Australia Day Honours: The refugee lawyer empowering African youth

A South Sudanese refugee – who arrived in Australia as an unaccompanied minor – has risen to become a local hero, and a respected leader in Australia’s African communities.


When Elijah Buol arrived in Australia from South Sudan, with no parents and almost no belongings, the most important thing he carried with him was a desire to change his life.

It’s a goal he has more than fulfilled – not only has he changed his own life, but now he’s changing the lives of many disadvantaged young people.

“Sixteen-years-ago, I came with nothing, only hope. For me now to get an award like this, it’s a testimony that when you have hope and an opportunity, you can achieve and flourish,” he told SBS News.

The 33-year-old is one of the 755 Australians who received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) on Australia Day.

He was also announced as the Queensland Local Hero of the Year.

“The opportunity is there for those who dream… these awards confirm that Australia is great, and if you put your mind to something you can do it,” he said.

The Second Sudanese Civil War lasted from 1983 to 2005 – and was one of the longest civil wars in history, leaving more than two million people died from combat and associated disease and famine.

Among the victims was Mr Buol’s mother, who died when he was six. Her body was never found.

His father died five years later.

Displaced at the age of nine and living in a refugee camp, Mr Buol excelled academically, and earned a United Nations scholarship to live and study at a boarding school in Uganda.

When he was granted a humanitarian visa in 2002, the then-17-year-old enrolled in Coorparoo Secondary College, a school close to the Brisbane CBD.

“While I was in Africa, I was already an orphan. There were seven of us unaccompanied boys, and we all lived together,” Mr Buol said.

“It was shocking to arrive in a place with no family to support me. It was challenging but when you are challenged, you learn from those experiences, and that allowed me to settle successfully.”

Although many years have passed since then, Mr Buol said he will never forget the support his teachers gave him – which helped him become the person he is today.

“I told one of my teachers that I was struggling with English, so every morning before class started, I would go there at 7am and she would help me, not just with English, but to build my confidence,” he said.

“When you are challenged, you need to embrace the support that is there. Learning is about sharing.”

Mr Buol made the most of the educational opportunities around him – his qualifications include a Master of Law, Master of Justice in Intelligence, a Bachelor of Human Services.

During his studies, he worked and sent money back to his sisters – he had been separated from them as a child, and only managed to track them down in 1992.

“I went back in 2012, and it was emotional to be there. They didn’t even recognise me, but going back gave me closure,” he said.

Mr Buol believes his personal experiences have allowed him to understand the experiences of disadvantaged youth – and support from his wife, who he married in 2007, has provided him with the means to balance so many projects.

“When you have a passion, time finds itself, but I have a wonderful wife who supports me and helps me achieve these things,” Mr Buol said.

“When you know that you have support, anything is possible.”

He has mentored many young African migrants and refugees and established community initiatives to celebrate the work of disadvantaged youth who are bettering their communities.

One of his key achievements was helping to remove under 18s from Queensland’s prisons.

He served as the President of the Queensland African Communities Council, and the Sudanese Youth Association – but regardless of whichever title he held, his focus was always the same: to ensure African youth felt settled and empowered in Australia.

“If young people are not engaged, they lose track of what they are doing,” he said.

“When we empower disadvantaged youth, we create a better tomorrow.”

But Mr Buol believes fear mongering about so-called Sudanese gangs, particularly in Melbourne, is making the task of empowering young people more complex.

“When we link the crime of individuals to a community, that generalisation takes us away from discussing real issues,” he said.

“When we racialise it, we blend all these communities as ‘bad’, instead of having a meaningful conversation.”

When Mr Buol became a father of four, the task of empowering young people from diverse backgrounds became even more important – and even more personal.

“I don’t want my children to be treated as others. My dream is that my four children don’t have to fight to be seen as Australian, or to find a sense of belonging,” he said.