South Sudanese new generation of next role models

August  25, 2017 (GMN) - Melbourne siblings' journey from South Sudan to the swimming pool. A brother and sister have become the first African-born lifeguards to patrol a major pool complex in outer Melbourne.

At the Peninsula Aquatics and Recreation Centre in Melbourne's south-east, Nyajema Jang and her younger brother Andrew stand out in more ways than one.

"They are shocked," Ms Jang laughed. "They ask me where I'm from, and then I tell them, and then they're like: 'Oh, you're the only African lifeguards that we see here'."

Last year, Life Saving Victoria was organising swimming lessons for the local South Sudanese community.

Ms Jang was initially asked to help out, but the then 23-year-old admitted she, also, could not swim.

"I didn't think I would be able to work as a lifeguard," she said. "(My goal) was just to learn how to swim and even to get my siblings to swim, as well."

Coming to Australia

Ms Jang was born in a Kenyan refugee camp during the Sudanese civil war, a conflict that split her family apart.

In 2002, she arrived in Australia with an aunt and uncle.

Three years later, she was reunited with her mother, who she had not seen in more than a decade, and was also introduced to a few extra siblings.

"I didn't recognise who (my mother) was," she said. "I just knew her by her name. 

"It was exciting to have my siblings there as well, but they didn't even know my name and I kind of had to learn how to say their names. It's kind of like me teaching them, like, the life here."

Ms Jang's mother, Tabitha Maker, said while the family's journey to Australia was a struggle, it was worth it in the end.

"I feel very happy to get a good life for my kids," she said.

"I don't want my kids to be like me, because I grew up in a bad situation."

Ms Maker has encouraged all six of her children to take up swimming, which led to Andrew Jang, now 17, also becoming a lifeguard.

"I thought it was pretty important to people that are in my culture to take up swimming, because it's a very vital skill to learn," he said.

"They look at me and say: 'If they can become a lifeguard, I can become whatever I want to be'."

Pushing for diversity

The siblings were hired as part of a campaign by Life Saving Victoria to raise the number of multicultural lifeguards in its ranks.

LSV's head of multicultural projects, David Holland, said the project aims to encourage diversity, as well as curb the high number of drowning deaths among migrants and overseas tourists.

"The situation with the South Sudanese community is very similar to many newly arrived communities: water-safety education and swimming is not a high priority," he said.

"The great thing about Nyajema and Andrew is they've become really influential role models, and they will put water safety in the conversation."

Mr Holland said over 2,000 people of African origin have participated in the project so far, including around 50 who have either been trained or are finalising their training in first aid and pool lifeguarding.