Theophile Elongo, interviewee
Theophile Elongo was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He left as a refugee in the early stages of the war in the east of DRC which started in 1996. Theophile has a university education and was working at the Red Cross as a community health liaison officer before he and his family were forced to flee the war-torn country, assisted by American missionaries.
After escaping to Tanzania, Theophile and his family spent four years in refugee camps before being resettled in Australia. Whilst in the refugee camp Theophile had a job with the Red Cross, providing community health education to refugees on how to prevent HIV, malaria and tuberculosis.
In Australia, Theophile is the Director General of GLAPD (Great Lakes Agency for Peace and Development), a Western Sydney agency which helps refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda settle in Australia, and educates refugees about mental health.
Louise Whelan, oral historian and photographer
Photographer and oral historian Louise Whelan has been documenting Sydney’s diverse communities for the past 8 years.
A single mother of four primary school–aged children, Whelan left her job in property valuation to pursue her passion for photography. Her interest and passion for understanding the lives of others drew her to an ongoing project to document multicultural Australia with a focus on new settlers.
Whelan’s vibrant photographs capture Sydney’s recently arrived migrants from countries across the world.
Listen to more stories from this series
Interview transcript (1 of 1)
Okay. We are recording.
This is Louise Whelan interviewing Theophile Elongo
in Silverwater, New South Wales, on 22 June 2013.
Theophile is a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He’s the director of GLAPD,
the Great Lakes Agency for Peace and Development International.
Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed
for the State Library's New South Wales Refugee And Migration Stories.
Now you don’t have to say anything,
talk about anything that you don’t agree with.
Are you okay to proceed?
Yes, please. I’m okay to proceed.
Thank you, Louise. Yes.
So Theophile, just tell us, do you know where and when you were born?
I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which was on 3 June 1974.
I’ve grown up in Congo as well.
So I did my studies in Congo: primary school, secondary school
and then I went for the university in DRC,
and I complete my bachelor degree in DRC.
My first job which I had in DRC was, I used to work as a humanitarian.
I used to work with the Red Cross in DRC.
So then, in 1996, we had been forced to leave the country because of the war.
So I left the Congo and I went to Tanzania to live there as a refugee,
because there was war in our country.
So we moved from Congo to Tanzania, yes.
Right. What was it like for you, growing up?
Were you in a town or a village or -
Where did you grow up? Was it in the city or in a village?
No. I was living in the city, in DRC.
But I used to have also friend, who used to live in village.
So I was living in the city, this is where I was working,
but sometime I used to go for vacations to see my friend in the village, yes.
All right. Were you from a big family or -
I’m really from a very big and large family.
I was born in a family of seven boys and three daughters.
We were born with our own mum and our own dad,
so we were born 10 people in the same family.
We, seven boys and three girls, and I’m the youngest one in the whole family.
Wow, the baby.
Yes. A baby. Yes.
What was it like for you, growing up with a big family?
Within the big family in Africa is always about challenging.
Because over there, people don’t have much resources to support the family.
So, it’s a very hard situation when you are born in a very large family
and the family doesn’t have enough money to support their children.
It's a bit challenging.
But our dad, my mum and my dad, they did all their best to try to help us a lot.
Because all of us, in 10 young men, all of us in our family,
everyone did reach the university, which is what was very good.
Our sisters, our selves, everyone went for the university,
and it was a very challenging thing for my dad and my mum as well.
Were your parents educated?
Yes. My dad was educated, because my dad was a teacher,
and my mum, too, used to work as an assistant nurse at the hospital.
So both of them, they did, they were educated,
but they didn’t reach the very higher level of education.
Both of them did have the chance to finish their Year 12 only.
Then after Year 12, they done some short courses,
so that my dad went for to be a teacher
and my mum also used to work as an assistant nurse.
She used normally to provide counselling to women.
She used also to assist a number of women in the village
to do their family planning. Yes, something like that.
