Nyadol Nyuon is a commercial litigator at a prestigious Melbourne law firm Arnold Bloch Leibler. Her path to a career in a corporate firm could not be further from the path more commonly travelled.
She was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia in 1987. She was separated from her mother at a young age and was raised by extended family in the Kakuma Refugee camp, home to 90,000 displaced Africans, in Kenya.
“Mum came to Kenya and found me when I was about 14 and she later moved the rest of my siblings to Kakuma to be together. My mother, six siblings and I all lived in a flat mud house with grass on top. There was one room that we all shared and slept in. Us kids spent most of our days in school and playing in the dry riverbed,” Nyuon told the Law Society Journal last year.
She attended primary and secondary school in the Kakuma camp and seeing UNHCR lawyers at work during this time sparked her determination to become a lawyer too.
In 2005 Nyadol’s family was accepted for resettlement in Australia. She travelled with her mother, six siblings and two relatives. Nyadol was 18 when they arrived and she worked to attain her VCE.
She then studied at Victoria University to obtain her Bachelor of Arts and was then accepted into the Melbourne Law School.
It wasn’t easy.
“Sometimes without knowing, particularly if you come from a refugee background or a poor background … you tend to internalise certain stereotypes about yourself and how far you can go,” she told RNZ earlier this year. “And what Melbourne Law School did was that it surrounded me with really talented and smart young people who expected excellence of themselves every single time. Excellence wasn’t an accident, it was an act, a commitment – and that was a radical shift for me in realising I could also adopt the same mindset.”
Two kind strangers provided invaluable support, as reported by The Sydney Morning Herald. A chance encounter with a Professor at Melbourne University at the end of her first year in Law School, in which she confessed the difficulty she faced in combining her family and study commitments, resulted in her being awarded a scholarship to live on campus. It meant she had a room of her own for the first time: a place where she could study alone.
The next year she met a woman called Juliet Tootell at a dinner hosted for professional African-Australians. Afterwards Tootell suggested they meet up for a coffee in the future. When that happened she wrote Nyadol a cheque for $10,000.
According to Hannie Rayson’s report Nyadol immediately offered her mother half of it, but her mother refused. “Start your life,” she told her daughter.
And what a remarkable life she has built. Aside from being a commercial litigator Nyuon is a vocal community advocate for human rights, multiculturalism, the settlement of people with refugee experiences and those seeking asylum. She is also a writer, a regular media commentator on ABC’s The Drum and Q&A, a successful keynote speaker, a mother of two and an active volunteer.
She is whip-smart, compassionate, articulate, funny, compelling and warm. Her work has attracted many impressive accolades.
In both 2011 and 2014, she was nominated as one of the hundred most influential African Australians. In 2016, she was the recipient of the Future Justice Prize.
In 2018 she was awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Racism. It Stops With Me Award for her efforts to combat racism. Nyadol Nyuon also received the Harmony Alliance Award for significant contribution to empowering migrant and refugee women, and was a co-winner of the Tim McCoy Prize for her advocacy on behalf of the South Sudanese Community. She also received the Afro-Australian Student Organisation‘s Unsung Hero Award.
To describe Nyadol Nyuon and everything she has achieved in just 33 years as extraordinary seems woefully inadequate. Her voice and her work matters. Now more than ever before.
We are lucky that she resettled here. We are lucky that she has chosen to exercise her remarkable voice, and to use her unique life experience to advocate for better.
Now it may not surprise you to learn what price Nyadol is being forced to pay for being a woman of colour with the audacity to speak up. She has been subject to merciless trolling for speaking up. After so many of her public appearances she is inundated with harassment and abuse and threats, drenched in racism and misogyny. And just this week she has found herself, once again, under siege.
It is not new. But it is vile and unbearable and unacceptable. And Nyadol Nyuon should not be facing it alone. Aside from reporting abuse whenever you see it on social media the best thing any of us can do right now to drown out this shameful racist toxicity is to flood Nyadol’s feed.
Follow her. Read her work. Listen to her words. Share her work. Ask everyone you know to do the same.
Her voice and work are not luxuries we can afford to lose.