I’ve been fortunate enough to interview Jerome Rugaruza on several occasions.
Jerome arrived in Newcastle in 2009 after spending years in refugee camps after fleeing his home in a rural Congolese village.
In 2011, he was reunited with his wife, Imaculee, and their children.
To be greeted by Jerome is to be wrapped up in an enormous warm hug from this tall African man who, in spite of the terrors and hardships of the first 39 years of his life, remains warm and quick to laugh.
To know Jerome Rugaruza is to know joy.
I invited him in to the studio for a catch up.
“The big achievement of this year is that I got my citizenship on the 12th of May, and this July I finish my last semester of my Bachelor of Social Science at the University of Newcastle, but I won’t say I’ve finished – I have a key to the next level.”
“My citizenship day was a day which is special to my history, to my life. My joy is quite special and unique compared to most people. The hall was full, there were so many people who got their citizenship but I would say my joy was unique.”
Why does Jerome feel that receiving his citizenship was so significant?
“To understand why my joy was unique, I have to go back very far in a short but brief history of my community in general. In November 1884, there was a Berlin Conference under Emperor Bismarck in Germany, that’s when the western powers met to divide Africa. We call it ‘the scramble for Africa’.”
“The meeting ended in February 1885. That’s where Germany, Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal – the western powers – decided to go and divide Africa. During that time we were living under the Rwandan Kingdom, the Abanyamurenge community became Congolese because the border separated them from their descendants. Part of Burundi, part of Rwanda. So we became separated even though we had similar cultures, traditions and customs, and even the language still connected to Burundi and Rwanda.”
“But from that day in 1885 – I have to remind you that we didn’t cross the border – the border moved in front of us – we became Congolese because of the right of the land. But from that time until today, in the 21st century, we have never been granted Congolese citizenship. Can you imagine?
“The cause of the African ‘world war’ was part of the denial of the Abanyamurenge nationalities in the Congo. At that time the Congo was called Zaire. So imagine if someone was given a citizenship just for being in Australia for four years. My ancestors were living in the Congo for more than four centuries and they have never been granted citizenship.”
“If you ask 80-90% of Congolese, ‘What’s your major problem?’, they’ll say, ‘We don’t need these foreigners in our land.’”
“They always call us ‘foreigner’ and ‘refugee’ on our own land. I remember in 1996 when the first war broke in the Congo, that was due to the government of my province who were gave seven days notice to leave the land. That’s when the Rwandan, Burundian and the Ugandans intervened after they had gotten authorisation from the United Nations saying, ‘These people belong here. They don’t have anywhere to go.’”
“That’s when the first war broke in the Congo, and it started in my village. Imagine! From my village in the rural highland, it spread until it reached the capital city, Kinshasa, on the coast in the west.”
“After that, nine countries in Africa joined the war – some supporting the rebels, others supporting the government. That’s why we call if the ‘African World War’.”
“Just because of the simple word ‘othering’ foreigners. People may think they are (only) doing small things (to others) but finally they may be transformed to a huge disaster and create a big problem that will involve the whole world.”
Only Jerome and his youngest son, Joshua, have so far gained Australian citizenship.
“Joshua was born here in Newcastle so the others have to wait another two years. I have to remind myself there are 10 in the family now,” Jerome laughs.
How does Jerome now look back on his own experiences. Australians generally live very sheltered lives and probably don’t truly understand how difficult life can be in other countries.
“Normally, I would say that it’s floating, overflowing! The whole family is now reunited and I appreciate all efforts by many people here in Australia to facilitate the reunion of my family, which is a great step in my life,”
“I would also thank the people who helped me to join the university, which was my father’s will and legacy. He said, ‘If you study, no-one will loot that wealth from you, but cows can be taken off you’. Cows used to be our economy and identity. This happened to my father, as if he was prophesying it. After he told me that, he was killed on our farm and more than 100 cattle looted in 1996 when the first war broke in the Congo.”
