John Akuak’s journey from Lost Boy to HR professional


I have been working at the Australian Medical Council as a human resources advisor since 2011 and I really enjoy what I do and work in a very supportive environment. The people I work with are the ones that make me want to come to work every day. I’m preparing for the HR manager’s role in the next two to three years and I’m involved in the AHRI mentoring program to help me reach that goal.

My journey to becoming an HR professional has been long and began way back in South Sudan in 1987, when I was about 10.

My country was at war and government troops from the north were attacking villages in the south to find rebels who they thought were hiding out. One day, they arrived in our village and everyone fled in different directions. I got separated from my parents but managed to escape.

I became part of a large group of kids that later became known as “the lost boys”. Together we decided to cut across the desert to find a way into Ethiopia. Walking barefoot at night to conceal ourselves and because it was too hot during the day, there was little food and no clean water. There were outbreaks of diseases or danger from snakes and other wild animals. So many of my friends died en route. If kids were sick or couldn’t walk and there were no adults to help them, some had to be left to die as no one could carry them.

It took us three to four weeks and when we got to Ethiopia, there was no shelter, nothing. We settled under trees and with the few adults among us, we built what shelter we could and ate anything, even leaves. Some people got poisoned and another outbreak of cholera meant kids continued to die.

Then the UNCHR arrived and assessed us and started to bring food. For a while things stabilised and I found a lot of the other kids in the camp would come to me for advice. I wasn’t one of the oldest but many told me that they felt I was fair-minded. I would listen to them and treat them with respect. I started to realise that I had these skills that meant people wanted to talk to me. I would try to put myself into their shoes and I enjoyed helping them to solve their problems.

In 1990-91, war broke out in Ethiopia and the government was overthrown – and we had to run away again. This time, we walked to Kenya and settled in a refugee camp.

It was there in 1992 that I started going to school. There were only a few teachers and all they knew to teach was the ABC and we would copy our letters by drawing them in the sand. One day a charity came to our camp offering to sponsor some students to go to a Kenyan boarding school – and I was one of those chosen.

It was from one of my teachers there that I first heard about the HR profession where I would eventually end up working. I asked him what it was about and he said HR is about managing people and their issues at work. I thought, I could do that and so I asked him ‘How do you get into that career?’ He told me that in Africa, no one specialises in HR and I would have to leave if I wanted to work in that field.

In 2000 and 2001, two important things happened. I was reunited with my younger brother who came to the refugee camp and I sat my high school exams. Then the big break for me came thanks to the Australian government. The US government had offered some of us a chance to resettle in the States and then Australia followed suit. They were looking for young people who could speak a bit of English and had some education and about 70 of us were selected.

In 2002, my younger brother and I settled in Blacktown. It was really difficult for us at first because so much was new. The Anglican church tried to help us initially but then we were left on our own. I started looking for work but I had no idea where to begin. I heard I needed to go to a recruitment agency but they asked me for a CV and I had no idea how to put one together. I had never worked before. They said well you have no experience, so we can’t help you. I wanted to go to university but my African qualifications weren’t recognised.

So I went from company to company asking for work. My breakthrough was meeting a carpenter at the church. We became friends and he offered me some work helping him out. After doing odd jobs, I got on to a certificate IV HRM and HRM diploma course at TAFE and then was accepted on a university course studying HRM and industrial relations.

But even after I was qualified, it took me a long time to get into human resources. One day at a multi-cultural event in Blacktown, I was introduced to a manager of the department of community services at the local council. I told him I was looking for opportunities to work unpaid or voluntarily in HR and he said he would speak to the head of HR. The next day he rang me up and asked me when I was available. I said ‘Right now!’ He said he was impressed by my determination and willingness and said there was a paying three-month project working in HR that I might be suitable for and could I come in the next day.

I learnt so much and it enabled me to begin my career in HR. I was willing to work anywhere and all the money I saved from my job went into finding permanent work. I was lucky enough to get a job in HR in Canberra working on a construction site. After that I got a short-term contract HR role with an abattoir in Wagga Wagga, where there were many people from African backgrounds and I could speak to them in their language and explain what was required and how they could access services. It was that experience that helped me secure my current role at the Australian Medical Council.

