolled in a language school before relied on interpreter services in his early days, before he set about finishing his schooling through TAFE – completing his year 11 and 12 studies at the age of 22 – and then enrolling at RMIT University and completing a Bachelor of Social Science and Youth Work.
This was a huge achievement for Mr Gai, knowing that his starting point was starting behind so many of his classmates.
“I had people with very good intentions and good wishes wanting me to do something else or saying ‘I don’t think you can do this’.
“I knew what I was capable of and was prepared to do what it took to get there.
“Going to university with English being a second language, I knew I had to work harder than classmates who were born here. I had to seek more support.
“It taught me to be determined and be prepared to do what it takes to achieve goals.”
Involving himself in his local church group in Box Hill and the Christian Union at university was also crucial, as it opened doors to numerous social networks and opportunities to immerse himself in the community, particularly revelling in the opportunity to undertake mission trips to country Victoria.
Mr Gai’s work at Anglicare led him to Orange Door, where he tackles the ongoing problem of domestic violence.
As a therapeutic mens practitioner, Mr Gai seeks to address the root cause of domestic violence, by educating men about their behaviour.
It’s a proactive approach to the problem, aiming to stop the action before an incident takes place.
“If we are able to help men who choose to use violence and change behaviours, it ensures safety for their current partner but also for their future partner,” Mr Gai said.
“Relationships may end but that doesn’t mean he’s not going to find another partner.
“It’s a challenge, and there’s limited early intervention programs at the moment.”
Despite having achieved so much already, the father of three doesn’t see his community service work slowing down any time soon.
There’s still more that can be done to help migrant communities get on a level playing field when it comes to assimilation into a new community, such as finding employment, dealing with police and negative stereotypes or prejudices enflamed by media outlets.
“Generally I think a lot of Australians are very welcoming of refugees and supportive but I’m well aware from what I hear everyday that my experience of settlement is not the same as others might have had,” he said.
Episodes such as when the phrase “African gangs” became a mainstay of mainstream media in recent years, was “very discouraging” for Mr Gai and his community.
“People who were very professional were called gang members or abused on the job,” Mr Gai recalled.
“Young people and kids can take that to heart and it can impact self-esteem.”
All of his advocacy, volunteering and focus is still centred on his primary objective.
“My only goal is to continue serving the community.
“I don’t think I can give back enough from what I have received from Australia. The best I can do is to continue contributing in local community.
“I love where I live in Casey, being part of the Victorian community and giving back in a work and volunteering capacity.