In Australia, the young Sudanese wrestlers training at the beach strike an unusual — and to some eyes, threatening — image: tall, black, often shirtless men fighting one another.
MELBOURNE, Australia — The men call themselves the Melbourne Lion Wrestling Team.
The name evokes both origins in Africa and a presence in Australia, a fitting title for a team composed of South Sudanese immigrants living in Melbourne, Australia’s second biggest city.
Every week, more than a dozen men, ages 15 to 30, meet to practice on an Australian football oval or, if the weather permits, along the beach. A few times a year, they travel across Australia to compete with other teams, trading the animal skins and ash traditionally worn during Sudanese wrestling matches for gym shorts and talcum powder.
“We want to keep our culture alive,” Awan Mading, 30, said during a recent practice. “It’s also good exercise. You can see we’re breathing heavily from the cardio.”
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When not refining their grapples and takedowns, the men are factory workers, bank employees and students. In Sudan, wrestling is a popular sport and an integral part of the culture, melding athletics with dance and song.
But here, the men strike an unusual — and to some Australian eyes, threatening — image: tall, black, often shirtless men fighting one another.
In recent months Australia’s small Sudanese community has come under unwelcome, and some would say unwarranted, scrutiny. Some politicians, including the prime minister, have blamed crime in Melbourne on African immigrants — men like the wrestlers.
“We had a lot of people staring at us and filming us on the beach,” said Mading, who works at a government library. “Maybe they thought we were going to rob them. We kept saying, ‘Guys, we’re not going to do what you’re thinking.’ ”
Peter Dutton, the home affairs minister and a member of the governing Liberal Party, said in a January interview that residents of Melbourne were afraid even to go to restaurants at night “because they’re followed home by these gangs.”
“We just need to call it for what it is,” Dutton added. “Of course, it’s African gang violence.”
Critics contend that the comments by Dutton and similar remarks by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull were a cynical effort to rally support before a state election in Victoria, and have pointed to up-to-date statistics that undermine the government’s claims of a crime wave committed by Africans.
In January, Victoria’s Crime Statistics Agency corrected its published data on the proportion of criminal offenders in the state that were Sudanese-born. The agency now says just 1 percent of offenders in the state are Sudanese immigrants, revised down from 1.4 percent.
Of roughly 65,000 criminal offenders in the state last year, just 846 were identified as Sudanese-born.
Still, for Victoria’s Sudanese, the period that followed the comments from Turnbull and Dutton have been filled with fear and uncertainty.
“Some of us actually want to do something with our lives,” Nyadouth Lok, a 17-year-old high-school student, said on the last day of Australia’s summer vacation. “They’re restricting us from doing that.”
“When an Australian does something, they just say, ‘It’s just those silly kids that want to have fun,’ ” Lok said. “When it’s Sudanese, it’s a ‘gang.’ ”
Lok was born in Ethiopia to a South Sudanese mother, before immigrating to Australia at age 5. A prodigious basketball player, she has already been offered multiple scholarships from colleges in the United States.
Lok’s family recently moved to Cranbourne, on the outskirts of Melbourne. There, on a recent night, members of the Sudanese community came to bless the family’s new home with a traditional ceremony. The attendees ate the food of their homeland, sang songs of glory and prayed to keep trouble away.
Music is a daily part of life for the Sudanese, whether it is during a blessing ceremony or declaring victory in a wrestling match.
“It’s bragging rights,” said Kuol Kuol, a 23-year-old member of the Melbourne Lion team, explaining the tradition of winners earning the right to compose songs.
“If you lose, you just got to go away and get better,” he said. “Win next time, then you can make up your own song.”
The members of the team all come from South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, and are ethnically Dinka.
Since the ministers’ comments about “African gangs,” the men said they had dealt with increased racial profiling and offensive slurs.
Mading, the wrestler who works at a library, said a teacher told him he would not have a career in academics and would find work only as a basketball player or model. “To me, that was a mockery,” said Mading, who is pursuing a degree.
Sitting on the grass between matches on a Wednesday afternoon in January, Kuol, who moved from South Australia to Victoria in 2017, said even going to the supermarket had become fraught.
“It made it hard,” Kuol said of the ministers’ remarks.
“You get bad looks from people on the road,” Kuol added. “I have a supermarket near my house. When I go inside, I feel like there’s so much attention on me.”
Asked if he considered himself Australian, and if he considered the country his home, Mading hesitated.
“I love to call it a home, but it’s not really quite,” he said. “We want to embrace Australia, but we keep getting rejected. I call myself a Sudanese in Australia, not a Sudanese-Australian.”
Mading said a white woman on a train once shouted racial slurs at him.
“This lady called herself a ‘real Aussie.’ She kept saying: ‘This is my country! You don’t belong here!’ ” he said. “I keep asking myself: What’s a real Aussie?”