The stabbing death of a young man in Adelaide’s CBD earlier this year sparked headlines about ongoing violence between Sudanese gangs in Adelaide, but those making positive changes in the community say that doesn’t reveal the full picture.
In the early hours of Anzac Day, 25-year-old Ngor Bol took his final breaths.
Police allege he was stabbed and stomped to death after fleeing a knife fight between two rival Sudanese gangs in the city.
Ngor Bol’s cousin Anei* received a frantic phone call from his sister, who was worried he was there.
But her relief soon turned to dread when they both realised the man who had been killed was a member of their family.
“I did not even believe it, I was just like – I was just with him a few days ago – this can’t be,” Anei says.
But Anei understands how young men can get caught up in antisocial behaviour.
He was seven-years-old when his family arrived in Adelaide.
His family, like many others from South Sudan, fled civil war to Kenya, before resettling in Australia.
“I came here with my mum … and my older brother, my dad passed away during the war,” he says.
Like his cousin Ngor (pictured below), Anei spent his adolescence growing up in a country that was not always accepting of new arrivals.
“I had trouble growing up, at that time there was a lot of racism happening,” he says.
“Because … Africans were new, we were like one of the first Africans that came here.
“Growing up at school I used to get in trouble because of bullying, they were calling me the N word – all this sh**.”
Anei says finding his place as a young man in Australia had its challenges. He started attracting the wrong type of company and landed himself in juvenile detention around the age of 16.
“I started doing some messed up things — I was doing little petty stuff,” he says.
“At that time, I was hanging out with a lot of Aussie kids, because there weren’t a lot of African kids.
“I used to do stupid sh** for them — they made me like an alpha because I’m black and I’m tough.”
Keeping the kids on track
Anei, who has since turned his life around, is just one of many South Australian community members rallying to keep kids on the right path.
Daniel Nelson — who manages a South Sudanese basketball team in Adelaide’s north — is another.
Anai Lual, 16, made his debut in the local competition earlier this year.
But taking part comes with strict rules, including a C-grade average and keeping out of trouble at school.
“Coach Dan, he’s strict on us so if we’re not doing good in school, he will make sure that we don’t play that week or until we get our grades back up,” Anai says.
“No-one wants to lose or get humiliated in the tournament, so everyone comes out here every week and after school to play basketball to make sure we get better.
“That does keep us out of trouble — we’re playing really good.”
Daniel Nelson started looking after the team four years ago, in a program loosely based on the successful Longhorns Basketball Club in Melbourne’s west.
“We’re just trying to get them to have their time occupied so they’re not out doing nothing basically,” Mr Nelson says.
“A lot of the kids come from backgrounds where there are single working parents and they just need something to do.
“So we push the kids to start employment and check on their grades all the time and make sure they are going to school and achieving high levels there and basically make sure they are staying out of trouble.”
He says the kids are flourishing.
“There are obviously some kids that do stray, but the group I’ve got now, the 14 to 16-year-olds … they’ve stayed well out of trouble and they’re quite proud of it,” he says.
“We want to train them from an early age to have the community values, so when they get to the 17 to 18-year-old mark they are able to get their licence and hit the street, so to speak.”
Youth leader Deng Akol agrees that sport is a unifying factor for young people.
Recently, more than 500 members of the African community gathered to honour up-and-coming soccer player Gatlat Tongyik who grew up in Adelaide, and died in Sydney earlier this year.
“Losing him was hard for most of his peers, we thought a better way to celebrate his life, was to bring everyone together,” Mr Akol says.
“Regardless of whether it’s your rival or maybe someone you don’t like — once you get on the pitch — you get to know them.”
Mr Akol says the event also provided an opportunity to check in with young people following recent events.
“Definitely we are worried about our young people,” he says.
“[Parents] don’t want to lose any lives and don’t want to see these things happening within the community.
“Sometimes they might be struggling with school work, and they don’t really know who to turn to.”
