SHE is safely home, a very reluctant hero, but the Lambton teen who bravely rescued her grandmother and young cousins from a war zone has one more wish.
Ayen Dong, the 16-year-old whose Christmas visit to relatives in South Sudan coincided with a new outbreak of civil war, showed remarkable bravery in rescuing her grandmother and five cousins from the violence before smuggling them through dangerous border checkpoints and into a Ugandan safe camp.
Ayen arrived home in Newcastle this week and returned to St Pius High School, Adamstown.
But with her aunty now assumed to have been killed by the Sudanese rebels in her homeland, Ayen wants her young cousins to join her in Australia.
"I only want one thing," the popular year 10 student said. "I want the children to come to Australia where they can be healthy and go to school.
"They cannot go back to Sudan and they cannot go to school. I hope they can come to Australia and have a better life."
Ayen's remarkable story began on December 22 when she left Newcastle for Juba in South Sudan. Having lived in Australia for nine years, she was hoping to meet her relatives.
Ayen was supposed to have been met by her aunty Angelina at Juba airport, but no one arrived. Earlier, Angelina had dropped her five children off at the home of Ayen's grandmother. What happened to her between there and the airport is not known, but she is believed to have been killed.
Ayen was able to make contact with another relative who drove her to her grandmother's home. Sidestepping bodies that had been left in the street, Ayen found her grandmother cowering beside a bed, fearing that the knock on the door was from armed fighters. Her five cousins were hiding under the bed.
"They were all very scared," Ayen said. "I just knew that I had to get them all out of there. There were bodies outside, it was terrible."
In phone contact with her mother Trazia back home in Lambton, money was raised through the Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Diocese and Penola House at Mayfield to buy bus tickets.
"I bought tickets for me and the children to go to Uganda," she said. "Grandma had to fly because [the rebels] know she is Dinka."
Dinka elders are easily recognised in South Sudan because they generally have six of their bottom front teeth removed.
"I gave the children Australian names and told them to be quiet on the bus."
She had no food or water, and was carrying only a few extra clothes in her backpack. Her grandmother had to leave everything behind when they fled Juba.
When they reached the Ugandan border, Nuer rebels boarded the bus, but Ayen said she and the children were from Australia. Their teeth were checked, Ayen produced her Australian passport and the children didn't falter with their adopted Australian names.
"We arrived in Kampala at night," Ayen said. "The UN camp was very hot and the children were terrified. Grandma was still very worried because her daughter was still missing."
Through friends of relatives, Ayen managed to get everyone into a safe house in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. She learned to cook for the children, who are now being cared for by Angelina's husband Michael.
"I wanted to come home once I knew everyone was safe but I had to wait until there was money to do it," Ayen said. "The children were all crying when I left."
With the brutal violence and shocking images of South Sudan still fresh in her mind, Ayen went back to school this week.
"Mum made me go straight back," she said. "I have so much work to catch up on. My friends just said 'welcome back'."
Ayen's mother Trazia said she was very proud of what her daughter had done, but remained saddened that no contact had been made with her sister Angelina.
"We hear nothing about Angelina," she said. "We hope that she is in a refugee camp somewhere, but we think the rebels have taken her away and killed [her]."