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Anyier Yuol wins the Les Murray Award

Former South Sudanese refugee Anyier Yuol has won the 2023 Australia for UNHCR – SBS Les Murray Award for Refugee Recognition for her diverse achievements across sport, women’s empowerment and refugee advocacy.

“It was very surprising to win the award,” said Ms Yuol. “To be recognised by Australia for UNHCR and SBS shows that what I’m doing is significant and motivates me to do even more work, especially with women and girls.”

The former football player is a fitting recipient of the $10,000 prize, which is named after beloved SBS sports commentator and Hungarian refugee Les Murray AM.

“Les Murray is an icon. I used to wake up at 4am to watch his World Cup broadcasts on SBS. It’s such an honour to be able to receive this award because he was a refugee advocate and a passionate football fan who understood how sport plays an important part in refugee communities.”

The award was judged by Australia for UNHCR Deputy Chair Kate Dundas, UNHCR Regional Representative Adrian Edwards, SBS Director of Language and Audio Content David Hua, and former refugee Ann Odong.

“Many outstanding people were nominated for this year’s Les Murray Award,” said Ms Dundas. “But the judges were unanimous in their decision to give the award to Anyier Yuol. She’s made a name for herself from the football field to the catwalk to the halls of academia. The judges were impressed with her many accomplishments as well as her energy, her positivity and her determination to make a difference for displaced people.”

Ms Yuol was born in a UNHCR camp in Kakuma, Kenya. After her parents died, her aunt looked after her and her older sister. Ms Yuol says she has happy memories of childhood, surrounded by family and friends.

“For me, it was peaceful. I had the love and support from those who matter. It’s only now that I realise the barriers that existed in the camp. My aunt always made sure we had the basic things we needed to survive.”

Ms Yuol came to Australia on a humanitarian visa at the age of 10 with her sister and her father’s family, eventually settling in Blacktown in western Sydney. She felt out of place but was determined to forge her own identity from a young age.

“It was a challenge to understand the Australian culture while trying to maintain my South Sudanese culture, particularly the Dinka culture, but overall I wanted to become my own person.”

Anyier Yuol 3
© Australia for UNHCR

“You can’t be neutral when it comes to issues of human rights. If you have the privilege and you have the voice, use it. If you have the privilege and you don’t know how to use it, then step aside and let us take the fight on.”

Ms Yuol struggled at school but found an important way to connect with others – through sport. She had only seen boys playing sport in Kakuma and was surprised that it was part of the school curriculum. After recognising her potential, a family friend paid Ms Yuol’s club fees and took her to football training and games for six years.

“That was the first time someone believed in me. She knew I struggled in school – I didn’t start my schooling properly until I came to Australia – and saw that sport could give me a different avenue. I didn’t need to know English; I just needed to know left, right, forward, back. From there, I fell in love with football and began to explore how sport could engage young people, beyond just winning on a playing field.”

Ms Yuol excelled at football and became involved with Football United, an organisation that engages young people from diverse backgrounds through sport. Football United selected Ms Yuol to represent Australia at the FIFA Football for Hope Festival as part of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. When she returned to Australia, she received a scholarship to UNSW, where she completed a Bachelor of Arts, and launched the Football in the Park initiative, hosting games and providing a safe space to talk about challenges in the community.

Ms Yuol also began competing in beauty pageants, where she was often the only woman of colour. In 2018, she created a beauty pageant for African-Australian women called Miss Sahara to start a conversation about inclusion in the beauty and fashion industries, and to equip young women with leadership skills. She then launched Anyier Model Management to offer under-represented groups greater professional opportunities.

Anyier Model (1)

Ms Yuol has also become a passionate advocate for refugees. She says she is particularly proud of her work as the former Chair of the Australian National Committee on Refugee Women (ANCORW) – a role she took on when she was just 25. As Chair, she consulted with hundreds of refugee women from different backgrounds to inform national policy and to advocate internationally.

“With ANCORW, I was able to collect the voices of refugee women and take them to Geneva and share them at the Global Refugee Forum. It gave me the strength and platform to do even more.”

Ms Yuol is now completing a PhD at Western Sydney University on bride price practices in South Sudanese communities in Australia. She has also created Lead Beyond Education – a small charity addressing barriers to education and leadership for culturally and racially marginalised people, both in Australia and in refugee camps.

The tireless Ms Yuol says everyone has a role to play in protecting refugees.

“There are so many conflicts, so many vulnerable people displaced. It is the work of every individual – whether you’re giving money or volunteering your time – to contribute to the work of agencies like UNHCR.

“You can’t be neutral when it comes to issues of human rights. If you have the privilege and you have the voice, use it. If you have the privilege and you don’t know how to use it, then step aside and let us take the fight on.”