“Having lived through civil war and unrest, I’ve learnt to see the difference between the rule of law and the rule of men.”
My path to law is a long journey. I came here thirteen years ago, aged 21.
I was born in South Sudan and my family became internally displaced during the civil war. We first moved to Ethiopia, and then to Kenya, where we lived for twelve years at the Kenyan Outback Refugee Camp of Kakuma. Eventually, we were accepted into Australia as refugees. So a total of 18 years of my whole life I was displaced as a refugee.
My aspirations at the time were divided between law and medicine. As a kid, my nickname was Dictor, which is an Arabic word for Doctor, as I’d dreamed of being one from a very young age.
However, as I became older, two factors swung me towards law.
Having lived through civil war and unrest, I’ve learnt to see the difference between the rule of law and the rule of men. The latter is when powerful men and women take law into their own hands, and other people suffer. Having experienced the rule of men myself, I often dreamed of living in a society that helps people access justice, not inflicts injustices on them.
The other inspiration was a brief interaction with a migration lawyer who helped my family obtain Australian entry. He had a background in social justice, and his intelligence and compassion during our conversations inspired me.
When I arrived in Melbourne, I had the equivalent of year 12 qualifications, which I achieved in Kenya.
In order to get accepted into a double degree of law and science, I had to do a bridging course at the Victoria University called Foundation Studies.
I was lucky with my course coordinator, who was very passionate about helping students who were particularly ambitious or determined. He was a big help and encouragement to me, teaching me to navigate a new country and environment.
In my second year of study, I realized that law held most of my interest and was going to be my best option, so from then on, I chose to focus solely on that.
Throughout all my four years of study, I worked different jobs.
One of the first ones was as an interpreter, working for an agencies like On-Call Interpreters and VITS (Victorian Interpreters and Translators Service). I’d be called on to interpret at places like Magistrates’ Court, County Court and VicRoads. We did general interpreting in hospitals, dental and GP clinics and many other places.
Generally, you’d get a call from the agency and a destination, which could be anywhere in Melbourne or as far as Geelong. While you had to get there on your own, you would get paid for both travel and the job itself.
On top of that, I worked the night shifts at Coles Supermarkets, from midnight to 8am, which meant that some days, I’d be going to classes direct from work.
So the first couple of years were the hardest.
Then, down the track, I opened my own driving school and became a driving instructor. It was great as it allowed me flexible working times, but it had its own challenge in marketing and getting clients.
In my fourth year of university my study load became a lot lighter, as I was ahead on my studies because of all the extra summer subjects I did in the years prior. This allowed me to look for more demanding and specialized work that would qualify me further for entering the job market.
I knew I wanted to do something to help people, so I got a job as a support worker for Western Region Health Centre (now called cohealth).
It was mainly based in Footscray, with outposts in Melton and St Albans, and I worked there for just over a year.
As a support worker, my role was to work with newly arrived refugees, providing anything from general orientation help to assisting with special needs like language difficulties, mental health issues and physical special needs. I would refer them to schools, interpreters, social workers – whatever they needed in order to settle and integrate.
I also worked as a mental health support worker, working with people suffering mental health problems and other disabilities, providing one-on-one support, or organizing activities or respond to their issues.
Through doing that role, I found out about and was able to transition into a job as a liaison officer at Victoria Police.
This was the first role I did that involved some legal work – mainly aspects of criminal law. I acted as the liaison between Victorian Police and newly emerging communities.
My job mainly focused on working with young people who came in contact with the police. So a person who may have been charged and summoned to the station, I would explain the charge to them and help by directing them to places that offered help, like legal aid or a legal centre, and also explaining the consequences of criminal charges.
The other aspect of that job was running activities or programs that helped build the relationship between the police and the communities.
This was the more challenging part, as a lot of migrants arriving from corrupt or war-torn countries are used to ‘the rule of men’ , and they expect authorities, especially police, to abuse the law and the people. So there is a great lack of trust.
