At school, Besta Poni Peter wrote her answers in the dirt, because she didn’t have money to buy a notebook.
She had one pair of shoes. Her chair was a rock in the shade of a mango tree, her school a grass house.
Growing up in Sudan, alone after losing her parents and her brother, all she had was the support of the people around her, and an unwavering focus: she was going to complete her education, and do something with her life.
Those years of going without have crystallised Ms Peter’s resolve into an unrelenting drive to give back.
When Ms Peter arrived in Australia with her husband in July 2003 as a refugee, she was pregnant, had limited English, and had to learn quickly how to navigate an unfamiliar country.
“New laws, new rules, the food is different, everything is different,” she said.
“The culture difference – always being conscious of what I say, if it’s going to offend a person, learning everything – challenges, everything is challenging.”
After just three weeks, she was out looking for work.
Still pregnant, Ms Peter joined the Red Cross at Launceston General Hospital, doing laundry, working at the canteen, and visiting patients.
That wasn’t enough for her: she went back to university, struggling through the language barrier to regain her qualifications in social work.
“I worked at the Migrant Resource Centre for five years as a case worker, then I did Family Violence for a year,” she said.
At the Migrant Resource Centre, Ms Peter used her own experiences to support those who followed in her footsteps to find a new life in Australia, helping them navigate a whole new culture.
And she stood with those who had felt the impact of, and were still facing, domestic violence, helping them overcome the worst so they too could move on.
Now, as an oncology social worker at Launceston General Hospital, Ms Peter “walks the road” with people reaching the end of their time.
“It’s hard, it’s very sad working with people with cancer … losing them every day – your own patients, you get to know them … then one day someone is gone,” she said.
“I think it’s because of my background … and because of the things that I’ve gone through I feel that I need to be there with people, walk beside them, because support is very important.
“When you support someone you never realise how much impact that support has on that person.”
In December Ms Peter was awarded the Tasmanian Human Rights Individual Award for her work with refugees who have arrived in Australia, fractured and uncertain in a new world, and for her campaign to support four schools in Sudan.
“I got a phone call from Hobart saying ‘actually you are one of the winners’, I was so excited,” Ms Peter said.
Ms Peter knows the difference that just one person can make.
After her parents died when she was young, Ms Peter was raised by her auntie. The care and support of one person made a lifetime’s difference: “Without her, there wouldn’t be me.”
Because of the things that I’ve gone through I feel that I need to be there with people, walk beside them.- Besta Poni Peter, Tasmanian Human Rights Individual Award winner
For a woman who loves challenge, establishing the Bright Star Foundation is perhaps Ms Peter’s greatest: encouraging children in battered Sudan to hold on to their dreams, no matter what.
Education is difficult to access in the uncertain, conflict-ready country: the Bright Star Foundation says that only 6 per cent of girls complete primary education.
Ms Peter and her colleagues in the foundation are focused on providing support and encouragement to four schools in the Yei district, covering the regions of Longamere, Pabanga, Bori and Logo in the southwest of South Sudan, close to the borders of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In 2014, Ms Peter went back to her old school in Sudan, back to the mango tree and the grass house, a journey she described as “hard”, remembering all that had happened.
Faced by awed young children looking at this woman who had come all the way from Australia, she pointed to the mango tree and told them that she was once like them.
“I had a goal – my goal is like a star, a shining star,” she said.
“Always when I sit by myself, everything looked very dark.
“And that star says to me, ‘study, study, study … you’ll have a car, you’ll have a big office, you’ll have work, you’ll have money’.
“It was with me all the time, that’s why I really commit to school, because I know that when I finish, I’ll have a good life.”
The Bright Star Foundation works to encourage young children in Sudan to stay in school, to study hard, and to find their own gifts and abilities.
The most basic facilities – water pumps, toilets, textbooks, blackboards, desks, chairs, backpacks and, of course, food – are all needed.
As president of the foundation, Ms Peter is determined that the awe she inspired in the students at these schools won’t fade away, that educating the next generations will help the six-year-old nation of South Sudan become something bigger, and brighter.
“If I could do something similar to also help those who are struggling, who are orphans, I think they will also be like me,” she said.
“And making a difference in their lives, it makes a difference in the whole nation, in the whole country.”
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