South Sudanese refugee Mary Yan
South Sudanese refugee Mary Yan lost contact with her sister amid the country's violent turmoil. Image by Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS
  • refugee

Split by war, refugees find lost loved ones years later

Farid Farid December 12, 2023

When Pope Francis visited Juba in South Sudan in a historic first, little did Mary Yan know it would be the start of a reunion with a sister she hadn’t heard from in a decade.

She had been Christmas shopping in the town of Malakal when the oil-rich country was plunged into civil war in December 2013 and was separated from her family.

Ms Yan’s mother was  shot in the chest in the ensuing violent melee that erupted along ethnic fault-lines between militias of then president Salva Kiir and his sacked deputy Riek Machar. 

“When war breaks, you don’t know where you’re running to,” Ms Yan told AAP.

“The rebel army came and started shooting, shooting, shooting and my mum got shot. 

“Then one of the neighbours took the (grand) kids to the UN mission and my mum to a hospital in Juba.”

Her mother managed to survive the serious bullet wound but her brother was killed.

Ms Yan, who came to Australia as a humanitarian entrant in 1997, managed to get her orphaned nieces and nephews along with their grandmother evacuated to the sprawling Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

When a deacon from the Melbourne church she attends made it to Juba for the pope’s ecumenical trip in February, he was shocked to recognise Ms Yan’s sister.

South Sudanese refugee Mary Yan with nephews Kuol and Malachi
 Mary Yan is raising her own and her sister’s children in Melbourne after fleeing South Sudan. Image by Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS 

“She (the sister) approached him because she heard he’d come from Australia and asked him did you see my sister (Ms Yan) in Australia and he replied back to her I don’t just see your sister but also your kids,” she said.

The deacon then accompanied Ms Yan’s sister to the Red Cross office in Juba where an active tracing case had been opened.

Ms Yan said her sister, who had been moving from one refugee camp to the next, had known she was in Australia but did not know where her own kids ended up and was relieved to know they were being raised by her in Melbourne.

“I got a call from the Red Cross in South Sudan and at first I thought it was a scammer but then they told me they found my sister and I fainted,” she said.

Even though she has reconnected with her sister, the pain of not knowing where her brothers are still gnaws at her.

Ms Yan’s experience is similar to those in a research project seeking to understand how having a missing family member impacts the health and well-being of people living in Australia who have been forcibly displaced.

The Project Researching the Impact of Separated and Missing Family (PRISM Family) is a collaboration between the Refugee Trauma and Recovery Program at UNSW and the Australian Red Cross.

The three-year project is in the final stages of participant recruitment and is hoping for 300 refugees to take part in the study.

“Whenever there’s incidents overseas, whether it’s disasters or conflicts, we do tend to get an increase or sometimes it’s a larger spike in in referrals coming through or cases,” the Australian Red Cross’ head of migration Nicole Batch said.

“It’s very frequent that people lose contact even though we are in a digital age … for their own safety.”

She estimated there were about 2000 cases in Australia where family members used the organisation’s tracing enquiry service.

Once a case is opened, the Red Cross leaves no stone unturned through its global network to find the missing person in a process that can take years and with successes few and far in between.

Lead researcher Associate Professor Belinda Liddell said family separation was strongly associated with elevated psychological symptoms such as feelings of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

From previous research, she noticed how the ambiguity of not knowing the whereabouts of a family member could trigger a response similar to when someone was mourning or grieving.

“A grief response is a real deep yearning to understand what happened to their family member and the sort of pain associated with not knowing,” Dr Liddell said.

“They feel like they’re in limbo because they can’t move forward. 

“They can’t grieve their loved ones properly because they don’t really know what has happened.”

For Ms Yan, that continuous melancholia wounds her but it also gives her the resilience  to raise her own children, her sister’s kids and become a maternal figure in the South Sudanese community in Melbourne.

“From when I was young till now, there’s been no rest,” she said.

“My brain is shutting down and my body but I am strong because I have my faith.”