The goal of my job was to bridge that gap. I did a lot of networking, talking to people to teach them to trust the authorities.
It was a good job, though it had some challenges.
It was not easy to gain the trust of the community when they saw that I was working for the police.
For my part, it was frustrating to see how the police were conducting some of their initiatives or cross-cultural events, as there was so much misinformation and lack of understanding.
For example, I remember there was a cross-cultural training program aimed at the South Sudanese community run by the police. It was prepared by someone who had visited South Sudan once, for a holiday. They visited one single region of the upper Nile and through that singular experience, they were seen as being educated enough around the cultural aspects of the whole South Sudanese community to develop training package and materials!
Needless to say, a lot of these training materials were very misleading and in place just plain wrong.
Yet they were used to train a number of police officers and juniors at the police academy.
When I first got hold of that material, it was really confronting. But I was able to critique it constructively and point out the deficiencies. Luckily that led to a number of reforms and positive changes and the old materials were thankfully shelved.
Overall, I enjoyed that role, and felt like I made a positive contribution. However I was still focused on practicing law and entering the legal profession.
On top of all the various jobs I did over the years in uni, I was also volunteering at Fitzroy Legal Service. I did a little bit in my second year, and then more and more towards the end.
Fitzroy Legal Service works a general practice, but is staffed by volunteers – mostly law students. On each shift, there is a senior lawyer employed to supervise them. Clients come in with any number of issues: commercial contract disputes, criminal law chargers, family matters. A volunteer lawyer greets them, takes their brief and offers advice.
Volunteering is a really great opportunity for law students such as myself to gain a lot of insight into the legal industry and the law itself. It allows people to get early training and speaking experience, build skills and confidence.
I learned how to interview clients, gain trust, train clients to effectively negotiate a dispute or talk to consumer affairs.
I got exposed to a wide variety of issues and aspects of law, and gave me a lot of confidence in my abilities.
I think any work you do outside of your studies, whether it’s paid or volunteer, is a boost to your confidence, due to the experience of the wider world and community you get through it. It helped me become a good speaker, sharpened my interactions and communication skills with clients and peers. It was an early kick start to my legal career.
Upon graduating from VU, I did my Practical Legal Ttraining at Australian National University, and all my accredited hours were done through the volunteering service in 2009.
In October 2010, I was admitted to practice law.
However, I still did not have a job as a lawyer. I continued working at Victoria Police and started looking around, searching for opportunities and networking.
In July 2010, Slater and Gordon held ‘We Speak Your Language’ event in the city. The idea was to bring together people from multi-cultural backgrounds and communities of Melbourne, and demonstrate to them that Slater & Gordon had many different lawyers who spoke their languages, and could provide easier access to legal advice and justice.
I attended and mingled with a number of lawyers, took their business cards. I also met with a Slater and Gordon HR representative there. After the event, I got in touch with him and we corresponded. I asked for a seasonal clerkship, but there wasn’t an opportunity available for a while.
I kept in touch however, and kept asking, until eventually, I told him that I would be happy to come and work for free for a few weeks.
At this point they offered me an unpaid clerkship for 4 weeks at the Sunshine office. I took annual leave at my Police job and came to work at Slater and Gordon.
When I arrived, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that they were actually going to pay me after all! $17 an hour, I was not expecting this offer and additional money, my aim was gaining experience.
Within a week of me working there, Marcus Fogarty, the senior lawyers at the branch, took me out for a coffee and said, “We’d like to offer you a job, what do you think?”
I thought, “Are you serious, what do I think? I’m grabbing this with two hands!”
Since then, I have worked at Slater and Gordon as a personal injury lawyer. My job is to represent injured workers.
A lot of people I deal with are going through very difficult life stages, after being hard workers all their lives and suddenly finding themselves unable to work after an injury.
WorkCover claims can be a hard area to navigate for many people. Some people’s claims are rejected by their insurance companies, and these rejections can have real merit. Some have claims accepted, but have payments stop along the way for some reason.