I am married now with a family of my own, after meeting my wife – who is also from South Sudan – in 2008. Not too long after, something remarkable happened: after 25 years of separation – I was reunited with my mother after she traced me here through contact with the Kenyan refugee camp. I spoke to her on the phone first and she asked ‘Is that really you, my son?’ But when she heard my voice, she knew.

I travelled back to South Sudan to meet her and other members of my family. It was really a very emotional moment for both of us. She came running and jumped on my neck and was crying and she couldn’t let go of me.

I’m one of the luckiest people to be in a country like Australia where I can get up in the morning and not worry about what to eat or security. At the same time, when I am at work and people talk to me about their problems, I have to be very careful to see things from their perspective and give them the help they need, even if it may seem trivial. Because their experience is not my experience. Sometimes that’s a hard thing for me to do but then sometimes when people hear things from my perspective, they really appreciate it, too.

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Kim Rudolph
Kim Rudolph
5 years ago

What an inspirational story! I had a tear in my eye reading the sentence that when his mother heard his voice she knew! Really gets you thinking about what you can be grateful for in your own life. I especially like the last paragraph that talks about reminding ourselves that what someone else is experiencing might seem trivial to us, but we shouldn’t judge as we aren’t experiencing that ourselves.

John Wilson
John Wilson
5 years ago

A very emotional and inspiring story John.

Trent Dunn
Trent Dunn
5 years ago

Well done John, very inspirational indeed!

Rest assured, your challenging life experiences and unwavering determination have and will continue to serve you well in the HR profession.

All the very best.

Cheers, Trent

sonya owen
sonya owen
5 years ago

You have come a long way – well done and I wish you all the very best with your career, it’s obvious this is your calling.

Eugene Fernandez
Eugene Fernandez
5 years ago

I met John at his workplace at AMC and the AHRI convention in Melbourne. I am both humbled and amazed by his life’s journey and count myself (and the HR profession) fortunate to be the recipient of his grace and humanity.

More on HRM

John Akuak’s journey from Lost Boy to HR professional


I have been working at the Australian Medical Council as a human resources advisor since 2011 and I really enjoy what I do and work in a very supportive environment. The people I work with are the ones that make me want to come to work every day. I’m preparing for the HR manager’s role in the next two to three years and I’m involved in the AHRI mentoring program to help me reach that goal.

My journey to becoming an HR professional has been long and began way back in South Sudan in 1987, when I was about 10.

My country was at war and government troops from the north were attacking villages in the south to find rebels who they thought were hiding out. One day, they arrived in our village and everyone fled in different directions. I got separated from my parents but managed to escape.

I became part of a large group of kids that later became known as “the lost boys”. Together we decided to cut across the desert to find a way into Ethiopia. Walking barefoot at night to conceal ourselves and because it was too hot during the day, there was little food and no clean water. There were outbreaks of diseases or danger from snakes and other wild animals. So many of my friends died en route. If kids were sick or couldn’t walk and there were no adults to help them, some had to be left to die as no one could carry them.

It took us three to four weeks and when we got to Ethiopia, there was no shelter, nothing. We settled under trees and with the few adults among us, we built what shelter we could and ate anything, even leaves. Some people got poisoned and another outbreak of cholera meant kids continued to die.

Then the UNCHR arrived and assessed us and started to bring food. For a while things stabilised and I found a lot of the other kids in the camp would come to me for advice. I wasn’t one of the oldest but many told me that they felt I was fair-minded. I would listen to them and treat them with respect. I started to realise that I had these skills that meant people wanted to talk to me. I would try to put myself into their shoes and I enjoyed helping them to solve their problems.

In 1990-91, war broke out in Ethiopia and the government was overthrown – and we had to run away again. This time, we walked to Kenya and settled in a refugee camp.

It was there in 1992 that I started going to school. There were only a few teachers and all they knew to teach was the ABC and we would copy our letters by drawing them in the sand. One day a charity came to our camp offering to sponsor some students to go to a Kenyan boarding school – and I was one of those chosen.

