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Refugee who fled war-torn Uganda wins prestigious Shakespeare scholarship

MELBOURNE: Seventeen-year-old Joel Loum Okumu fled war-torn Uganda not to seek fortune, but to protect himself from impending security dangers in his home country. However, one amazing twist of fate gave his life a proper direction.

Joel –  who arrived in Australia as a refugee, lost his parents after a horrific crime and only started acting two years ago –  has again exceeded his own expectations, by being named a recipient of one of the country’s most prestigious arts scholarships.

Okumu – who arrived in Australia without knowing one word of English – went above and beyond by putting his own spin on the classic plays.

The 17-year-old refugee has been chosen from 200 hopefuls to perform the immortal works of Shakespeare alongside some of Australia’s finest actors.


Joel will travel to the Bell Shakespeare Sydney headquarters in January to participate in masterclasses, watch live theatre and go behind the scenes of the company’s first production of the year, Richard 3.

When Joel – who first began acting in Year 11 – was told he had secured the honour, he thought he was being pranked.

“I actually couldn’t believe it, because I was like, ‘hey wait a second, how the hell did I beat people who have done acting way longer than I have?!” he told SBS News.


Joel competed against nearly 200 students from around Australia for the scholarship.

Joel was seven when tragedy struck. His father killed his mother at their Rankin Park home, plunging the family into despair, reported the Herald.

His father was found in 2008 to be not guilty by reason of mental illness and released from custody in 2009.

“I knew that kind of thing happened [in Uganda] – I was very, very upset for four years.”

The nine children went to live with a family friend for six months, but were then introduced to a guardian who supported them as they moved into their own four bedroom house.

Joel’s 17-year-old sister became head of the family and he learned to vacuum, wash dishes and look after himself.



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