Career

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Seizing his second chance


It’s the 18th of September 2001, and when Mathoc Gab’s flight touches down at Sydney International Airport, he breathes a sigh of relief.

A week earlier, Mathoc was in Egypt, where he’d lived since fleeing his war-plagued homeland of Sudan. Having been granted a refugee visa, he was making final preparations to fly to Sydney.

“I’m at the church and I have finished praying for my welfare to go to Australia,” he recalls. “But when the service finishes, we go out and they tell us that America has been attacked, and suddenly the world is in chaos.”

While many flights were cancelled and airport security tightened after the September 11 attacks, Mathoc managed to board his plane without a hitch. 

“It was very hectic but I was lucky, and on the 18th of September, I got on my flight and I came to Sydney.”

That evening, when Mathoc arrived at his accommodation in Ashfield, in the city’s inner west, he was startled by the quiet.

“It was very nice, very calm and very peaceful, and until now, that place and that feeling is in my memory,” he says. “It’s a beautiful country and very different to Sudan or even Egypt. No problems, no guns, no issues, no chaos, nothing. Not even any noise.”

An epic journey

More than two decades later, Mathoc Gab still thinks back to that day, which he describes as the “cornerstone” of his life.

Now a father of three, he lives with his wife in Glendenning, just a stone’s throw from ACU’s Blacktown Campus, where he’s in the second year of a double-degree in law and commerce.

But it’s not the first time that the 49-year-old has pursued a university education.  

When he arrived in Australia, Mathoc had a dream to become an accountant. He took an intensive course in English and gained a Certificate IV in finance, with a view to enrolling into a commerce degree.

At that time, his family had no idea that he was in Australia, having had no contact with Mathoc for many years. 

Born in Rumbek in southern Sudan, Mathoc had a happy childhood. But in 1983, two significant events changed the course of his life forever.

First, his father, a policeman, died after a prolonged illness. Then the civil war broke out in Sudan, pitting the northern-dominated government against the rebel movement of the south.

The long conflict caused food shortages and school closures, and in 1988, Mathoc headed north with his uncle to the capital of Khartoum, so he could continue going to school.  

“Before my father passed away, he said to my uncle, ‘Please take care of my son’, and that’s exactly what he did,” says Mathoc, who was eight years old when his father died. “So my uncle took me, his wife, and one of their sons north so we could continue our schooling, and I had to leave my mother and siblings behind.”

Once he had completed his studies, Mathoc faced two years of compulsory military service – an undesirable fate, given the prospect of being sent south to fight against his own people. Fortunately, he was allowed to leave the military camp after an injury flared up, giving him a chance to escape his homeland.

“I didn’t want to go war, so when I had the opportunity to get out of the country, I took it,” he says. “It was a hard journey and I didn’t have any money, but eventually I made it and I arrived in Egypt.”

When he got to Australia, Mathoc eventually managed to contact his family, getting the occasional letter delivered to his mother in Sudan. In 2005, he finally spoke with her when she crossed the border to Uganda to use a telephone.

“It was amazing,” he says. “Just so wonderful to hear my mother’s voice after so many years.”

Mathoc then put his study plans on hold, focusing on work so he could send money to his family, and in 2009, he saved enough to return to Sudan to be reunited with them. 

“I was so happy,” says Mathoc, who was able to meet two siblings – a sister and a brother – who were born after he had fled all those years ago. 

In 2010, he gained entry to a university course in Sydney, starting a commerce degree with the hope he could finally achieve his education dream. But this hope was short-lived.

As the eldest son, Mathoc was expected to have a wife and kids, but his first marriage ended in divorce. At the urging of his mother, he returned to his home country in 2012, putting aside his studies so he could get married and have children.

“I had to defer my course so I could go to work again, because in my culture you have to pay dowry and it’s very expensive,” says Mathoc, who was married in the newly-founded South Sudan in 2013, his first child born there later that year. 

Mathoc Gab (left) with his mother and brother in Sudan in 2009. This was the first time he had seen his family since fleeing his homeland many years earlier.

Meanwhile, conflict was brewing again, forcing Mathoc to flee with his family to Kenya while he secured Australian visas for his new partner and baby. Since his wife arrived in Sydney in 2016, they have had two more children, making the idea of returning to university seem like a pipe dream.

“I’ve had to work two jobs to support my family here as well as my siblings and cousins in my home country, and for a while I had lost my dream to study,” he says. “I thought I had my last chance and I couldn’t finish, and maybe that was just how it would be.”

A second chance

Mathoc Gab got a second chance at his education dream when he met a man named Youssef Taouk at St Patrick’s Catholic Church, which holds weekly mass for the South Sudanese community in Blacktown.

Youssef is an ACU lecturer and the Blacktown-based representative of the Clemente Program, a unique university scheme that empowers marginalised Australians by providing a pathway to tertiary education.  

“When they explained it to me, I was very interested,” says Mathoc, who joined the program in 2020. “I thought maybe it’s a good opportunity to go back to study, and that’s where it all started.”

After graduating in 2022 as the first South Sudanese migrant to complete the Clemente course, Mathoc was accepted into a double-degree in law and commerce at ACU’s Blacktown Campus.

He now juggles university study with parenting and a full-time job as a forklift driver, which he does at night. This means that sleep is relatively low on his list of priorities.

“I find that working at night is more convenient for my family, so I have to sacrifice my sleep,” he says. “I sleep maybe three, four, five hours maximum, so it’s not easy, but I’m determined to continue and do my best.” 

While his dream has always been to become an accountant, Mathoc opted to add law to the mix, seeing it as a way to help others in the South Sudanese community.

“It’s always been my interest to help people who are disadvantaged in their life, because there is a lot of injustice happening,” he says. “I thought maybe if I had a law degree, I would be able to help people, not only here, but back home as well.”

Despite the many hurdles he has faced, Mathoc has held onto his degree aspiration because “there is no limit to education”, a lesson he wants to pass on to his children.

“Education is like the ocean – no matter how much water you take out of it, it’s not going to finish, and there will always be more you can learn,” he says.

“My ultimate goal is to give my kids a chance to gain education and take the opportunities I didn’t have. That’s why I’m very pleased I came to Australia – because here, there are opportunities. If you’re willing to try to do something for yourself, you can do it with the help of community, and maybe then, you can help some other people, too.”


Keen to help others through a degree in law and commerce at ACU? Explore the options.

Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2024 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS registered provider: 00004G | PRV12008