It was from one of my teachers there that I first heard about the HR profession where I would eventually end up working. I asked him what it was about and he said HR is about managing people and their issues at work. I thought, I could do that and so I asked him ‘How do you get into that career?’ He told me that in Africa, no one specialises in HR and I would have to leave if I wanted to work in that field.

In 2000 and 2001, two important things happened. I was reunited with my younger brother who came to the refugee camp and I sat my high school exams. Then the big break for me came thanks to the Australian government. The US government had offered some of us a chance to resettle in the States and then Australia followed suit. They were looking for young people who could speak a bit of English and had some education and about 70 of us were selected.

In 2002, my younger brother and I settled in Blacktown. It was really difficult for us at first because so much was new. The Anglican church tried to help us initially but then we were left on our own. I started looking for work but I had no idea where to begin. I heard I needed to go to a recruitment agency but they asked me for a CV and I had no idea how to put one together. I had never worked before. They said well you have no experience, so we can’t help you. I wanted to go to university but my African qualifications weren’t recognised.

So I went from company to company asking for work. My breakthrough was meeting a carpenter at the church. We became friends and he offered me some work helping him out. After doing odd jobs, I got on to a certificate IV HRM and HRM diploma course at TAFE and then was accepted on a university course studying HRM and industrial relations.

But even after I was qualified, it took me a long time to get into human resources. One day at a multi-cultural event in Blacktown, I was introduced to a manager of the department of community services at the local council. I told him I was looking for opportunities to work unpaid or voluntarily in HR and he said he would speak to the head of HR. The next day he rang me up and asked me when I was available. I said ‘Right now!’ He said he was impressed by my determination and willingness and said there was a paying three-month project working in HR that I might be suitable for and could I come in the next day.

I learnt so much and it enabled me to begin my career in HR. I was willing to work anywhere and all the money I saved from my job went into finding permanent work. I was lucky enough to get a job in HR in Canberra working on a construction site. After that I got a short-term contract HR role with an abattoir in Wagga Wagga, where there were many people from African backgrounds and I could speak to them in their language and explain what was required and how they could access services. It was that experience that helped me secure my current role at the Australian Medical Council.

I am married now with a family of my own, after meeting my wife – who is also from South Sudan – in 2008. Not too long after, something remarkable happened: after 25 years of separation – I was reunited with my mother after she traced me here through contact with the Kenyan refugee camp. I spoke to her on the phone first and she asked ‘Is that really you, my son?’ But when she heard my voice, she knew.

I travelled back to South Sudan to meet her and other members of my family. It was really a very emotional moment for both of us. She came running and jumped on my neck and was crying and she couldn’t let go of me.

I’m one of the luckiest people to be in a country like Australia where I can get up in the morning and not worry about what to eat or security. At the same time, when I am at work and people talk to me about their problems, I have to be very careful to see things from their perspective and give them the help they need, even if it may seem trivial. Because their experience is not my experience. Sometimes that’s a hard thing for me to do but then sometimes when people hear things from my perspective, they really appreciate it, too.

guest
6 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Kim Rudolph
Kim Rudolph
5 years ago

What an inspirational story! I had a tear in my eye reading the sentence that when his mother heard his voice she knew! Really gets you thinking about what you can be grateful for in your own life. I especially like the last paragraph that talks about reminding ourselves that what someone else is experiencing might seem trivial to us, but we shouldn’t judge as we aren’t experiencing that ourselves.

John Wilson
John Wilson
5 years ago

A very emotional and inspiring story John.

Trent Dunn
Trent Dunn
5 years ago

Well done John, very inspirational indeed!

Rest assured, your challenging life experiences and unwavering determination have and will continue to serve you well in the HR profession.

All the very best.

Cheers, Trent

sonya owen
sonya owen
5 years ago

You have come a long way – well done and I wish you all the very best with your career, it’s obvious this is your calling.

Eugene Fernandez
Eugene Fernandez
5 years ago

I met John at his workplace at AMC and the AHRI convention in Melbourne. I am both humbled and amazed by his life’s journey and count myself (and the HR profession) fortunate to be the recipient of his grace and humanity.

More on HRM