From refugee to role model: How one man conquered adversity

Otha Akoch pictured with his wife Charity Nyinyal and their three children Mojwok (far left), Pwoch (right) and Gano (front). Picture: Natalie Stevens
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Former refugee Otha Akoch is hoping his strong community service will see him elected to council this month. Travis Stacey reports.

Being useful to the community is the most important thing for Otha Akoch, a Sudanese refugee who immigrated to Australia 17 years ago.

“It is the way of upbringing in which you learn about life, that you have to take every opportunity and make it really useful for yourself, for others and for the whole community,” Mr Akoch says.

He is giving back to a community that welcomed him and his family by running as a candidate for the current Warrnambool City council elections.

Born and raised in South Sudan during the horrific and bitter second Sudanese civil war, Mr Akoch lost his father when he was just four years old, and later his ambitions to work as a judge in his homeland were crushed.

“Overall my childhood was beautiful. My mother raised myself and my seven siblings in Tonga, one of the small islands in South Sudan along the River Nile. We spent our time swimming, fishing and looking after cattle,” he said.

But civil war intervened. “Over there (South Sudan) you never know what is going to happen next or tomorrow, here (Australia) we are so lucky to have the privilege of a secure life and the chance to make the most of every opportunity,” Mr Akoch said.

He and his wife Charity are now proud Australian citizens and have raised their three young boys in Warrnambool.

His campaign is gaining traction around the southwest, after he voiced his strong support for a team-oriented council. “The city council as one should be a non-political and non-hostile organisation, it is about the voters who elected you, the community – that is most important.”

Campaign poster in Warrnambool.

If elected, Mr Akoch says he’d like to focus on engaging and entertaining young people by providing and advocating funding for more recreational facilities, clubs and useful activities. He wants free parking in the city’s CBD to encourage people to spend locally.

“I was thinking for example, at Lake Portobe [a large playground facility and family attraction], we have many activities for children, but there is not so many for the youth and young adults. There is no basketball or soccer facilities and to be so close to the beach, especially in summer with big populations flocking to this area, how will you entertain these people, especially the youths?” he says.

Mr Akoch says youth engagement is crucial and he knows better than most how important it is to give young people a better chance of a brighter future.

If they are bored and don’t have anything to do, there is a lot of bad things that are very easy to get into, and this is not what we want to see as parents and community leaders.

Natalie Stevens, author of Building Home – The 5 Step Journey to Building your Best Lifestyle and founder of Build in Warrnambool and Build in Oz, a land development and building company, says she will be voting for Mr Akoch because of his integrity, independence and ability to lead in identifying and finding solutions for any situation or issue needing resolution.

“Otha, as a highly educated South Sudanese refugee, has conquered unimaginable adversity. His gratitude, resilience and depth of character will be an asset to everyone in the Warrnambool Community,” Ms Stevens says.

Mr Akoch faced financial, environmental and language barriers after he immigrated to this country.

“Our first few years in Australia were challenging. First of all you have three months to get your head around things, to try and learn English and to adapt to the environment and climate that is very different to Sudan,” he says.

“It was difficult at times, because to begin with you are not working and cannot work, depending on Centrelink and Social Security, which does not cover all your needs.”

A report by Murdoch University into social change and society equality found low representations of immigrant employment and unwelcoming perceptions of deservingness outlined a range of visible discriminations towards refugees. “When you become a citizen, being a refugee becomes history, and I am proud to have this in my history,” Mr Akoch says.

Within six months of arriving in Australia, he was made chairperson for the Chollo Community of Australia, a Melbourne-based Sudanese Community Group.

“I had the chance to get to know more about settlement, immigration and work closely with those migrant institutions. It was when I moved to Warrnambool shortly after and was made chairperson for the Warrnambool Sudanese Community Group that I realised and advocated for immigrant communities to relocate to rural areas,” he says.

“I always remind them [refugees], rural is not like big cities, people care about their community more in rural areas than the big city.”

Recognition for community work

In 2009, Mr Akoch appealed to the State and Federal Governments to reinstate a funding program that secured almost $1 million and saw 93 Sudanese refugees settle in Warrnambool as part of a Migrant Relocation Program, which helped these people access education, training, childcare, housing and transport services.

Mr Akoch received a Victorian Refugee Recognition Record award from the State Government for these efforts and his contribution to the wider community of Victoria.

Mr Akoch says he maintained his passion for education despite adapting to circumstances that saw his final year studies in law at Cairo University in Egypt stop after he was granted the humanitarian visa to Australia.

He now holds a Bachelor of Arts in politics and public policy, a Master of Arts in international relations and a Master of Humanitarian Assistance from Deakin University. He works in the disability sector. 

“It was always a goal that I wanted to study and use my time properly. I want to set a good example for my children that you have to do the hard work for something.”

A recent article about Mr Akoch in the Warrnambool Standard received more than 700 likes and 100 comments of support.

“Being involved in the community is part of our being as citizens, it is what citizens are supposed to be doing and I would be on the frontline to defend our country.”

Voting in all council elections this year is by mail, and completed ballots must be posted by 6pm on Friday, October 23.