So that was the job of my mum.
Right. What about daily life, say when you were five.
In terms of what - five or six, I suppose you can’t remember too far back.
But say when you were five, what would have been a daily routine for you?
When I was very young -
so, I can’t really remember much about my young age. But I’ve used, number of time,
to be involved in soccer because soccer was my favourite sport.
So I would be there, all the time -
I would try to tell my mum to play with me the soccer, sometime my dad.
As you know, there is no some specific places where we can go,
so I was just trying to learn soccer. That was one of my favourite sports.
Daily life was a bit hard.
Sometime, in some days, we will have coffee in the morning,
some days we would not have coffee in the morning.
So that is - but over there, there is shortage of food, whatever,
but Dad and Mum did all their best to try to save our life all the time, yes.
Of course. That must have been difficult.
What type of food -
like, what would have been your staple food when you were younger?
In Congo, the normal food, which we do always eat is a cassava.
I don’t know if you know cassava?
No. What’s cassava?
Cassava is a special food, and there is a process to make it.
It is a really long process, cassava.
I don’t know if cassava, you know cassava - it's a Congolese common food.
Is it a vegetable?
It's a vegetable, yes.
So it’s the daily life food for everyone in the east, especially in the east.
Yeah. Vegetable, meat, fruit.
So, but cassava is the common food in the east of DRC, yes.
Yeah. Like a base - so is that a green vegetable or root vegetable?
It’s a vegetable, but it's made - it takes longer for it to be made.
It's like a - I don’t know if it's manioc in English, or -
cassava is like, they do call it in French 'manioc'.
That is the daily food for a number of people in the east of DRC.
Also, there is plenty of vegetable in DRC too, people can eat vegetable.
There is enough fruit over there. Especially the area which I was born,
there is plenty of avocado, bananas, so canne à sucre [sugar cane].
So, a lot. There is [sucre à canne?] also. There is plenty of fruit over there.
So, those are part of what -
Would that have been fruit that your parents would have purchased,
or is it fruit that’s around?
I think most of - in the village, when you go in the village,
you can’t buy or pay with the money to buy some fruit.
You can get it freely from other people. Because there is no market over there,
where villages - people can take the fruits to somewhere.
People who go there in the village to buy food,
there are very, very lower number of the people who visit -
who go to villages and buy something. So, there is plenty over there.
There is plenty of food in the village,
but there is no market for those people who are living in the village.
So food - there's bananas in DRC, in the east, especially in the village.
You don’t have to buy those bananas,
you can get it freely from the village's people, yes.
Right. So that would be in exchange of something or -
Yes, sometimes they do exchange bananas with salt,
something like that.
They can exchange something,
like they would take sugar, they can exchange with avocado, something like that,
in the villages, yes. Most of the markets are in the cities, so villagers -
the villagers people do all their best to bring their good in the city,
so that they can sell and get some money as well.
Had your parents always lived in the city, or is that -
did they live in villages before?
My family did have a chance to live in the city,
because our grandfather was living in the city.
He used to work with a Belgium company, mining - Belgium mining company.
So our grandfather was working with the Belgium.
So when the Belgium went, when the Congo had independence,
he had a very large place in the city, with a large building in the city.
So when he died, my dad straightaway took the place of his dad.
So he started living in the city. Myself too, all of us, we were born in the city.
But all the time, Dad and Mum used to organise a number of trip with us -
we go to the village, we can see our other brothers
who were living in the village. So, that was something.
We were really happy, we ourselves, during the holiday time,
to go to the village and visit the villagers, well, yes, yes.
So we are familiar with the both life; city life in DRC and village life,
because we do - we used all of the time
to make visit to those people who are living in the villages, yes.
Right. What things would you do in the villages in your holidays?
Like, how did life differ from the city?
In the village,
some time we will learn from young people who are living in the village,
how to swim.
