Nyadol Nyuon first came to Australia over 10 years ago. Only 18 years old, she knew very little of the country and when she arrived in Melbourne the city was like nothing she’d ever seen.
“I remember thinking how big and clean it was,” she says. “It was quite surprising to see how all the cars stopped at the red lights because in Kenya that doesn’t happen often.
“I actually looked around to see whether there were any police with AK-47s on the side of the road enforcing the law. Funnily, there were none, which was very surprising.”
Now 29, Nyuon (JD 2015) is a junior lawyer at Arnold Bloch Leibler. Getting a job at a leading law firm would be a high achievement for anyone, but especially for Nyuon, who was born into displacement and spent her childhood in refugee camps.
In her parents’ home country of Sudan, Nyuon’s father was involved in the movement for an independent South. Fearing for her safety amid the country’s ongoing civil war, her mother fled to a refugee camp in Itang, Ethiopia, where Nyuon and one of her younger siblings were born. In 1991, a further conflict broke out in Ethiopia, which forced the family back to Sudan. Eventually they ended up in Kakuma, in northwest Kenya, which is home to one of the largest refugee camps in the world.
While attending school in the Kakuma refugee camp, Nyuon’s interest in the law began to grow.
“When I was 14 and in the camp, there was a writing competition and the winners were asked to read their speeches on World Refugee Day,” she says. “Before each of us read our speech, we were asked what we wanted to do and I said: ‘I want to be a lawyer’.”
Though she now works in commercial litigation, Nyuon’s understanding of the law as a child centered on international law.
Notions of international humanitarian law and human rights related more easily to the ideas of justice and security, which in some ways I lacked growing up in a refugee camp. My interest in international law might have been my way of responding to my environment.
In 2005, Nyuon and her family resettled in Australia as part of the Federal Government’s Refugee and Humanitarian Programme. From the moment she moved to Australia, Nyuon had her sights set on studying law. After completing year 12 at Eumemmerring College and a Bachelor of Arts at Victoria University, Nyuon applied to the Melbourne JD.
She was in Nairobi, en route to South Sudan to vote in the 2011 independence referendum, when she found out her application had been approved.
My sister called me when I was in Nairobi and said ‘You just got a letter from Melbourne University and you got in!’ I started jumping up and down whilst screaming at the phone. I could see the neighbours looking at me because the houses were very close to each other and they must have thought I had lost my mind.
“It was really exciting. I think it was one of the happiest moments I’ve ever experienced. When I first came to Australia, I’d read Melbourne Law School was one of the best law schools in the country, and I wanted to try my luck and see whether I could be among the best.”
Nyuon describes the JD as one of the most transformative things she’s ever done.
“I probably hadn’t realised how much I had accepted that, because of my background and language skills, it was okay for me just to get by,” she says. “I didn’t necessarily go to schools that instilled the idea of doing your best. For example, in high school I was told I couldn’t do certain subjects because it would be too hard for me. So it became okay to merely pass, merely get by.
“But going to Melbourne Law School and being exposed to the lecturers and students there – seeing their expectations of themselves and their ideas of where they wanted to go – prompted a conversation within myself about my dreams. Melbourne changed the way I thought about what I was capable of doing, or what I assumed I was capable of doing.”
She may be a former refugee who now works in one of the top law firms in Australia, but Nyuon says her story shouldn’t be that remarkable.
“There’s nothing about being a refugee that means you can’t succeed,” she says. Rather, anyone can achieve their goals – provided they are given help and have equitable access to opportunities.
“I’ve been tremendously lucky to have had support from strangers, friends, lecturers and mentors,” Nyuon says, crediting her achievements not simply to her own hard work, but also to the assistance of others.
Success, though, seems to run in the family. When asked about her hobbies Nyuon says, “I’m getting into footy. My little brother plays for Essendon.” Gach Nyuon joined the Essendon Football Club last year in the 2015 AFL rookie draft, an impressive feat considering he only started playing the game in 2012.
Nyuon says her greatest pride since moving to Australia is spending time with her family and watching her siblings reach their potential in a prosperous country free from the dangers of war.
“The joy I get from seeing my siblings achieve their dreams and be happy, it’s so fulfilling. And I would never have had that without the ability to live in a country like Australia.”
Banner image: Nyadol Nyuon
Credit: Ryuhei Tsukamoto Photography