“However, I am still pulled on the other side because I left Africa as an adult so I know what I passed through. That’s why one part is here rejoicing, but the other part is sad. It’s like the rotation of the world. When the world is rotating and here it is day, but in Africa it’s dark. So my heart turns to the African side, especially the refugee camps, I feel sad. But when the sun comes here, I turn to the opportunity, facility, human rights, respect, whatever we enjoy here in Australia, and I feel happy.
Does Jerome worry that raising his children as Australians will create a gap between himself and his children?
“Actually, we had no culture clash after we arrived here in Australia, just a few small unusual things. The regular and big things are equal because my culture is not Congolese – it’s Christian. So because of that we find common ground and I don’t find it hard to integrate or to approach people or to feel that they are part of my family.”
“But they still remember their situation in the refugee camp so they have a compassionate heart for helping. The little ones, they are just Aussie. Their business is just studying, playing and talking English at home. They can’t even speak my language, but I don’t mind because I’m prepared that my future will be totally different to their future.”
Does Jerome now feel safe or are there still moments of concern for the security of his family?
“Not really, it’s like staying in an endless honeymoon,” laughs Jerome.
So, what does Jerome observe about us as very fortunate Australians?
“In my culture we have a proverb about a particular white necklace. It says anyone who is wearing it can know how beautiful it is because it’s on your neck. Only people who observe you from afar, they are the ones who know how smart you look. But yourself, you can’t see the necklace, so it’s very hard to understand how important it is. So Australians can’t really understand their worth.”
“There are so many things for Australians to know, especially for those in the education field who (in Australia) don’t teach much about modern African history, politics, etc.”
“Also charity, it’s a bit like we are ignoring the other side of the world. I did one course in social justice and social welfare that teaches how wealthy we are and how we don’t distribute this wealth equally. Another was about the sociology of food, how we learn about hunger and how much food the world is producing. So the world can produce peace, and a harvest to eat, but it holds it on ‘one side of the store’ and lets the other side of the world remain in conflict when they could do something. So, what Australia can contribute is to influence peace in the Congo, or South Sudan, or wherever peace lacks they can influence.”
“Also basic human rights – food, shelter, health, education. These are basic.
Does Jerome think that Australia is ‘othering’ whether it is refugees, asylum seekers or our own indigenous people?
“I can’t say what has happened to others because it hasn’t happened to me. I can hear people say it but I haven’t observed it, I haven’t experienced it. Wherever I go, I compete (equally with others). At university they selected me to give a speech during Harmony Day, they’ve given me a casual job. A colleague used to tell me, ‘Even when you finish university you won’t get a good job.”
“But I was able to say, ‘I’ve already got it. I’m working at uni, I have a staff number, I’m already there.’ So how will you convince me that there is ‘othering’, there’s discrimination, when even before I finish my degree I have a job. It’s only casual, a few hours per week, but they pay me according to the law.”
Jerome has struggled for his education and has no intention of stopping now.
“I would like to do my masters next. I finished secondary school in 1991. When I attempted to go to university, the war broke out. So I had no chance to finish my university education. Now I’m over 40 years old, but I still have that determination. The bachelor degree is the key to the next level.”
“I want to work in international relations, perhaps as a diplomat. Or international development to see if I can influence a good change in Africa through Australian aid and policy. With Australian policy (development) I can advise them on how they can succeed in helping Africa because I know what they lack, I know what they have, I know what they need, I know what they don’t like.”
So what makes this proud African man a proud Australian?
“The most important things that make me feel Australian are respecting Australian law and being proud of being an Australian. I’m happy because I will travel like any other Australian.”
“Last August when I went to Europe on a university exchange program. After studying at Utrecht University, I thought I’d visit London and bought a ticket to visit all of Europe. But when I got to the border of the UK and France, they said, ‘You can’t cross because your nationality is still Congolese.’ So they refused me entry. I said, ‘How can it happen that the whole of Europe allows me to go freely but there’s a law that I can’t go there?’ I felt a bit sad but now I can just go and they’ll let me enter without any problem.”
“In August, I will fly to Africa doing some research with another student from the University of Sydney and we’ll visit five different refugee camps to compare what they’re enduring.”
You can listen to my conversation with Jerome here. I suggest you do – just wait until you hear this man laugh!
