It is 2pm on a Tuesday afternoon in Toowoomba, west of Brisbane, and Thomas Thiik, 21, has just been released from prison.
“I’ve been free for two hours,” he said, dipping into a pizza box. “So I’m having a celebration.”
Thiik (pronounced “Tik”) went to jail for three months for driving without a licence, a crime that he, as a newly arrived refugee from Sudan, says he could not comprehend.
“I was told when I arrived in Australia that I must work,” he said.
“But I did not have a licence. So how can I get to work?”
Despite being pulled over many times—and warned, and fined, and then suspended—Thiik kept driving, until he was imprisoned.
“It wasn’t too bad,” he said of jail. “I didn’t get into fights, like I do in Toowoomba. The Aborigines here, they bash me up.”
Thiik’s problems with his car and his neighbours are examples of the difficulties being faced by Sudanese and other African refugees, who are arriving in Australia in unprecedented numbers.
Rhiannon Maasakker, 17, who shares a house with a Sudanese, Ajang Bior Ajang, said the new arrivals were generally well accepted by the mainstream Toowoomba population.
But they were more likely to be pulled over by police, and “for some reason” some local Aborigines gave them problems.
Ms Maasakker said she became involved with the Sudanese community through her mother, who was friends with some older members of the community.
Now Ms Maasakker has a Sudanese boyfriend and doesn’t hang around with the local Australians much any more.
“They are good people. I just like them . . . they have a lot of respect,” she said.
Ms Maasakker said the Sudanese had added another dimension to Toowoomba, and made the town more cosmopolitan.
The Australian Government takes advice from the UN High Commission for Refugees as to which of the world’s peoples are in the most desperate need of resettlement. In the 1990s, it was the victims of the war in the former Yugoslavia. Now it is people from Sudan—many of them victims of the region’s ferocious civil war who have lived for years in desolate UN refugee camps.
Sudanese refugees took 5656 of the 13,000 refugee places offered last year, compared with just 361 in 1994-95.
They have stormed past the Bosnians, whose numbers have dropped from 3405 new arrivals in 1994-95 to just 108 last year.
There has also been a large increase in the number of arrivals from Liberia (851 last year, up from 114 in 2004) and Sierra Leone (642 last year, up from 132). Most speak no English and many arrive with large families of between four and eight children.
The women need assistance with tasks such as using a washing machine and shopping at a supermarket.
Gabriel Madol Anyant brought his wife and five children to Australia from a UN refugee camp in 2003.
“It was a terrible place,” he said of the camp. “There was not sufficient food or medicine, and people were sick.” He has since taken English lessons, and is studying banking at Adelaide technical college.
“Australia is a very good country,” he said. “It’s multicultural, and people are helpful to the refugee. Compared to life in Sudan . . . one cannot compare.”
But the sudden arrival of a few new black people in a mostly white neighbourhood has sparked racist reactions. In Toowoomba, where about 750 Sudanese have been re-settled, white supremacist group the Patriotic Youth League has distributed anti-black literature, and Sudanese people have been abused.
The chairman of the Community Relations Commission in NSW, Stepan Kerkyasharian, said: “Our concern is the sponsorship. In quite a number of cases, the sponsors are themselves recent refugees.
“They just sign on the dotted line, say they will be a sponsor.
“We’ve had examples in Newcastle, where sponsored people arrived and were taken to the house of their sponsor, but there was no accommodation.”
In Melbourne, Supreme Caravans general manager Jim Farrell was initially sceptical when a local pastor asked him to consider hiring the lanky black refugees. “He told me the story about these people who had been in camps for 12 years or more, and they had wounds on their body from torture,” Mr Farrell said.
“I said I’d give a couple of them a go, and to cut a long story short we’ve now got 16.”
Mr Farrell said the Sudanese were hard-working and reliable.
“There was only one fellow, who was a chief in his own country, who didn’t want to sweep the floor.
“I told him, I’m the general manager and I pick up the broom and sweep the floor—we’re all equal here in Australia.”