Returning the favour ... Rebecca and Samuel Atem look after their one-year-old daughter, Amou, and have been trained to act as foster carers for two sisters. Photo: Tamara Dean
CIVIL war, hunger and exile robbed Samuel and Rebecca Atem of happy childhoods. Each fled southern Sudan as children, lost a beloved parent, and ended up in squalid refugee camps in Kenya for about 16 years.
But the couple, who met in the camps, also saw how families with barely any resources looked after the orphaned and lost children. ''My father took care of many children in our village, not only my family, and our relatives but children he didn't know,'' Mr Atem, 29, said. ''And in the refugee camp, before he was killed, our compound was full of children.''
So it seemed logical, now they are safe in Australia and married, with a one-year-old daughter of their own, for the Atems to become foster carers.
They are among a handful of Sudanese carers to graduate from a special foster care course run by Community Services that aims to provide culturally appropriate carers for Sudanese and other African children removed from their families here.
Just over a month ago, two sisters aged 10 and eight, came to live with the Atem family in their two-bedroom flat in Fairfield.
Fifty-one children from African backgrounds entered foster care in NSW in 2010-11, and though that represents only 1 per cent of children entering care, the removals have been controversial and the impact on the community traumatic.
Juliana Nkrumah, the founder of African Women Australia, said the issue came up frequently in community meetings. ''African communities are saying it is their stolen generation,'' she said. ''Parents make mistakes out of ignorance and not enough is done to help them.''
A 25-year-old mother from Sudan who, within two years of arriving, had seven children removed by Community Services because of neglect, told a community worker: ''I kept them safe through bullets and mines but I lost them in Australia.''
A spokeswoman for Community Services said the parents received ''the same level of support as other families, though it may be a little more targeted to their unique needs.'' Where children were assessed as being at high risk - or at risk of significant harm because of domestic violence, drug and alcohol misuse, lack of parenting skills, or other issues - the families could be referred to an early intervention program. If children were deemed unsafe, they were removed.
Echo Morgan, the manager of the multicultural services unit in Community Services, said harsh discipline was a main cultural difference and parental mental illness was also an issue. ''It's important to bring to the parents' attention that they must not hurt or neglect them,'' she said.
When the girls arrived at the Atem flat, the older child misbehaved at first. She had already spent some weeks with Anglo foster carers. She wanted to watch television all night, refused to eat and was tough on her younger sister. But with routines quickly established, the two girls have settled well and dote on baby Amou. The hope is they may be returned to their parents.
Mr Atem, a factory worker and community pastor who studies at Moore Theological College, said parents could not be blamed: ''They need help and if children cannot stay with them, I have to open my house.''
Mrs Atem, 26, said: ''I see helping children is a good life because I have been helped.''