“In May there was a serious problem when police in Kenya surrounded a church of my community when they were praying. They took them to a camp a long way from where they were living. No-one was taken with the members of their family. The children have been left alone and separated. So today we are still advocating, we are struggling to ask the UNHCR and Australian government to help. I’ve contacted Amnesty International and they are trying very hard to help these people be re-united.”
On the Friday night before Christmas 2012, I spent six hours in an operating theatre with a dearly loved friend. The only time I’d ever been conscious in an operating theatre was during the caesarean births of my sons.
When someone tells you something like “I have cancer” it’s probably a fairly common response to feel both scared and helpless.
But if I was to write a list of ‘things I love about my job’, then being able to do stories like this and share them with others, maybe making a difference, would be right up there. I call it ‘using my evil powers for good’.
Brad and his wife felt that in doing this story it would help others in the future who might be faced with the terrible decision he had to make. It’s a story with a bit of a twist, too.
As for me, if just one boy gets vaccinated against HPV that might not have if it weren’t for this story – then I’m happy.
BRAD KEELING: I started smoking when I was 17 and I gave up when I was 24 so I smoked for about eight years I guess, and not very heavily, but yeah, I smoked. I’ve been around smokers all my life. My Dad worked for WD & HO Wills but that didn’t really mean that I took up smoking because of him, he was the person most against me smoking.
Both my parents smoked all their lives and both of them died from cancer, but neither of them died from a cancer which was caused by smoking. My father was a blender of tobacco. A buyer of tobacco originally for William Butler tobacco company, then WD & HO Wills which became British American Tobacco.
As a buyer he eventually became a blender and then he effectively was the chemist who put together the cigarettes in the way they were compiled – flavours with different leaves and things.
He travelled lots of places from Mareeba in Australia to Rhodesia in Africa and just like somebody would create perfume with different blends, my dad created cigarettes. I remember one interesting one, Port Royal roll your own tobacco, which smells great. To this day I think it smells great when I smell it in the pouches. It was sweet and fruity.
Anyway, he created all those things. He’d travel around and look for leaves from different places, if it rained too heavily in South America, he’d have to find somewhere else in New Guinea that had the same type of leaf or whatever. Today, of course, cigarettes are not created by blenders, it’s all created artificially by computer programs.
I think there has been an element of passive smoke around me all my life, no question about it, certainly in my childhood and twenties. In those days people smoked in the house, bars and restaurants and all sorts of places. It was really only in the eighties that we publicly stopped smoking in places like aeroplanes and offices and so on, so I’ve had passive smoke around me all of my life because of my upbringing and the general community. It was just what we did.
My cancer is throat cancer and one of the causes of throat cancer is smoking, but I’m not a smoker. There are other potential causes but we just don’t know, and may never know, what caused my cancer. I guess they’ll have some pathology eventually and will know. I like a beer and alcohol is another cause.
Smoking and alcohol are the most prevalent causes but another is HPV (human papilloma virus) which apparently people can have, and not know, for decades. I’ve since found out this is why they now want to immunise young teen boys against HPV with the cervical cancer vaccine.
I went to the doctor back in September for a persistent sore throat that was quite persistent, I’d had it for what seemed like months. I’d put up with it and it seemed to come and go but actually it was always there. Eventually I gave up whinging about it and went to the doctor. She looked in my throat, saw it was a little red so prescribed antibiotics which I took religiously for two courses and then went back to her and said, ‘No, I still have a sore throat’. She was wondering then if I had some post-nasal drip. I felt like I did although I couldn’t quite work it out but I now know that the lump in my throat that I’m constantly trying to swallow is actually attached to the back of my tongue but I didn’t know that at the time so we put some steroids up my nose for a few weeks to try to dry up my nose.
That didn’t help the throat and I still had that feeling (of wanting to swallow something) and so I went back and saw her late November. At that point she decided to have me see an ear, nose and throat specialist that Saturday (24 November). He had a look down my throat and told me I had a lump and sent me off for an MRI on the Tuesday. He then phoned me on the Wednesday to say he wanted me to have a biopsy on the Saturday (1 Dec). He rushed through the pathology and rang me on the Monday night to say I had a tumour, cancer, and that there was more than likely a secondary cancer in my lymph glands.
