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From Sudan To Sydney: Anyier Yuol’s Refugee Story

Meet the footy-playing beauty queen who is making the lives of Australia’s refugees better
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Born in a refugee camp. Orphaned as a toddler. Forced to relocate to the other side of the world to start again, Sydneysider Anyier Yuol knows about overcoming hardship.

But Anyier’s humble beginnings fuelled a life of remarkable success, first as a football player, then a model, beauty pageant founder, modelling agency entrepreneur, university graduate, female leadership activist and dedicated refugee advocate.

Anyier has now reached another amazing milestone after being awarded the coveted Les Murray Award for Refugee Recognition. The title, announced annually during Refugee Week, is awarded by Australia for UNHCR in conjunction with SBS to celebrate the achievements of former refugees in a variety of fields, from arts to advocacy. The award is named after the popular SBS football broadcaster, the late Les Murray, a former Hungarian refugee who was a tireless campaigner for refugees in Australia.

Anyier Yuol -refugee-week
Anyier Yuol (right) and athlete Bendere Oboya shared the stage at the Australia for UNHCR luncheon in Sydney. (Credit: Instagram / @anyier.yuol)

Anyier is a worthy recipient. Until the time she was 10 years old, the only home Anyier knew was in Kenya’s sprawling Kakuma refugee camp – home to some 2 million displaced people. Her parents – running from war-torn South Sudan – died in the camp and she and her older sister were taken in by an aunt.  When the girls’ humanitarian visas came through, they were forced to leave their aunt behind in the camp and face completely new challenges.   

“Navigating my new life in Australia was challenging. I was trying to figure out who I was, while also trying to understand how I fit into two very different worlds and cultures – the South Sudanese as well as the Australian,” Anyier says.

Anyier found a way of fitting in through sport. “A family friend suggested I sign up for soccer, and for six years she paid the registration fees, took me to training and watched every game. She understood that sport would give me a different avenue and I started to do better in class as well.”

The Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya where Anyier was born. (Credit: Getty)

The tireless Anyier was only just beginning. Recognising the pathways sport provided she launched `Football in the Park’ to bring together displaced and isolated community members and provide a safe space for play and conversations. She also went on to represent Australia at the FIFA Football for Hope Festival which ran as part of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Her passion for sport led her to receive a scholarship to the University of NSW where she completed a Bachelor of Arts. Her education continues today as she is now completing a PhD at Western Sydney University on bride price practices in South Sudanese communities in Australia. 

Along with her love of sport, Anyier also had a love of fashion. “Participating in beauty pageants was a way to grow in confidence, but I quickly realised I was the only woman of colour. So, I started the Miss Sahara beauty pageant and later Anyier Model Management, to help ensure we are giving young women from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to be represented.”

While balancing the ultimate slashie life, Anyier became a fierce advocate for the plight of refugees in Australia, chairing the Australian National Committee on Refugee Women to give a voice to many of Australia’s voiceless by helping to shape national policy and be an advocate on the international stage.   

Anyier with Trudy Mitchell, CEO of Australia for UNHCR. (Credit: Supplied)

According to Australia for UNHCR Deputy Chair Kate Dundas, the judges were unanimous in awarding Anyier the coveted 2023 title: “She’s made a name for herself from the football field to the catwalk to the halls of academia. The judges were impressed with her many accomplishments as well as her energy, her positivity, and her determination to make a difference for displaced people.”

Anyier says everyone has a role to play in protecting refugees and helping them to thrive in their new homelands: “You can’t be neutral when it comes to issues of human rights. If you have the privilege and you have the voice, use it. If you have the privilege and you don’t know how to use it, then step aside and let us take the fight on.”

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