Once deemed unfit for science, this former refugee is helping fight COVID-19 in Australia
A young refugee girl, Abul Manyuon Mayen dreamt of changing the world through science as her family moved from South Sudan to Ethiopia, then Kenya, and eventually to Australia, in search of good life and education for their children.
Ms Mayen was born during the war between South and North Sudan. Her family sought refuge in Ethiopia but were forced out of the country in 1991.
During the subsequent years, she and her siblings studied in Kakuma Refugee Camp, as the family moved to Kenya.
She was offered a scholarship by Jesuit Refugee Service to continue her secondary studies at a secondary school in Kenya. Life in the refugee camp was not easy, especially for girls who had to do household chores besides school.
“Life in the camp was pretty much like what you see today on television; with a shortage of basic human needs like food, shelter, water, health services, and being a girl just added another layer of burden on top,” she says.
“It was almost obligatory to engage actively in domestic duties from a very tender age, unlike our male peers.”
Then the family arrived in Australia in 2006.
“Australia finally looked like the home we had been searching for,” she says.
She enrolled in Year 10 at a public school in NSW.
The following year, she wanted to study biology, chemistry, physics and advanced maths. She says she had never thought someone would judge her ability based on her background.
“I was told that I could not do these subjects because first, ‘you are new in Australia and second people who look like you have done badly in these subjects’. I was told to study general science instead.”
“The very people that I was supposed to rely on to guide and shaped my path in education had already made up their mind of what I was capable of based on how I looked. This experience almost broke me,” she told SBS Dinka.
She was eventually allowed to study her chosen subjects but only through a ‘pathway exam’.
She says the experience left a lingering feeling of “being doubted”. The experiences of Australia as the new home started to go wrong, and at some point, she asked her siblings if she could “go back” (to the refugee camp).
“My parents were worried that I would lose my ways to teachers who were not so sure whether I was teachable or deserve a place in their classroom.”
But she persevered through this as she had done before coming to Australia for so many years. And she was named the winner of the Regional Chemistry Prize in 2008 when she passed her HSC.
Ms Mayen went on to get a Bachelor of Medical Science and a masters degree in pharmacy. She worked as a registered pharmacist for more than two years until the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
In February 2020, she moved to Victoria to work as a public health officer in the state where she is helping manage the state’s health response to the pandemic – a job that she says she is immensely proud of.
The 29-year-old former refugee is now doing her second postgraduate degree – masters in public health at the University of Melbourne.
To advance girl child education in South Sudan, Ms Mayen, along with some of her friends, founded the Twic East Girls Scholarship Program, a charity which is educating academically promising girls in Kenya. She says the society should invest in the girls’ education and not their dowries.