I went on the Tuesday to a cancer specialist head and neck surgeon, Dr Jonathan Clarke, who confirmed that I had cancer and that, again, most likely that there was a secondary cancer. He ordered a PET scan that showed that I have a cancerous tumour in my throat and also one of the lymph glands in my neck.That afternoon I saw Professor Milross at RPA and discussed the treatments available. I’d also discussed the treatments with Dr Clarke.
The other interesting thing that I now know, having read about throat cancer, there’s not a lot everybody tells you that’s interesting but I now know that throat cancer often first presents as an ear ache. I went to the doctor for an ear ache back in February. Of course, I had an ear ache and my jaw was a bit sore so we just thought that maybe I slept with my mouth open or maybe I held my head strangely so I had some jaw exercise to try to relieve the pressure. There was nothing wrong with my eardrum it just looked like I was putting some pressure on a nerve or something. I didn’t, of course, couple the ear ache with the sore throat until reading about it now.
It was only the radio-oncologist who asked me when I first got the ear ache. He was trying to analyse how fast the tumour was growing. So given that I’ve had the ear ache since at least February the tumour is not growing terribly fast. That’s a good thing. Even so, I’m going to have to have it out. I had to decide between surgery and chemotherapy, both of which would probably be coupled with radiation therapy. That’s been pretty difficult. It’s not like going to the doctor and finding, ‘You’ve got a sore throat and this is what you do – take this pill and lie down.’
The text book treatment, I’m told by the radio-oncologist, for throat cancer is chemotherapy and radiotherapy combined and that surgery, in the past, has been a drastic measure only taken if necessary because to get to the back of your throat the surgeon needs to cut through your jaw, split your jaw open, and then excise the tumour, close your jaw up and join it back together again. Apparently that’s not always that successful and affects all sorts of things from speech to swallowing to goodness only knows what.
However, there is a newer option for surgery these days which is a robotic surgery option where they don’t need to split your jaw, they essentially send a little robot down your throat. It makes no choices of its own, the surgeon manipulates it remotely, and it chops out the tumour. But I had to choose between surgery and chemotherapy and I’ve chosen the surgery route.
I think surgery for throat cancer now with this robot (Da Vinci machine), whilst new, I gather this robot has been used by all sorts of people from the US military to people using it here. We have one here in Australia at the Macquarie University Hospital. I’m going to go with the robotic surgery because I think it’s going to be less of a strain on me and my body than the combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
There’s not enough data at the moment but for some people the robotic surgery result is complete cure and no need for radiotherapy, but I’m in stage three cancer where I have a secondary cancer in my lymph gland. They can’t use the robot for that, they’ve actually got to cut me from my ear to the middle of my throat and extract lymph glands. Because of the possibility of microscopic cancers being elsewhere in the lymph glands the likelihood of radiotherapy following surgery is pretty high for me.
But for others who have throat cancer and no secondary cancer, to excise the tumour with this Da Vinci robot would be pretty good. I’m told the current data says that 60% of those people don’t have any follow-up radiation needed. I don’t think I’m going to be in that category because of the secondary cancer but that’s neither here nor there, and it’s most unlikely that I’ll require chemotherapy post-operation. I’m confident that this is a curable cancer. Both the surgeon and the radiologist separately and independently said that the outcome of this is most likely that it will be cured and it will be gone.
CAROL DUNCAN: What is your main worry at the moment?
BRAD KEELING: I don’t know that I’m really worried about much. The things that worry me mostly are family and friends worrying unnecessarily or more than they need to. I’ve found that to be a very interesting process, talking to family and friends, saying ‘Look, I’ve got some news but it’s all OK really. I’ve got cancer.’ Nobody really takes that very well so I’m mostly worried about getting other people worried.
As for surgery, I don’t like the idea of it, never really have, but I don’t like taking a Panadol! Why would I like surgery?! I’ve already had the needles stuck in my arms for the various reasons like the biopsy and PET scan and while I can deal with needles, I don’t really like it. (Laughs) Post-operative care, I’m told, is basically pretty simple. The throat should heal quite well, the stitches in my neck will heal like any other operation would and it will be fine.
