Studies at Melbourne University.
Broke his leg playing soccer.
Regularly quotes Nelson Mandela.
Speaks out against racism.
It's said that eyes are the window to the soul. Deep, warm and curious, John James’ eyes certainly reveal much about their owner.
The 23-year-old African immigrant is good at making eye contact, even though it completely contradicts how he was brought up.
“In Africa, we are taught to respect our elders and looking them straight in the eye is disrespectful, like a challenge,” John said. “But now I understand that every environment has different circumstances. If I don’t look you in the eye, then maybe you distrust me.”
|John, who was born in South Sudan, schooled in Uganda and came to Australia in 2006, became aware of cultural challenges while studying at Dandenong High School. The multicultural school was a good, supportive place to learn about similarities and differences. John also enrolled in practical extracurricular courses, including Car Culture, where he made friends from many different backgrounds. He is now studying media and international studies at Melbourne University.
Although John has never personally experienced racism, he has witnessed others struggling to find a connection with their new community. He works to counter cultural conflict by asking others to be inclusive whenever possible. It’s this desire for cultural exchange and cultural commonality that that has made John’s Young African Connection organisation so successful. John formed YAC in 2011 with funding from the City of Greater Dandenong. YAC brings together young African Australians in an effort to minimise isolation, create a sense of belonging and foster leadership and responsibility to the wider community.
The YAC launch was attended by MPs, police, multicultural organisations and a cross-section of African Australian communities – Burundian, Congolese, Mauritians, Liberian, South Sudanese, Ethiopian, Oromo and other African youth. A soccer tournament, held last year, was attended by 400 people. Of course the day also included a barbecue.
John has learnt that while socialising in large groups is the African way of life, many Australians find this confronting. And he also knows that most Australians, regardless of birthplace, love sport and barbecues.
He believes learning English and a good education help with cultural understanding, but he also sees the power sport can have in bringing people together. It’s a philosophy he follows as a member of the African Club at Melbourne University, inviting the whole campus to join in activities.
“Sport is the biggest thing I can see that most people are interested in,” John said. “You just need a ball and a crowd. Some African youth are here on their own and some have been badly affected by the ongoing political tension in Africa, both mentally and physically. By providing opportunity for this social networking we are encouraging them and now they can see a future.
“I tell them, ‘It’s up to you. You are the change. Start it right now. You are the future.’ I can see that we are making the connection. We are preparing the good citizens of tomorrow, contributing to Australia but making sure we don’t lose our cultures and values. That makes society a better place for everyone.”
Words by Natalie Filmer
Pictures by Dulce Amor Temporal