Navigating new norms as a migrant



Churinian Tongu and her daughter Naomi

Churinian Tongu asked to borrow $10 from her school friend, and then asked him to buy her the pregnancy test.  She was 16, a secondary college student, feeling “embarrassed and ashamed”.

“I went to the toilet, took the test and not even 30 seconds later, I saw the two pink lines appear,” Churinian said.  “I feel like my heartrate just went flat.”

Life as she knew it took a dramatically different turn for Churinian on that August day in 2019, yet it was not the first time she had experienced upheaval in her life.

Born in a small, rural village, several hundred kilometres from Uganda’s capital, Kampala, Churinian spent the first years of her life living in a refugee camp.

Her parents had fled South Sudan because of the civil war. From the camp in Uganda, they were given refugee status and a new life in Australia. But their everyday lives still remain steeped in the values and traditions of their homeland.

As members of the Kuku tribe, one of the sixty-eight ethnic groups that inhabit South Sudan, her parents have always stressed the importance for Churinian and her five siblings not to lose touch with their culture.

Sex before marriage is heavily frowned upon and a child born out of wedlock is strictly forbidden.  Warring emotions in the weeks and months that followed would prove too much for the mother-to-be.

“I was a little bit excited, but at the same time I was freaking out, because I’m like ‘Holy shit, I’m going to have tell Mum at some point,” Churinian said. “Part of me honestly hoped I’d be able to hide it from her for as long as I could, but it was really hard.”

No stranger to battles with mental health, Churinian could no longer continue living with the secret and broke the news to her mother in the car after school.

“I was so scared,” she said. “It’d been all I could think about all day.  I could hear her voice in my head saying: ‘Stupid girl.  You are useless.  What was the point of even bringing you here?’

“I also knew from my own experience that African parents discipline their kids completely differently compared to Aussie parents, if you know what I mean. So, I was honestly expecting the worst.”

Much to her disbelief, Churinian’s mother took the news better than she could ever have predicted, however, some of her siblings still needed some time to get their head around the new normal.

“My little brother surprised me a bit,” she said. “We’d always been close, since he’s only two years younger than me.  He was supportive, but at the same time I could tell he was embarrassed.

“We’ve always walked to school together, but after I told him I was expecting, he kind of wanted to keep his distance and not be seen with me.  As time went on, I think he grew to accept it and would actually be really protective of me.”

Fast forward to May 2020 and in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia, Churinian gave birth to a beautiful daughter she named Naomi, and it was then when the weight of what her future held, hit her the hardest.

“I knew I was going to be a single mother early on,” she said. “The father wanted me to terminate it when he found out, which is completely against my culture; even adoption was out of the question.  So, when I told him that wouldn’t be happening, I was pretty much on my own.

“I didn’t mind at first, but now I worry about Naomi.  Not just because her father won’t be in her life, but growing up in a house where it’s obvious she is different from everyone else.

“Mum really wants me to raise her like the way she raised us, to know the culture and speak our language, but I’m not sure.  I know what it’s like feeling trapped between two worlds.  How can I raise an African baby when half of her isn’t?”

As a first-generation migrant, who has spent the vast majority of her life in Australia, Churinain understands the challenges a growing number of young Australians from multicultural backgrounds face.

The struggle to somehow manage the impossible balancing act between forging their own identity and dutifully fulfilling the cultural requirements expected of them, is perpetual.

Churinin’s mother, Rose, is confident she will raise Naomi in accordance with their culture, “I know my daughter,” Rose said. “I know she will do the right thing.”

The inner tug-of-war Churinian finds herself battling, is a feeling her older sister knows all too well.

“I worry for her,” 25-year-old and third year psychology student, Suzani said.  “I worry even more since she had Naomi. My parents are very traditional.  I know how stubborn they can be, especially my mum.  They are set in their ways.

“My older sister Mary, did things the traditional way like they wanted.  She lived at home until she got married and only then was, she allowed to move out after her husband paid my parents her bride price.  That’s not the life I want.”

Similar to a dowry in Indian culture, a bride price is where the family of the groom agree to pay an arranged or negotiated sum of money to the bride’s family.

The amount can vary from a small token to the other extreme. In one instance in 2017, a 25-year-old South Sudanese-Australian in Melbourne paid the lofty price of $70,000 for his wife’s hand in marriage.

Suzani openly defied her parents and her culture by moving out of home before she was married, a decision that has resulted in a precarious relationship with her family.

She believed that continuing a four-year interracial relationship with a white, Australian male had not helped matters either. And while her family has come to accept him, the journey to get there tested the pair on more than one occasion.

“They thought he was brainwashing me, turning me against them and our culture, but what they still don’t understand is he was helping me become a better person,” Suzani said.

“I’d lived in this country for nearly ten years before I met him and it was only after we started dating, did I truly begin to feel like an Australian.”

The struggle of assimilation is one many new Australians face.  It’s estimated up to a million suffer in silence in their homes, struggling to speak English fluently.

It is a pressing issue, according to Migrant and Refugee Settlement Services Australia Inc. (MARSS) project manager, Shannon Fitzpatrick, whose organisation helps first generation migrants of all ages with language, welfare benefits, gaining employment and access to other services.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hindered MARSS’ ability to provide certain services.

“A lot of our bigger programs have been delayed or put on hold, which involves a lot of our youth programs, which is all the one-on-one tutoring and after school programs,” Fitzpatrick said.

“They are still going ahead, but some of our clients do not have access to the appropriate technology.”

MARSS, along with other service providers, liaise with community leaders within the ACT to help new Australians with the process of integration.

“From what I’ve seen, us and the other organisations have worked quite hard with a lot of communities to work on Australian culture and what is a bit more accepted and what’s not, and expectations and pressures on young people,” Fitzpatrick said.

It is a struggle Suzani knows all too well.

“It’s not me turning my back on my culture,” she said. “I’ve struggled with English ever since I came to Australia.  My family would only speak our language and everyone we hung around with was a part of my tribe and also just spoke our language.

“I lived in Australia but didn’t feel like an Australian.”

For Churinian and Suzani, their story represents the changing face of Australia, a beautifully blended society.

Managing the expectations of their parents’ traditional values, while also navigating the evolving frontier of interracial relationships and the biracial offspring these unions can produce, can be a challenging one.