The lucky country no longer only a dream

JEROME Rugaruza saw his first kangaroo in a biology textbook in his last year of high school. The Congolese teenager was learning about mammals and his teacher explained that ‘‘you will find them just in Australia’’.

Six years later, after fleeing Fizi, his tribal village in the lawless east of the volatile Democratic Republic of Congo, a photograph of a kangaroo featured in a calendar hanging in his tent in a Rwandan refugee camp. He had no idea how it got there, but was intrigued by photos of New Zealand sheep, Great Plains bison and the quirky kangaroo, a symbol of a country free of protracted bloodshed, a place of hope.

Coming to Australia was ‘‘just a dream’’.

Fast forward 17 years through periods of desperation, dislocation and separation from his wife Immaculee and their children, and the rangy, well-dressed man who strides into an inner-city Newcastle cafe carrying a laptop appears to be a model example of what can be achieved by Australia’s refugee resettlement program.

The 41-year-old talks excitedly about his coming trip to Europe as part of social science studies at the University of Newcastle. As a witness to genocide – various militia have led a campaign of persecution against his tribe, the Banyamulenge Tutsi – he is studying its far-reaching impact and will be visiting Germany as well as the Hague.

I first met Jerome in August 2011, nearly two years after he arrived in Australia having secured a life-changing prize in the large-scale lottery that is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees resettlement queue.

‘‘I can still remember every minute because this was the day I was born to my new life, to this land,’’ he told me.

He was awaiting the arrival of Immaculee and their four children from Kenya (the couple have since welcomed their first ‘‘Aussie baby’’ Joshua).

I was at the airport when the fatigued, wide-eyed family arrived after a three-day journey to Newcastle via Dubai, Thailand and Sydney.

I spent a week with them, documenting the challenges of resettlement. It was a confronting experience.

A minibus dropped them at their temporary accommodation, a charmless brick house in an outer-lying suburb, where they were met by two Navitas caseworkers, one of whom was Congolese. Navitas, formerly ACL, is contracted by the federal government to provide Humanitarian Settlement Services. Caseworkers maintain links with new refugees for up to 12 months.

Until then, Jerome had been living with two other Congolese refugees in an inner-city suburb so the area was new to him, too.

Suddenly, he had to catch two buses to university, enrol the two eldest children in school even though he wasn’t sure where they would settle, and locate the nearest shopping centre.

For Immaculee, who lived for more than a decade in a tent in a Burundi refugee camp, the typical scene of Australian domesticity – whitegoods, loaves of bread, Tim Tams, a mobile phone – was utterly surreal. She was shown how to use the electric stove and rice cooker – luxuries beyond her experience.

The morning after her arrival, Immaculee was due to catch a bus with the four children and one of the caseworkers to a nearby suburb to register with Medicare and open a bank account. Then there were Centrelink appointments, her TAFE enrolment, decisions about childcare for her two youngest children while she attended English classes. The bureaucracy was demanding and impatient.

‘‘We can’t postpone?’’ a concerned Jerome asked quietly. ‘‘They are very tired. I don’t think the time [a 10am appointment] will be respected.’’

There was a tense but polite exchange and the exhausted family was roused.

‘‘Every step has its own challenges and every challenge is different,’’ Jerome says today. ‘‘When you are new, you obey and do what people recommend. You do not know you have the right to make changes, to move an appointment.’’

He says the experience of being a newly arrived refugee as being like that of a baby.

‘‘You need special care; you have to learn to speak [English], eat the different food, create relationships, connections.’’

While his three school-aged children have adapted quickly – his teenage son Bonfils has become a local soccer star and his two daughters have a network of friends – Jerome feels it is the adults, the ‘‘first’’ generation of resettled refugees, who struggle.

‘‘When you are first, you have to double the effort to make a new life,’’ he explains. ‘‘Language is a big problem. I know some refugees who learn English for four years; they are from small villages, they never went to school before. They can’t get a job and if you can’t get a job, you can’t get a loan – you will never own your own home.

‘‘Australians expect us to be exactly like them, which is hard, but there is hope with the next generation.’’

He is not ungrateful and considers his family’s good fortune at being accepted by UNHCR for resettlement as ‘‘manna from heaven’’, but the challenges remain. He is desperate to finish his studies so he can get a job and eventually buy a home.

‘‘All the steps begin in the burning village: you run with nothing to eat, no clothes. You just go. Then you get to the refugee camp,’’ he continues.

‘‘You have a little bread and you thank God you are safe. Then after a few years in the camp, you think about a future for your children. You arrive in Australia and then you learn a new language, you learn to drive.

‘‘There are so many steps and not everyone can do it. How do you get a job when you can’t speak English? How do you buy your own home if you can’t get a job? In some ways it is like refugees are still in a tent.’’

IN A STRANGE LAND: Jessica and Joy Rugaruza have settled in to a new routine at home in Mayfield. Pictures: Simone De Peak

REUNION: Jerome waits for his wife and children at Newcastle Airport.