Community + connection key to coping through COVID-19

Sobur is a 19 year old university student from Melton, currently in her second year of a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne. She’s interested in English, politics and creative writing, and is passionate about social justice and making a different in individual lives, particularly young people.

Inspired by her parents’ strong leadership within the South Sudanese community, it was through their positive example Sobur learnt that communication was really key to strengthening community.

Before COVID-19, Sobur began co-facilitating a program called ‘Girl Talk’ – a social group based in the Western suburbs of Melbourne for young women to discuss a range of issues relating to them. The program came about when Sobur was tutoring children at the library each day after uni, and was approached by a librarian to see if she would like lead a conversation group for young women.

She started co-hosting the group in November 2019, with seven young women attending the first session at the library. From there, it soon grew to 44 participants one week. Sobur has seen the positive impact this engagement has had on her community, simply by creating a space to share perspectives and learn from one another. Supported by the City of Melton, specifically the Melton Library and Learning Hub, the group has met to discuss issues such as body image, social media, careers and entrepreneurship. They even hosted a session called “Ask a Man, Ask a Woman” where they invited young men from the local community to join in on the conversations.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the group had to temporarily suspend their meetings to enable the participants some time to adjust. However, they soon moved to hosting online sessions to check in and see how everyone was coping during such a difficult and uncertain time.

“The impacts of COVID-19 have been great; I personally have had a difficult time transitioning to online learning, and also having to deal with all of my siblings and parents studying and working from home.”

Sobur has been helping her younger siblings with their school work during the day, and said she felt the pressure of wanting to make sure they kept up with their studies – a feeling with many in the community trying to adapt and support children learning from home could relate to.

“I do feel the pressure, I don’t want my siblings to fall back, I know the impact that can have on their education. Everyone’s trying their hardest, but it’s not the same type of learning.”

One of the biggest challenges for Sobur during the COVID-19 lockdown was not having access to the library – and peace and quiet – so she could study. She also found the lack of separation between different environments hard to deal with, having work, school and home life all in one place.

“However, isolation is not without its benefits, which are important to acknowledge to encourage the community during this tough time. For me, my family now feels more connected as we have more time to spend together and complete family activities such as hosting movie nights which we had not done prior to the outbreak of the virus.”

Sobur said the pandemic has been very challenging for many in her local community, with people losing their jobs or having to adjust to working and studying from home. She said many of the young women in the group were staying positive by exercising, taking up new hobbies like cooking, or focusing on developing their skills.

Sobur’s first involvement in homework clubs at the library was as a participant, when she was at high school, and then later as a tutor – wanting to give back to her community.

“I believe that education is a big step towards bettering our community, because it impacts people’s confidence…if a student feels they understand things better and have that confidence, they can thrive in the classroom and there is less disengagement.”

“What really helped (for me) was having people there that were invested in your education, they cared. Tutoring is not something you have to do, you know, it was a good feeling that emotionally there was people on your side, who were willing to take time out of their day to help you.”

When asked about her strategies for coping during the COVID-19 lockdown, Sobur said while she missed her friends every day, a positive element has been the connections she has strengthened through social media.

“Having people message me and see how I’m doing, Zoom calls with the girls, I’m impressed with how selfless people are being, how much my friends have taken initiative to check up on me. Sometimes I can be in my own world, feeling connected is important. It’s good for all round mental health, even without coronavirus, I think people were isolated.”

For others struggling at this time, Sobur said the best advice she could give was to take it one day a time – try not to get caught up in the fact that these restrictions could drag on for months, as that kind of thinking can be depressing, but take it one step at a time.

“Find support, but also be supportive…going out of your way, even if it’s not in your character, to reach out to friends and see how they’re going. Feeling connected to people, and feeling like you have people on your side, developing consistent relationships with people where you talk through things and unpack what’s going on in your life, is really important.”

Looking to the future, Sobur is interested in pursuing a career in human rights law. As part of her university degree, she was the first recipient of the Tony and Maja Carp scholarship, which supports students who are from refugee backgrounds from Sudan, South Sudan or Somalia.

Having moved to Australia from Kenya with her family, originally from South Sudan, when she was  three years old, Sobur says one of the key challenges for young people settling in Australia at a young age is simply grappling with the experience of being from two countries.

“A lot of the time we get lost in knowing, from our skin, and our language, and our parents, that we are from South Sudan, but so much of our experience has been here in Australia … and we become fond of the Australian culture.”

“This is an issue that everyone who is from two countries, especially from refugee backgrounds, this is something we struggle with. I think a lot of youth have an identity crisis, and that can influence them to behave recklessly, because they don’t know where they belong.”

“I have this strong desire to know my culture, to understand it. I want to make an impact in the community, and I want to make the world a better place for youth.”