From refugee to CPA, Denis Yengi has overcome extraordinary obstacles to achieve success.
By Louise McCabe and Stephen Craft
Denis Yengi has faced struggles most of us couldn’t begin to imagine. His happy childhood in South Sudan ended abruptly at age seven, when he and his family were forced to flee the country’s brutal civil war. After crossing the border into northern Uganda on foot, they spent 13 long years in a UN refugee camp.
“You’re in a big stretch of land and they say, ‘Here is your tent, here is some food’, and that’s it,” Yengi recalls.
“You hope that the UN will bring food – but sometimes they don’t. It was pretty terrible, especially as a child and young person.”
Amid the deprivation and uncertainty of the camp, Yengi continued to dream of a better life. Inspired by a church member who counted their meagre offerings, Yengi decided he would work to become an accountant.
“I was fascinated by the respect that he got and the trust the church community had in him,” he says.
While opportunities to complete his education were few, Yengi was fiercely determined. “I convinced a local high school principal to let me complete my year nine for free in exchange for cleaning the school,” he says.
“What keeps me awake at night is not my past but my dreams for the future.”
Still, his prospects looked bleak – until his family received a surprise visit from his uncle, Ben Yengi OAM, who had emigrated to South Australia in the 1970s and now hoped to sponsor them to join him in Adelaide. It took another five years, when Yengi was 20, before he and his family were finally able to make the trip to Australia.
From poverty to promenades
The tree-lined streets and stately homes of Adelaide were a shock after the poverty and disorder of the refugee camp.
“There were all these beautiful wide streets in the suburbs – but there was no-one walking around!” laughs Yengi.
“I was homesick for about three months for family and friends, but I was lucky because my uncle and aunty gave us the support that we needed to settle into Australia.”
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His uncle Ben rapidly became a major influence in Yengi’s life, his impressive community work with the Indigenous Pitjantjatjara people and South Australia’s migrants leaving an indelible impression.Yengi enrolled at Marden Senior College to fill the gaps in his education.
“Tutoring really helped, and, of course, I was really determined,” he says.
“In Uganda, you really have to struggle to be able to go to school or study. But here, you are encouraged to learn. In year 12, I’d go to the library, then go home and study three hours more. And I was careful about who I made friends with so I didn’t get sidetracked.”
His hard work soon paid off. Yengi passed year 12 with an award for Outstanding Achievement in Education and was accepted into the Bachelor of Commerce degree at Flinders University.
“If you believe in it and persistently work towards it, even the horrific experience of war will never take your dream away.”
“I really had a very good time there,” he says.
“In 2002, there were very few Africans, particularly South Sudanese, so being the only one in the School of Commerce made it easier for me to establish good relationships with my lecturers. I also received a lot of help from the senior lecturer, Graham Jones [FCPA]. In fact, when I need something, I still contact him.”
Jones, from Flinders University’s Business School, recalls his early impression of the hard-working Sudanese student.
“I spent time with Denis and one of his friends, also a refugee who had missed out on some education basics, and supported them,” he says.
“Denis was very considerate of others’ feelings and always thought carefully before he spoke.”
Jones says that in addition to a considerable university workload, Yengi took on the extra responsibility of caring for his family. And when his uncle Ben returned to his home village to build a hospital and schools, Yengi stepped up to take the role of a leader in his community. “Even back then, Denis was a natural leader,” says his mentor.
After graduating, Yengi resolved to work for the public sector as a way of expressing his gratitude for the opportunities Australia had given him. So he was overjoyed when he became a senior analyst in the South Australian Auditor-General’s Department.
“Not that long ago, I’d been in a refugee camp – and now here I was, auditing the South Australian Industrial Relations Court and the Workers Compensation Tribunal,” says Yengi. “I couldn’t quite believe it.”
Other analyst and business management roles followed, as Yengi climbed the ranks of the public service. He continued to give back to the community after hours, helping South Sudanese refugees rebuild their lives. In 2014, his work as treasurer of the South Sudan Equatoria Communities Association of South Australia was recognised by an African-Australian Captains Award. But his proudest achievement came last year, when he received the CPA designation – realising an ambition nurtured since childhood.
“What keeps me awake at night is not my past but my dreams for the future – and how can I develop the skills that I need for my next goal,” says Yengi.
“My future is now filled with possibilities. If you dare to dream of achieving something, it doesn’t matter how long it takes. If you believe in it and persistently work towards it, even the horrific experience of war will never take your dream away.”
Giving back to the community
While he doesn’t dwell on the pain of his past, Yengi will never forget where he came from. It’s part of the driving force in him to give back where he can.
“When I see women and kids in war-torn countries, it really hurts my heart,” he says. “No-one should have to live in these conditions.”
Yengi’s determination to give something back to the Australian community and help other new arrivals from his homeland has left a lasting impression on those who have crossed his path.
Archangelo Sangu, chairperson of the South Sudan Equatoria Communities Association of South Australia, says Yengi continues to be a passionate volunteer, dedicating much of his free time and using his skills to support the Sudanese community.
“We named Denis our Peter Costello [Australia’s treasurer in the Howard government],” says Sangu. “As our treasurer for four years, he did a wonderful job conducting due diligence and coming up with some terrific fundraising ideas.”
Eugenia Tsoulis OAM, CEO of the Migrant Resource Centre of South Australia, has had a long association with the South Australian Sudanese community. She sat on a committee with Yengi to raise money for rebuilding a school and hospital in Sudan, but also recalls meeting him on the very day he arrived in Australia with his brothers and cousins.
“Denis shared a dream with all the young Sudanese I met – and that’s simply, to get a good education,” says Tsoulis.
“While he had a lot of support in the community here, Denis was also very resilient, and it stood out.”
Tsoulis believes that Yengi’s success and generosity is a testament to the value that refugees can contribute to the wider Australian community.
“Denis has achieved so much personally, but has also given so much back,” she says. “Like so many refugees, he wanted to prove that he could make it – and he has. He really is a wonderful man and an inspiration to others.”
One piece of accounting career advice
“A dream is a powerful thing. Anyone, rich or poor, can afford it. The lesson of my story is that anyone can reach their dreams. What you need is determination, focus and persistence.” Denis Yengi