Thon’s garden of memories

By John Lewis

Thon Makuei Thon's favourite place is a garden.

No surprise there — he's from the desert.

But for the Shepparton Ethnic Council worker, the city's Queen's Gardens has something extra; it's a place that, by remarkable coincidence, repaired a circle broken in the deserts of Sudan more than 30 years ago. John Lewis reports.

Thon sits on a bench in Queen's Gardens surrounded by manicured lawns and rose bushes. It's a long way from the deserts of Sudan — but the gardens have a special place in his heart.

"This is where I found out my mother was still alive," he says in his soft, deep, accented drawl.

Like most refugees, Thon Makuei Thon has lived more than one life.

There was a childhood in southern Sudan, then years of living in refugee camps and now his life in Shepparton.

He was about eight years old when fighting between the northern Sudan government and the Sudanese People's Liberation Army separated him from his family in 1984.

He was among hundreds of young boys who were marched into an army barracks by SPLA troops, given some water and a handful of beans and told to go to Ethiopia.

The thousand-mile walk of the Lost Boys across southern Sudan to the borders of Ethiopia and Kenya has been well documented, and even turned into a Hollywood movie, The Good Lie, starring Reese Witherspoon. 

Queen's Gardens is a special place for Thon Makuei Thon. Picture: Rodney Braithwaite

For Thon, it meant spending his teenage years in refugee camps along the Gilo River bordering south-western Ethiopia. He was then among thousands eventually forced out of Ethiopia in 1991 by government troops who shot at them while they tried to swim to safety across the Gilo. Many died in the water, or were left for the crocodiles. Incredibly, Thon made it to the other side.

Eventually they arrived at a huge United Nations refugee camp at Kakuma in northern Kenya.

But the struggle to live wasn't over.

Thon recounts a remarkable story of survival when heavy floods meant young men had to leave the Kakuma camp to seek safety.

"We heard the army was coming to force us out and I remembered what happened in Ethiopia — there was nowhere to run. So we decided to swim," he says.

I ask how far — and he says casually: "Oh, about from here to Melbourne."

His band of young men swam or waded through chin-deep water to reach safety at another camp at Dadab, more than 200km away.

"We swam for seven days, finding higher ground as we went," he says.

During his 15 years in the refugee camp, Thon met and married his wife Nancy and they had a baby boy — Dend.

But underneath the daily grind of survival, the nagging memory of his mother remained.

"It was always — 'where is my mum?'," he says.

"I was close to my mum, and I worried about her all the time. I would see kids with their parents and I felt something in here," Thon says placing his hand on his chest.

"I thought some day someone would tell me something. I never heard she had died so I had to believe she was alive," he says.

Thon, Nancy and Dend were granted a visa to come to Australia in 2005.

After a few weeks in Melbourne he decided to move his family to Tatura.

"I thought it would be easier to integrate — I wanted to develop my own community," he says.

Three months later he moved to Shepparton to begin work as a multicultural aide at Goulburn Ovens TAFE.

One day, he was walking through Queen's Gardens when he spotted a tall African man laying on the grass in the shade of a gum tree.

"He saw me and said, 'Is that you, Thon?'" 

The man was Koul — a fellow Sudanese he had known in the Kakuma refugee camp and who was fruit picking around Shepparton.

"He said, `Thon, do you know where your mother is? She's in Sydney'. Then he gave me her phone number," Thon says.

Twenty-one years after losing his mother in the chaos of war, after years surrounded by  sand, flies, disease, death and floods — Thon had finally found her. And the news came to him under the shade of a tree in a country town rose garden.

After meeting in Melbourne, Thon's mother and two sisters came to live with him in Shepparton.

Today, Thon, 44, is a familiar figure around the city.

"I like Shepparton — it's quiet and I can sit anywhere and know people," he says.

At more than two metres, his height would make him stand out in any crowd — except maybe in a basketball team.

 In Queen's Gardens, his sharp blue suit, shiny shoes, shirt and tie also draw attention. As does the bracelet of black beads on his wrist — a reminder of his African heritage.

As a Shepparton Ethnic Council community development and settlement officer he's off to meet some migrants from Melbourne to talk about the benefits of moving to Shepparton.

Thon's electric smile and slow deep voice make him the perfect ambassador.