Ayor Makur Chuot’s life now is worlds apart from where it all began — in a refugee camp in Kenya.
- Ayor Makur Chuot’s family fled South Sudan to a refugee camp in Kenya
- The 31-year-old accountant has been elected to WA’s Upper House
- She hopes to create pathways to politics for other refugees
Once an international model, the 31-year-old accountant is set to become Western Australia’s first MP of African descent and Australia’s first South Sudanese MP when she is sworn in next month.
She will sit in the Upper House for Labor following the party’s landslide state election victory in March.
Born in Ethiopia, Ms Chuot and her family moved to South Sudan, only to flee to Kenya after her father was killed during a civil war in 1992.
Those early experiences deterred her from politics initially.
“I grew up in a political family,” she recalls.
“My father was involved in politics back home but being a South Sudanese woman, even if I was back home, I wouldn’t think of being a politician because my father was killed in the war, so I had a really traumatising experience.”
‘We grabbed this opportunity’
Almost three decades on, Ms Chuot’s perspective has shifted.
The incoming MP says she hopes to pave a way for other migrants and refugees and break negative stereotypes the South Sudanese community faces.
“We came with nothing [to] this country and we grabbed this opportunity,” she said.
“Me and my siblings, in particular, we really appreciate what we have been given.
“So, to actually be in this position, I think this is good for the rest of the Western [world] that are negative [towards refugees], to see migrants that get up every morning, they work hard and they appreciate the system and can give back to the community as well.”
It was her single mother — raising eight children — who has been her driving force, pushing her to achieve what she has, including her modelling career.
“I was kind of not into [being] a model, but my mother is always that person that motivates and supports us,” she said.
“I got into modelling and it took off, and at that time I was a young mum, I just had my son … I had to juggle being a mum and travelling around.”
Ms Chuot saw major gaps within the industry and decided to take matters into her own hands.
“When I was trying to help some of my friends and cousins get into modelling agencies here, it was quite difficult.
“I remember taking one of the girls to one of the biggest agencies here … and the comment she was given was that, ‘Oh, sorry, we already have two black models on our books, we cannot get them jobs’.
“In that way, you cannot blame most of the modelling agencies because the market was not used to the diverse kind of look.”
That’s when she started her own beauty pageant in Perth, called ‘Face of South Sudan’, to give young South Sudanese girls a platform and help kickstart their modelling careers.
In 2016, Ms Chuot also launched Africa Fashion Week, to support and showcase local African designers and boutiques.
“Where I got that idea was when I went to South Africa, modelling in South Africa, I felt proud having that diversity,” she said.
“We have our Western models, our African girls, we have our Indian girls, very diverse and it looks so beautiful, so I was like, ‘Why not have a platform like that here in Perth?’.”
Political vision to ‘bring people together’
A big part of what led Ms Chuot into politics was another strong female influence in her life — the former member for Mirrabooka, Janine Freeman, who she met in 2013.
“One of the great things Janine has done, she has actually made a great relationship with the African community — you say Janine, everybody knows who Janine is.
“So, I put my hand up and said I’d be a Labor Party member … a volunteer of Janine Freeman and some Labor party [members] in the Northern Metro [region].
“I helped [federal Labor MP] Anne Aly with her campaign when she was running in 2013.”
But when Ms Chuot was initially approached to run for the Upper House seat, she was not interested.
“I said to Janine, ‘Why do you want me to run for this seat?’ and she said ‘Ayor, the fact that you will never come here and say I want to be a politician, that’s what makes you a great politician’.
“I think she looks at me as somebody who can actually bring people together.”
Role model giving hope to others
In addition to Labor’s record number of seats following the state election, there will be a record number of women set to claim a seat in Parliament.
In the Lower House, 28 out of the 59 seats will be occupied by women when Parliament resumes.
Amanda Gillett, from the Metropolitan Migrant Resource Centre in Mirrabooka, sees many humanitarian entrants to Australia who are often from very poor, unsafe and war-torn countries.
“They arrive and often don’t have English [literacy] … often they have been sitting in an institutional or not a very safe or conducive environment for years and years on end, so they miss out on education, they miss out on employment experience.
“So when they arrive in Australia, they are really at a major disadvantage to get into the labour market and it can take quite some time for people to break through that.”
Ms Gillett said it was particularly difficult for women.
“For women, the situation is exacerbated,” she said.
“Quite often, women are arriving with children by themselves because their husbands or partners … have disappeared, have been killed or have otherwise been disconnected from the family situation.
“They are very often more likely than the men to be less educated and more likely to have had no work experience.”
She believes Ms Chuot will be a positive role model and inspiration to many migrants and refugees around the country.
“I think it’s the beginning, and I certainly hope she won’t be the last person from a refugee background, and certainly not the last woman from a refugee background to enter into the political sphere.
“It’s always really valuable to have a diversity of voices and I think it’s fantastic for Western Australia to have her there — up there, to be visible, to be seen.
“So the more that this happens the better, the more it is normalised, that we have people of colour, a good array of different backgrounds in parliament the better.
“[It] can only enrich what goes on in parliament and improve the level of debate.”
Ms Chuot also happens to be eight months’ pregnant and ready to welcome a new member to her family.
“The great part is that now, apparently, I can bring my baby to the parliament [and] there’ll be a parent room, so mum can come or my partner can come in,” she said.
“But yeah, I’m looking to come to Parliament straight away, start working.”
Ms Chuot is set to be sworn in to Parliament on May 22 after she gives birth.