From Child Refugee to Australian of the Year Nominee – the inspiring story of Yuot Alaak

  • 19 June 2022

So often, it is someone’s personal situation and life story that drives them to make the impact they do. They aim to inspire, educate and advocate through first-hand experience that many of us cannot comprehend. We have seen instances of this time and again through the Australian of the Year Awards.

Yuot Alaak is one such example. His childhood was spent in war-torn South Sudan, where he witnessed corruption, hostility and violence – even training to be a soldier at the age of 10.

When he was 16 years old, he came to Australia as a refugee, along with his parents, older brother and younger sister. Living in South Australia, he finished high school and went onto the University of Adelaide, before moving to Perth for work. Today, he is a senior mining professional, married with four children under the age of eight, and living in Perth’s northern suburbs.

Despite experiences that would surely affect him into adulthood, Yuot explains how words from his father gave him and his siblings the determination to prevent their background from shaping their identity.

“I had a unique story coming from a warzone, so when we moved here, my dad said, ‘I don’t want you to focus on what we’ve been through – you’re not refugees anymore, you have every opportunity like every other kid.’ So, we got on with our Australian adventure.”

Yuot speaks with immense pride when describing their Australian adventure of forging successful careers, owning their own homes and being productive citizens, as he freely puts it. They had well and truly left the past behind them.

“When we came here, we buried our refugee story. We didn’t really talk about it – most people I worked with had no idea. It was only when the book came out that people started to realise.”

The book in question is Yuot’s memoir, Father of the Lost Boys. Published by Fremantle Press in 2020, the book tells Yuot and his family’s story. It has gone on to be shortlisted in the NSW and WA Premier’s Literary Awards, to be taught in schools and open opportunities for Yuot to speak to a wider audience at libraries, Rotary Clubs and non-government organisations.

“I had carried this story for so long and wanted to tell it. A pastor once said, ‘The richest place in the world is the graveyard’, because there are careers never fulfilled, relationships never experienced, books never written and stories never told. I didn’t want this story to die. It’s an important Australian story. I pushed myself to finish it because I knew people would see others like myself quite differently, through a different lens.”

Yuot has been vindicated – from talking to a law firm in Perth CBD about humanitarian law, to presenting at Midland Library to members of the public who had also moved to Australia; he has inspired companies and individuals to help. However, Yuot’s greatest joy is speaking to and inspiring students.

“I speak to African kids about how to succeed in this country as a refugee. They have the same questions I did – about where you come from and who you are. I tell the kids: ‘If I can do it, you can do it.’ I came here unable to speak English and now my writing is being taught in Australian schools. It shows the power of the pen.”

It was largely from his book and public speaking that Yuot was nominated as a Local Hero in the 2022 Australian of the Year Awards. However, Yuot hopes to increase his impact further by encouraging and supporting children through the Ajang Alaak Foundation. The idea of the foundation, which is named after Yuot’s father, was born while Yuot was still in university in Adelaide, and combined after-school tuition and sport.

“I’ve been doing community work with young people, mostly of African origin, to help them stay on the straight path. We started a soccer club in South Australia to instill a bit of discipline and direction. I used to organise games with the South Australian police against the African kids, so they got to know each other and broke down a lot of barriers.”

The foundation is now incorporated in Perth and has a strong focus on education. It currently sponsors two children in Africa and Yuot is aiming to organise regular after-school tuition for disadvantaged students in Perth, either with a space at a school or their own bricks and mortar.

“My hope over the next year is to build the foundation more, because it’s not where it needs to be. I’m looking to connect with other organisations that focus on education, retired teachers who can donate an hour or two of their time, and parents who can nurture their kids’ potential. The foundation could bridge the gap between the kids, parents, teachers and industry.”

As you would expect, Yuot reflects his beliefs into his role as a father of four. He beams as he describes his five-year-old’s love of reading, and how his seven-year-old declares she will run for Australia in the Olympics.

“I just want them to be good, responsible human beings and good Australians – to be good at whatever they want to do. I also remind them how lucky they are. Because my wife and I have worked hard, we’re able to put them into a private school, they have none of the problems we had – their biggest problem is slow internet!”

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