A prominent Australian lawyer, public speaker, human rights advocate, and writer, Nyadol Nyuon boasts a long list of achievements and awards. Underneath these accolades, however, is a humbling and resilient attitude that can inspire us all to pursue our goals, overcome adversity, and be ourselves, wholeheartedly and without fear.
Born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, Nyuon came to Australia in 2005, at the age of 18. She spent her childhood and teen years in various refugee camps after her mother fled her home country of Sudan during the ongoing civil war. After becoming separated from her mother, Nyuon eventually resettled in a camp in Kakuma, Kenya, where she lived with extended family and attended school. It was during these early teen years that her fire for law began to spark.
After immigrating to Australia as a refugee, Nyuon almost immediately worked toward receiving her high school certificate, and in 2011, was accepted to Melbourne University to study her dream career – law. She was shocked by the approach of her peers and professors at university who, unlike her high school educators that discouraged her from taking more difficult subjects, set high expectations of excellence for themselves.
“Sometimes without knowing, particularly if you come from a refugee background or a poor background … you tend to internalise certain stereotypes about yourself and how far you can go.”
Nyuon transformed her own ideas about what limited her success; her background no longer mattered. She too could adopt the mindset of her peers, making excellence into an act rather than an accident.
“There’s nothing about being a refugee that means you can’t succeed. Rather, anyone can achieve their goals – provided they are given help and have equitable access to opportunities.”
With the support of her peers, friends, lecturers and others, she began climbing her way to success. Since being hired at one of the top Australian law firms, Arnold Bloch Leibler, Nyuon has gone on to become a notable public speaker, writer and human rights advocate, regularly appearing on ABC’s television programs The Drum and Q&A, as well as writing for The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday Paper and The Guardian. Her significant contributions to not only Australian media, but society, have been recognised with countless awards including: the 2011 and 2014 nominee for ‘100 most influential African-Australians’, the 2016 recipient for the ‘Future Justice Prize,’ the 2018 recipient of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s ‘Racism. It Stops With Me Award,’ and more.
As with many who are prominent in the public eye, Nyuon has faced an alarming amount of online trolling, hate and racism, simply for speaking up for herself and others in the African diaspora. She has recently left public forms of social media, but her powerful messages can still be heard – and seen – through her writing. And while her journey in life is certainly moving in itself, it is Nyuon’s writing that is truly inspirational. A recent and evocative piece is her essay, “From the wreck of the pandemic, we can salvage and resurrect an inner life,” that perfectly encompasses many of our feelings over the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and most importantly, validates them. The whole essay is a must-read if you are in need of an emotional pick-me-up. One of the highlights is Nyuon’s comparison of pandemic life to her time in the Kakuma camp. The rationing of food in supermarkets reflected the UN rations she used to receive; the constant wait for updates, then for immigration, now for lockdowns, vaccines… As well as the rapidly declining absence of control in our lives. But from this, Nyuon poses a silver lining:
“My life before the plague was not perfect... It was not a lived life – it was a rushed life. A life with a laundry list of things that needed to be ticked off… The list of things that needed to be done kept growing, and the pace at which they needed to be done kept getting faster – until the plague forced a halt.”
This is not to say that we should simply think on the bright side. Nyuon herself says, “I know positive thinking does not feed your hunger, soothe pain, or pay bills.” However, she ponders whether a small, drop of positivity is salvageable in these horrific times of death and isolation: the slowed down pace of life. “A sacred pause,” as she describes it. As our minds become less busy in this break from our daily routine, we can take this time to ask ourselves what it is we truly need. We can begin to listen to that voice in our head that was previously drowned out by the buzz of pre-pandemic life. “We can now weigh up what truly belongs and what can be left in the life before the plague… To begin the imperfect process of practising a more lived life.”
A final point that is desperately needed by many of us in these trying times, is that feeling your emotions right now is okay and necessary. Australia is the lucky country for many of us, and we certainly understand this as its citizens. Much of the world looks to us as a positive example of handling the pandemic: cases are down, masks are coming off, and gatherings are slowly resuming. We are so lucky, right? So how dare we feel that we are not coping well. Nyuon’s perspective on this is what is most inspiring:
“I hear this often from friends, and suspect part of the reason they feel the need to say so is because when speaking to someone who they think has survived worse, they want to show compassion. That is good but it is not necessary. I think it is permissible to feel your emotions as they are without worrying whether the reaction is appropriate when compared with others’ experiences. This is not to reject the value of reflecting. It is to say that our reflection on privilege can turn into self-blame. Why I am not coping well? You are not coping because you are in f**king global pandemic.”
Sometimes we believe we must hide our emotions. Particularly as Australia begins to trudge back to normalcy, it can appear as though feeling despondent is inappropriate. But you, and all of us, have been through so much over the past year that will take a myriad of time to process, and it is okay to do so openly. Taking on some of Nyadol Nyuon’s wisdom may be just what we need as we navigate another tough year of uncertainty.
Written By Sascha Czuchwicki
Me By Aleenta Content Coordinator & Trainer
Dent, Georgie. Nyadol Nyuon is a lawyer, a former refugee & an incredible advocate. 17 June 2020. 22 April 2021. https://womensagenda.com.au/latest/nyadol-nyuon-is-a-lawyer-a-former-refugee-an-incredible-advocate.
Nyuon, Nyadol. From the wreck of the pandemic we can salvage and resurrect an inner life. 8 August 2020. 22 April 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/aug/09/from-the-wreck-of-the-pandemic-we-can-salvage-and-resurrect-an-inner-life
Press, Roselina. Calling Australia home. October 2016. 22 April 2021. https://law.unimelb.edu.au/alumni/mls-news/issue-16-october-2016/calling-australia-home