In an unprecedented twist of fate, two remarkable University of Wollongong alumni were named state recipients of this year’s Australian of the Year Award. Humanitarian and dementia advocate Kate Swaffer was named South Australia’s Australian of the Year, and former South Sudanese child soldier and refugee advocate Deng Adut was given the honour in NSW. UOW Outlook Magazine brought the pair together to share their experiences and reflect on their ongoing contribution to the Australian community and humanity.
Deng Adut was wearing the wrong headgear for his meeting with dementia advocate Kate Swaffer. The refugee advocate was wearing a fawn coloured Akubra. But apparently he should have been wearing a crown.
"I was talking to someone the other week, and I said despite the fact that we’re still a monarchy and we have Prince Charles, I am a prince of NSW,” he laughs. “I’m now a ruler of NSW for 2017.”
"That’s great Deng,” Swaffer laughs. “I can’t say I feel like a prince, or a princess for that matter.”
The pair are referring to their status as state recipients of the Australian of the Year award. The UOW alumni had their achievements and hard work recognised late last year by their respective home states. Although there was some relief on the part of each of them that they did not win the national award.
“I had so much global work booked in, thank goodness I didn’t win, because I was already too busy to have kept the pace up of the national winner,” Swaffer says. “But it’s been an interesting experience because it does open some doors for you if you’re trying to make change. And with dementia, we need to make significant change. It’s probably given my voice a little bit more volume with perhaps a few more important people that I needed to get to, as well as ensuring people with dementia have learned through my example they can live with dementia far better than they have been told is possible.”
Defence lawyer Adut says the award has resulted in more clients seeking him out and he has had to employ more staff to keep up.
Swaffer is the CEO and co-founder of Dementia Alliance International. At just 49, she was diagnosed with dementia and told to give up her life and get acquainted with aged care. Instead she completed three degrees, started a PhD and has become an international advocate, fighting for the human rights of people living with dementia.
Adut is a Western Sydney lawyer who rose to prominence when a video made about his life story went viral in 2016. Born in Sudan, Adut was taken from his mother at seven and forced to become a child soldier in the savage civil war which divided his homeland. He came to Australia as a teenager and worked to complete his education and start law firm AC Law with Joseph Correy. Adut takes on pro bono work, works with troubled young people and the Sudanese community to improve relations with police and advocates for migrants and refugees.
Both Swaffer and Adut said what they treasured most from receiving the award was the opportunity to help people at a grassroots level.
“I think one of my treasured memories was probably today at the Illawarra Forum,” Swaffer says. “There were two young women who have had to place their mum into a nursing home recently and they heard about me because of winning the South Australian of the Year award. Others were there because they had read my books. People say I inspire them and offer them a glimmer of hope.
“I think that just being able to help real people whose lives are affected by dementia. I may be impacting dementia in the academic education sector or out in the nursing [sector], but creating change for real people is what it’s about for me. Being able to provide services and support for people with dementia through Dementia Alliance International and to be able to in some way support families who support them, being able to do more of that has been the best part.”
Deng says: “For me it is almost the daily emails from people around the world [who say] that I actually inspire them. [They say] I continue to be resilient despite what happened to me and I changed something in their life or people decided to go back to university to study.”
Swaffer chimes in: “There are actually five people with dementia now in Australia at university. Yes!”
It’s kind of ironic in that dementia is where you’re losing capacity and memory but actually it’s given me the greatest clarity I’ve ever had in my life.
The pair share the experience of studying at UOW and valued similar factors in the institution.
“That’s actually something I like about the University of Wollongong is that it really supports a diversity of students and it supports disabilities,” Swaffer says. “I’ve been here as a person with quite profound cognitive disabilities and UOW supports that really well.”
Deng agrees: “Actually that’s one of the reasons I chose to do my masters here, I chose for that reason, that it’s quite remote and also there’s so many people from different backgrounds.”
Swaffer: “It’s really diverse.”
Adut: “And I didn’t feel like I had anything to prove when I first came to this uni. It’s important that a university supports people… That’s why people have to give back to the university, they have to come back to the university.”
Swaffer: “I agree.”
Adut: “Because that’s where they were made and they were looked after and in turn they have to look after the university. You can’t simply say: `I’ve graduated now and it’s over’. It’s not over.”
Giving back was a theme that ran throughout the conversation between Adut and Swaffer. Swaffer says the suicide of her first partner when she was 27 sparked a desire to contribute to the community.
“It was a sink or swim kind of loss,” she says. “I found giving back to the community by getting involved soon after it was set up, and then running a suicide grief support group for nine years in Adelaide, which is still in operation, that kind of still keeps me going. So giving to others and helping others. And my grandma and aunty served others their whole life, my aunt at age 90 is still volunteering and inspires me daily.”
Adut says it was the suffering his mother went through in Sudan due to the war that inspires much of his work. His mother lost four of her eight children.
“I call her my map because of the war that took place in South Sudan, I can see every little vein, the wrinkles, it’s like a map defining each suffering she went through, every tragedy including losing her children as well. So I call her my map,” he says.
Despite the adversity they have both suffered, Adut and Swaffer agree it was their unique experiences that had made them stronger.
You can’t simply say: ‘I’ve graduated now and it’s over’. It’s not over.
“I think the last few years I’ve said dementia is the third greatest gift that I’ve ever been given and some people go, `Hmmm’,” Swaffer says. “It’s kind of ironic in that dementia is where you’re losing capacity and memory but actually it’s given me the greatest clarity I’ve ever had in my life.”
Both Swaffer and Adut said that they have become something of an example for their individual causes.
“It is a kind of joy to be able to receive [the NSW Australian of the Year Award] as the first Sudanese-born person, to show that migrants can actually contribute something to this country and to be acknowledged is a good feeling,” Adut says.
Swaffer says: “It certainly felt good to be recognised and acknowledged, to have my work acknowledged. It’s shown me a side of life that’s not so good, and a side that’s exceptional as well. I think that as Australians the best thing we can do is celebrate each other. We’re not doing that enough, I don’t think. Australians are shy about celebrating each other and they’re shy about putting their hand in their pocket for philanthropy. I would love these awards to open some of that up because there’s a lot of wealth in this country to put into good causes.”
Adut says he likes going to schools and working with children to help them understand that Australians come from all different ethnic backgrounds. He is proud that he achieved his goal of establishing a scholarship dedicated to his brother John Mac who died after helping Adut begin his new life in Australia.
Swaffer says: “Actually that’s how I feel, I’m an example of a person with dementia who can contribute significantly to our community.”
Master of Science (Dementia Care), 2014
Honorary Associate Fellow, Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health
Master of Laws (Criminal Prosecutions), 2014