Marie Claire Australia
AKEC MAKUR CHUOT, 29
Akec left her native South Sudan as a baby strapped to her mother Helena Yar Enoch’s back. In 2016, she made history when she became the first African-Australian woman to be drafted into the AFLW.
The journey was as perilous as it was long: a four-week ordeal on foot from a war-torn village in South Sudan, through Uganda and into Kenya.
Few could imagine attempting it, but Helena Yar Enoch – thinking of her seven children she’d left behind with her extended family, as well as three-month-old Akec strapped to her back – knew she had to try.
Widowed during her pregnancy and battling a serious eye infection, Helena’s initial plan was to seek treatment in Kenya before returning home, however fortune smiled on the family by way of a UNHCR camp nearby accepting applications.
“Life was very hard after the death of my husband and my hopes for my children was to get them a better education and a better life,” Helena explains. “I didn’t want them going through the hardships I faced when I was in South Sudan and that’s why I took them to a refugee camp.”
Helena was able to send for the rest of her children, and Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp became both a home for the family for the next
“We’re all given opportunities and I seized mine where I could” – Akec Makur Chuot
11 years and a stepping stone to huge successes for Helena and her children. Family members who lived in Perth banded together to sponsor the family to come to Australia in 2005, when Akec was 12.
Today, she’s a half-back for Richmond, the second club she’s played for since 2016, when she made history as the first woman of African descent to be drafted into the AFLW. (But she’s not the only success story in her family: her sister Ayor Makur Chuot this year became Western Australia’s first MP of African descent.)
While Akec concedes the move to Australia was challenging, she and her siblings realised early that Australia was a place where dreams could be realised, no matter your background. “We didn’t have any money and we had to work twice as hard as everybody else to learn English and fit into a new system that was foreign to us, but at the end of the day we’re all given opportunities and I seized mine where I could and just tried to utilise them to the best of my abilities,” Akec explains.
Her mother Helena agrees: “A life without an educational background was hard. There was the language barrier and the job search was difficult. However, in Australia, you have a government that is looking after you and your family through Centrelink and offering free TAFE to learn the language. The best thing for me was seeing my children achieving their academic goals, and being able to progress well in their lives. This makes me very proud of them.”
At the heart of most refugees and asylum seekers’ stories is a feeling of wanting to give back, both to the parents or parent who made a huge sacrifice but also to the parts of the community that have embraced them. Akec is no different. “My mum’s worked so hard to get us to this point, so of course I want to look after her and give her an easier life. Representation is important to me, too. If young African girls can see me working hard to pursue my dreams, they’ll tell themselves, ‘If Akec can do this, I can do it too.’ It’s the Australian dream told in a modern way.”
Help the next generation of strong women like Aminata, Akec and Mariam become all they can be by donating to Australia for UNHCR, unrefugees.org.au.