Deacon George Piech Meat is one of three South Sudanese deacons serving his local migrant community in Melbourne. In 2004, Deacon George fled South Sudan with his wife and three children as a result of the Second Sudanese Civil War, one of the longest civil wars on record, lasting 22 years (1983–2005). Like a lot of their fellow South Sudanese brothers and sisters, they sought refuge in Egypt before finally being able to make a new life for themselves in Australia.

Since their resettlement in Melbourne, Deacon George and his wife have been blessed with another three children and three grandchildren. But without any South Sudanese priests in Melbourne, there was a clear need for his community to have some kind of chaplain, so his training as a catechist in South Sudan slowly developed into a calling to the permanent deaconate. He was ordained as a deacon in 2012.

Deacon George was recently appointed as Chair of the South Sudanese Youth Justice Advisory Group, coinciding with announcements from the Victorian Government that new grants are being offered for community programs that support Victoria’s young South Sudanese population.

For Deacon George, this presents a welcome change of approach. He says their community has often been treated poorly by both the government and the media, especially when it comes to dealing with crime among South Sudanese young people and understanding the root causes of it.

‘Now the government realises there is no way to solve this problem by themselves,’ Deacon George says. ‘They need to work together with the community.’

As he sees it, one of their primary challenges is supporting the fractured families who migrated because of the war. ‘The majority of families that came here, they’re single parents, especially mothers. These children, their fathers were killed during the war. Raising up these young children without a father, it creates a lot of problems.’

For some of these young people, there are no role models in the family, and this is why there are a lot of challenges now happening.

In his new role, Deacon George hopes to facilitate more of a conversation between the South Sudanese community and the government. ‘What we hope to see happen is for government to listen to the community. You know, it is our community. We know the best for us and the best for our next generation,’ he says.

He also hopes to achieve some practical resolutions in helping South Sudanese youth falling afoul of the law.

‘We have a lot of young people in prison,’ he explains. ‘We want to lobby to have any retired Catholic lawyers who want to help … Because some of these young boys, when they go to court, there is not any lawyer to support them because the family cannot pay for a lawyer. And in these minor issues, they are always put in prison.’

In order to deal effectively with these issues, he says, there are important support structures that need to be put in place—both after being released from prison and before they end up there in the first place. Because a lot of problems can be identified in the school years, building a stronger relationship with schools will be high on his agenda.

Making sure the South Sudanese young people who are in prison also have the support they need during and after that time is vital, from employment services to rehabilitation centres.

With these new government grants, Deacon George says they will be able to help more families, even with simple things like sport.

‘They like sport. Some of these young people want to be there, but if one family has six children, and they all want to play sport, they cannot afford to pay the fees.’

Their advisory group will effectively serve as the ‘eyes’ of the Victorian Government on the ground. ‘We are the eyes of the government to say, yes, these are the services, these are the sports clubs that these young children need to be [well] adjusted.

And we just need to raise a better generation, you know, a future generation that will come and be and contribute to the society.

Alongside the challenges faced by the South Sudanese community, Deacon George says there is also a lot to celebrate.

‘People always focus on the bad things, but there is a lot of good things happening—very, very good things happening.’

Deacon George is pleased that the South Sudanese community has a lot of graduates from higher education now, with people going into law, to work as doctors and nurses, and into sport. He points to the recent news coverage of the South Sudanese basketballers who have recently qualified for the Olympics, making them the first team from any sport to represent South Sudan at the global sporting event.

He also sees their rich liturgical and religious culture as offering a lot to young people. Although there are no South Sudanese priests in Victoria, they still have opportunities to sing and preach and worship in their language.

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Deacon George Piech Meat, in conversation.

In Pope Francis, Deacon George also sees something of a role model. After the pope’s appointment in 2013, his first Holy Thursday Mass was celebrated in a prison where he washed the feet of inmates.

People don’t just need social support; they need pastoral support too, he says.

‘I have to be there,’ he says. ‘After my ordination, a big part of my ministry … There were a lot of funerals for young people, whether [they] committed suicide or died of drug overdose, or killed, or died, you know, of suspicious deaths. So it’s good to be part of this transforming life, and not just to bury life.’

‘Church is not just only in the place where good people are. Also, you need to be in a place with the sinners.’

On Sunday 24 September, the 2023 Migrant and Refugee Sunday Mass will be celebrated at 3pm at St Patricks Cathedral by Archbishop Peter A Comensoli and the migrant chaplains, preceded by a Rosary at 2pm in various languages. People will also be able to experience the richness of the South Sudanese choir, who will be singing during Mass.