Investigation into gang crime continues
While community programs are having measurable success, challenges remain.
Assistant Commissioner Scott Duval says a taskforce named “Operation Meld” was sparked after a “procession of offences” that included robberies, assaults and affrays throughout metropolitan Adelaide.
The taskforce investigates antisocial behaviour, particularly between two rival gangs, KBS and 051.
In March, several people were hospitalised after a knife fight which was allegedly gang related at the Nairobi Lounge in Adelaide’s CBD.
Police also allege the knife fight on Anzac Day was gang related. A 17-year-old boy and a 21-year-old man, both from Victoria, were charged with murder over the death of Ngor Bol.
A 17-year-old girl from Adelaide was also charged with assisting an offender. Police have not ruled out making further arrests.
Assistant Commissioner Scott Duval says “predominantly the people that we are looking at are in the South Sudanese community” but they were conscious of using “gang” terminology.
“The more you highlight, the more it seems to draw attention back towards the broader part of the community that’s absolutely law-abiding and are very concerned about what’s going on,” Assistant Commissioner Duval says.
Backlash and support
Former judge, prosecutor and now criminal defence barrister Steven Milsteed QC is representing a man allegedly linked to the Nairobi Lounge incident.
He has met with African community members to ensure young people understand their legal rights.
“There have been reports that young Africans are going to court unrepresented and making a horrible mess of it,” Mr Milsteed says.
“The need for a person to know their legal rights is probably more acute for many young Africans than it may be for others because of their very difficult and often traumatised background.
“Backgrounds marked by war, violence, fear of corrupt police, fear of people in positions of authority.”
He says the wider African community has been unfairly tarnished in recent months.
“As a judge, few Africans came before me. I am not aware of significant numbers of Africans coming before the courts other than what has recently occurred in relation to the Nairobi Hotel and North Terrace incidents,” he says.
“You can understand why there’s been this concerned response by the African community.
“There hasn’t been anything like this before. So I think it would be a mistake for the community to think that young people of African heritage are over-represented in the criminal justice system.”
Chairman of the SA African Community Council Denis Yengi says the backlash has been hard for the wider community and he had personally received hate mail following Ngor Bol’s death.
“[One community member] just got an email with some excuses that they can’t have the venue – because of the events that happened in the city – I think that’s really wrong,” he says.
Mr Yengi says he believes some of the media reporting of the events had contributed to the vitriol.
“You can still report the facts about a story without having to create outrageous headlines that can further alarm the wider community,” he says.
“Events that happen in the city, it doesn’t really reflect who we are as a community.
“We don’t support this behaviour, we condemn it in the strongest words possible.”
Anei agreed that the backlash had been hard to deal with while grieving his cousin.
“I saw those comments there – ‘send them back’, ‘why does the government still let them in?’ – all these nasty comments,” he says.
“Most of them either came here when they were infants, or two years old.
“It’s just their skin colour that makes them African – they don’t even speak their language at home.”
Anei says some young people lose their way when they can’t walk the delicate line between traditional expectations from older generations while living in the western world.
“We’re really stuck in the middle – we’re stuck between being an Australian and being an African,” he says.
“I know my culture, I know my language, I speak my language at home, I know my morals.
“In Africa I cannot just move out of my mum’s house … because I know it’s dangerous out there, it’s not safe.
“That’s how these kids end up on the streets, they just leave their mum’s house – they hang out with the wrong people, they don’t listen to their parents.”
He says despite this, he still has hope for young people in his community.
It was a trip to Africa after leaving juvenile detention that he says changed his perspective on life in Australia.
Anei now keeps an eye on at-risk youth to keep them on the right track.
“I just realised the potential we have,” he says.
“We just want to send them a message telling them that they’re not alone — we’re with them.”
Reporter: Evelyn Leckie and Rebecca Puddy
Photography: Michael Clements, Brant Cumming and Che Chorley
Digital production: Sara Garcia
Editor: Jessica Haynes