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.”