Winner of this year’s Les Murray Award for Refugee Recognition, Anyier Yuol, on her incredible journey from sports star to model, PhD candidate, and advocate
In 2015, former South Sudanese refugee Anyier Yuol decided to enter a beauty pageant. She didn’t necessarily want to become a model (although many people had told her she should), but liked the idea of building her self-confidence and public speaking ability.
“When I got there, I realised I was the only black woman in the room, which was often subsequently the case,” she says. “I thought, ‘I want to come up with an initiative that showcases African communities in a positive light and celebrates the diversity of African countries’. So, we launched the Miss Sahara beauty pageant for African women.”
After talking to Ms Yuol for just a few minutes it becomes clear that this determination to think bigger – and create opportunities for the advancement for other refugee women – informs everything she does.
Her list of achievements is impressive: she has represented Australia in soccer, established a beauty pageant and social enterprise, completed a Masters in International Development and is currently doing a PhD.
With every success, she has opened the door for others to follow.
After representing Australia at the FIFA Football for Hope Festival at the 2010 World Cup, Ms Yuol started the Football in the Park initiative to provide a safe space to talk about challenges in her community. The Miss Sahara pageant turned into a three-day leadership program for 10 women from African communities all over Australia.
“We weren’t looking for skinny girls, but for young women who can use what they learn with us and take it to the next level, whether they’re starting a business for themselves or become change agents within the community,” she says.
For Australia for UNHCR’s CEO, Trudi Mitchell, Ms Yuol’s passion and creativity made her the standout nominee for the Les Murray Award for Refugee Recognition, which she will receive at Australia for UNHCR’s World Refugee Day event on June 15.
“There were many outstanding people nominated for the Les Murray award this year,” says Ms Mitchell. “The judges noted Ms Yuol’s many accomplishments but they were also impressed with her energy, her positivity and her determination to make a difference for refugees.”
The award is named after legendary SBS sports broadcaster Les Murray AM, himself a former refugee from Hungary, and recognises an outstanding former refugee who is raising awareness of the situations faced by forcibly displaced people.
As a child growing up in Sydney’s Blacktown, Ms Yuol remembers waking early to watch Murray’s SBS World Cup broadcasts. “Les Murray is an icon,” she told SBS recently. “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.”
Refugee women, Yuol adds, can benefit hugely from the opportunities sport offers.
“When you come to this country and you’re transitioning to a new culture, you face so many challenges,” she says. “You’re at school, trying to get a certain mark, keep on top of things. Sport doesn’t contain those limitations. You don’t need to be good, you don’t need to get the right mark – you’re just playing and you’re part of a community.”
For Ms Yuol, playing soccer also enabled her to engage with people outside her own community, some of whom thought that girls shouldn’t participate in sport. “We came from a culture where women weren’t allowed to play sport [but] I had a family member who said, ‘You know, she’s struggling at school and I think sport will really ground her’. So she took me to sport after school and at the weekend… and I just fell in love with soccer and everything I did then was about playing sport.”
“It taught me skills I couldn’t have obtained if I’d stayed within my comfort zone.”
Anyier Yuol will be speaking at Australia for UNHCR’s World Refugee Day event on June 15.
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