Comedian Joe White laughs about ‘the heavy stuff’ to highlight refugee stories

When Joe White first came to Australia, he did not speak a lick of English.

His only real cue to join conversations was when somebody asked him about the name he was given at birth — Tiluhun Hailu.

It was hard for him to fit in with an unfamiliar name in a predominantly white school in Perth.

“When I was playing soccer in the [school’s] youth group, the guys couldn’t pronounce my name, but they needed a name to call so I’d pass the ball,” he said.

As his Australian accent grew stronger, and because he was going by Joe, people he spoke to on the phone often assumed he was white.

Since then, he’s gone by the name Joe White.

A photo of Joe White performing at the Comic's lounge.
Joe White says he uses comedy as a coping mechanism.(supplied)

According to the comedian, his family have always told him he was funny.

But his humor developed as a coping mechanism during the years of hardship his family faced after fleeing a violent civil war in Ethiopia to neighboring Sudan.

When he was seven years old his father abruptly left the family after a night of heavy drinking, leaving his mother to raise six kids alone.

White said his father felt burdened by the devastation of losing everything he’d worked for in Ethiopia and resorted to alcoholism.

“He was not the loving father that we remembered anymore,” he said.

“[Alcoholism] was his way of dealing with the demons that came with knowing you’ve just lost everything.”

With seven mouths to feed and no income, White’s mum applied to leave Africa entirely to ensure her kids a safer future in Australia.

Comedian Joe White and his friends.
Joe White says he took to life in Australia quickly.(supplied)

“Our neighbor had mentioned that if she goes to Khartoum, the capital city of Sudan, there is a United Nations Office where she can put her case forward and maybe get a go at a better life,” White said.

His family waited four years before hearing anything about their application.

He has said during that time, the family would tie themselves together with rope and clothes while they slept to prevent kidnapping.

“Getting approved to come here [to Australia] was like winning Lotto for us,” he said.

New culture, new jokes

White said he ended up adapting to life in Australia a lot easier than he’d expected.

With government support, he picked up English quickly, completed school and secured a job in finance.

“Every day I’d be in a tie, I had a company car, I got a credit card. It was sweet,” he said.

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