My job is to ensure that my clients’ claims are accepted or reinstated or settle and to help them access things like permanent impairment benefit.
Under Common Law, people are compensated for the pain and suffering coming out of a work injury, which can be psychiatric or physical.
There are various thresholds for compensations. One of the common thresholds is what’s known as a lifestyle test. You need to show what you used to be able to do certain things that you can no longer do or enjoy doing post injury.
It can be challenging. Some claims can drag on for years.
People who are used to making large incomes in construction, or mining, and having sustained a back or shoulder injury that incapacitates them, find themselves destitute. They may lose their houses if they cannot afford mortgage or struggle financially or spend their savings.
It’s quite confronting and challenging to see people in these stressful circumstances. I feel bad for them, but the best you can do is to continue to fight for them.
I make friendships with a lot of the people I represent. But I am also aware of the need to keep some professional distance in order to be able to do my job effectively and objectively, and still be a positive and encouraging presence in their lives, rather than be dragged down into their despair.
What I have lived through in my life has sufficiently prepared me to be able to deal with just about any misfortune in life.
I’ve seen friends, whole families I knew, killed. I grew up with that as a young child, so I know how to empathize with hardships. I think it helps me to be objective and strong for my clients, and put things into perspective for them a bit.
I get a lot of personal satisfaction from successful cases, and it feels really good when clients are happy with their compensations, when they express their gratitude.
A recent case involved a man who suffered a heart attack at 37 years of age.
The reasons leading to it were very traumatic for him. He was working at a disability facility as a carer, and was accused of raping his disabled client. It was a false accusation, but he was sacked, charged by the police and went on trial. He was acquitted at the committal.
But of course, throughout this ordeal, he suffered from significant mental distress and depression, and had a mental breakdown, all leading to the eventual heart attack.
So the question for us was whether it was legally recognized that depression can lead to a heart attack. This has not been previously recognized by law. But we did the research, involved medical professionals and argued successfully at the Magistrates’ Court that this was the case, and that depression does indeed lead to a heart attack.
Our job is to advise our clients and sometimes that may mean telling your client something they don’t want to hear.
I will tell people when their claim is unfeasible, when they are unlikely to win.
Outside of work I do a lot of things. I am a chair person for South Sudanese Community Association in Victoria Inc., which is a not-for-profit organization. We do things like advocacy, running school and youth projects, sports and entertainment events for the South Sudanese community in Melbourne. We also consult for government agencies and other non-profits.
With my background, I always had a passion to make a difference in lives of refugees like me.
I’ve been involved with the community, and was a keen observer and participant in all its issues from the start.
We tend to see a lot of negativity from the Australian media regarding the South Sudanese communities. The racial profiling is over the top. The way the facts and statistics get twisted around makes us all look like criminals, which is simply not the case.
So my motivation is to change that, which is why in 2015 I expressed interest in becoming a community leader, and campaigned with 4 other candidates. I was successfully voted in and am now the chairperson.
Today we run programs with the state government like Empower Youth.
We’ve employed a youth worker for 3 years to undertake a number of projects and programs to help our young people with studies, employment, navigating the justice system and other complex challenges.
For the next six months, we’re running parenting workshops. The goal is to compare and unify the parenting modes of African and Australian societies, inform the parents what they need to do to avoid intervention of child protection.
We do a lot of sporting activities and events: Soccer and basketball games and tournaments. There are also cultural activities like dancing, concerts and festivals.
I am hands-on with everything: governance of the organization, writing grant applications, stakeholder meetings.
But also I get involved on the ground, attending events, doing speeches and handing out trophies. This is definitely a passion for me, something I will keep doing until I handover my leadership to the new team soon.
Looking forward, I’d like to also give back in another way, through teaching – if an opportunity arises to become a lecturer or teacher of law.
Professionally, I would eventually like to become a barrister, which would allow me to take on more complex and interesting cases, and also give me more flexibility to work on my other projects.
All these are of course aspirations for the future.