A REFUGEE from Sudan and former student of Brisbane’s St James College says he understands the fear that young, African Americans feel when confronted by police.
As Atem Atem watched last week’s protests over the death of George Floyd escalate into violence and arson in cities across the United States, he recalled his own experience while playing basketball at Northern Oklahoma College.
“We were in a car, one of our team members driving, and we got pulled over,” Mr Atem said.
“All of a sudden they (the police) had guns out and they were holding them on the driver, telling him ‘get out of the car’.
Facing the real prospect of an encounter with hostile police, Mr Atem, said young African American were warned by their families never to reach for anything “because anyone can have a gun and you might get shot at”.
He said he was shocked to see a white police officer pinning Mr Floyd to the ground with a knee to the neck, while he gasped for air.
“Justice needs to be fixed,” Mr Atem, who stands 203cm said.
A talented “small forward”, he spent a year playing US college basketball, after arriving in Australia and completing Years 11 and 12 at Brisbane’s inner-city St James College.
Returning to Australia after his US stint, Mr Atem turned professional to support his family in Africa, playing for the Adelaide 36ers in the National Basketball League and also representing South Sudan at international competitions.
He sends home $2000 every few months to pay the school fees for his siblings who fled war-torn Sudan and now live in Uganda and Kenya.
Mr Atem’s family fled from South Sudan when he was just four years old, and he retains some painful early memories.
He remembers running and hiding in the bushes after seeing lifeless bodies scattered after battles.
“The fact that I couldn’t sleep because of the gunshots all night, that was my only issue,” he said.
Later his family ended up in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya living under harsh conditions.
“Just imagine sitting on dirt in an area infested with deadly scorpions and the wind blowing dust everywhere,” he said.
“The World Food Program was in charge of food and from time to time the UNHCR withheld food so that refugees behaved.”
Mr Atem is grateful for everything he has received in Australia.
He attended Illawarra Sports High School in Wollongong, developed his basketball talents and was recruited by an African community leader to head to Brisbane to live with his brother, and enrol at St James where he graduated a decade ago.
He likes St James, describing it as a really “tight” school.
“It is easier to talk to someone to help you out. I used to stay behind with some of the teachers to help me out going through my assignments,” he said.
Last week Mr Atem started a new job back at St James College, working as a cultural liaison officer and teacher’s aide, hoping to pass on some of what he has learnt through basketball – discipline and mutual respect – “treating others like you want to be treated”.
About one third of students at St James College are from refugee families, and half speak English as a second language.
Mr Atem knows first hand the struggle for refugee students trying to integrate into Australian community.
“I felt I was helped to be where I am, and so now I am motivated to help others,” he said.
“It’s special to come and be a teacher aide at St James’.
“There are kids here who need help education wise, and there are kids that need a role model to push them a little bit further.
“In sport you play in a team. You have to communicate or you don’t succeed.
“You have to respect the person next to you. If you start doing those teamwork things at school, you’ll be able to relate to people on a bus, at work, or going to university.”
It is a simple creed that Mr Atem believes has meaning whether on the streets of America, or in an Australian classroom.
“It helped me. I’ve never been arrested, I’ve never got in trouble with the police because I know what I’m doing and I know where I’m going,” he said.
Mr Atem wants to complete an agriculture degree and return to South Sudan to help train in rural communities.