I’m having part of the back of my tongue cut out so there’s the potential for an impact on swallowing and my voice but we’ll wait and see. We don’t really know what’s going to happen there. Assuming I have to have radiation therapy after the operation, the impact of the radiotherapy is such that I will lose part of my taste buds and the ability to taste things, and I will have a reasonably dry throat because I’ll lose some of my salivary glands.
The other interesting thing about choosing the operation as opposed to the combination of chemotherapy and radiation with no operation is that the operation is drastic but a kind of triage for the radiotherapy. I’m told they can target much more accurately the radiotherapy post an operation than they can if I don’t have the operation. In the simplest of terms they said, for instance, ‘We’d have to target the radiotherapy on your neck and both sides of your neck and therefore both salivary glands and all of your tastebuds will be affected,’ whereas post the operation they’ll only have to target the radiotherapy on my left side and therefore the impact will be considerably less.
CAROL DUNCAN: Why do you want me to tell your story?
BRAD KEELING: Recording this story is, I think, something that people will be able to listen to, read, look at photos and make an informed decision about the choice between chemotherapy and the operation. The operation using this robot has really only been done in Australia a dozen times or so, we haven’t had the robotic surgery capability here, so when I was given the choice, the necessity to choose between chemotherapy and the operation, I had to do my own research on the robot, read about it, find out what it was.
Now, this little story is something that other people can read and hopefully it will help them weigh up the choices between chemotherapy and radiation, and the operation. But I’m not qualified to give anybody any medical advice, this little story is really just my story. Anybody reading this, listening to this, really should go and get their advice from their own medical practitioners.
** You can read or listen to all of the interviews I conducted for the radio series on the ABC Newcastle website. A documentary version will go to air on Radio National soon.
When it comes to Anzac Day, Australian singer/songwriter JohnSchumann says, “There could be a hundred of me and there still wouldn’t be enough to go around!” referring to the huge success of his 1983 song, ‘I Was Only 19’.
I first met John when I started working for his then-record company, CBS, in 1988. I was 22. We had to attend the company Christmas party dressed as ‘a song’.
Fortunately, we survived this and remain friends to this day.
John Schumann will be spending Anzac Day this year in the Hunter Valley to perform at the Gumball Festival having chosen to do this local music festival rather than the numerous other requests he’s received for performances in different parts of the country.
John wrote ‘I Was Only 19’ after listening to the stories of returned serviceman, including family members, revealing the impact on themof serving in Vietnam.
The song has become an incredibly powerful anthem for generations of returned servicemen and their families and is one of the APRA Top 30 Australian Songs of All Time.
I’ve known John Schumann for over 25 years and spoke with him about how he feels about having written such an iconic song.
“It’s quite astounding that it’s been that long. It’s just extraordinary to think that we still talk about the song and that it’s still as powerful today as it was when it was written.”
“I’m really delighted that the song is still requested by listeners. A songwriter gets to write a song like Only 19 once in his or her life. I’m unbelievably blessed.”
“I remember there was a Jackson Browne song, The Road, in which there was a line that said ‘a good song takes you far’ and, boy, I’ve been to so many places and met so many amazing people and done so many amazing things on the back of ‘I Was Only 19’ that I couldn’t begin to tell you.”
“When we released the song the record company tried to interest the Americans in it.”
“The Americans came back and said, “We’re not sure our audiences are going to understand ‘Puckapunyal’ and ‘Shoal Water’ and ‘Canungra’ and ‘Townsville’ so can we change the words to make it more American?”
“You can imagine my response! It was based on the fact that we have to suck up New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Jackson, Michigan, Memphis, yada yada … in all the songs that we get spoon fed so what is it that’s so precious about the Americans that they can’t cope with Canungra, Puckapunyal, Townsville and all that stuff.”
“As it happens, all the American vets who’ve heard I Was Only 19 love it, and not one has ever suggested I should change the lyrics, they love it as it is.”