Swim, because there is plenty of rivers in the village,
so they will take us sometime to swim.
Sometime we will learn from those villagers, young men, how to fish.
So, sometime, we learn how to run in the forest, something like that.
It was very interesting. Yes.
Is there cultural things that have passed down through generations,
in a village life or within your life with your family?
Culture is very powerful in the village.
When you go to the village, everything you will do, your life will be -
everything will be under culture.
You see, like, if you meet with somebody, aged person in the village,
you have to shake hands, two hands.
To say hello, you have to shake hand with them, it's a sign of respect.
If you are talking to somebody in the village, in our culture,
who is more aged than you, elder person,
you should not have eye contact with the person.
So when you are talking to an authority, government authority or something,
you can’t have the eye contact with them.
When you are talking to your brother's wife or something,
you can’t have eye contact.
So in the village, there is a lot of - culture is very strong in the village.
But in the city, people doesn’t really -
because city is a mixed place where people have different culture.
So, culture in the cities are not really strong compared to the village.
Did your parents try to instill or encourage
some of that cultural stuff with you when you visited the village?
Was that an important thing?
Yes, yes, yes. That was an important -
culture was an important thing for us.
Because, most of the time when we are ready to go to the village
to visit the village, some of what our dad, mum will say
is that you have to be very careful when you are visiting the village.
You have to respect fully the culture. That is our culture,
so you have when you go to the village - that was part of the world.
All the time, when we want to go to the village,
they will come with all those what - they will advise us that
you should keep the culture strongly when you go to the village.
Right. You mentioned before that you were the youngest of the family.
I think I heard another Congolese friend of mine mention
there is a word for the youngest. Do you know?
So, in our culture, if you are the youngest of the family, there is -
you are the lucky person, because you can benefit assistance
from all those people who were born before you.
If anyone has to assist, they will - all, they will assist.
The youngest is more assisted in the Congolese family than the elders in some -
as I learn.
Because dad, mum, your brothers and sisters, they will all be looking after you.
So, that is something -
there is some benefit to be born in our culture as the youngest one.
Do you feel lucky?
I feel lucky, yes.
I feel lucky, because when we have so many brothers and sisters,
you can’t suffer more, because if you don’t have anything, you can go and ask,
“Brother, I need this. Dad, I need this.”
So you will find that, around you,
you have a number of people who can still assist you.
So, you feel yourself that you are the ‘lucky’ of the family.
Really? Yes, that’s good.
So tell me a bit about the process of coming to Australia
and how you become a refugee.
Coming into Australia as a refugee,
as I know from my experience, is not an easy thing.
Especially when you are coming here as a - on humanitarian basis,
it's not really an easy thing. It is a long process, because you have to prove that -
you have to prove to protection officers that -
UNHCR protection officer, that you can’t be - you are really in insecurity,
and you were in insecurity when you just left your home country.
So that is a long process.
It involves having some interview with immigration people.
It is also involving having some interviews before that with UNHCR.
It involves also some medical exams,
because you have to go through the medical exam.
Also, it involves also clear explanation;
you have to make a clear explanation and prove to those authorities,
UNHCR government authorities, that you were in insecurity.
So that is how that process is, but it's not a really quick process.
It’s a long process. It may take you two to three years in some cases, yes.
How did that insecurity come about for you? What was the -
The insecurity may -
you know, we, as a people, we were working as humanitarian in DRC.
Myself, I used to work with Red Cross.
I was involved in a number of community humanitarian activities,
which probably in some eyes of the government, that didn’t really look good.
So I was not really able to go back to my home country at that particular time,
because there was war.
Over there, even if today in DRC in the east,
you can see that there is a lot of insecurity over there.
So, that is something which did really encourage me
to try my best with my family, and come to Australia as well.
What type of work were you doing?
What type of work were you doing with the Red Cross?
I was working with Red Cross as a liaison officer.
So I was a liaison officer but the east - I was the liaison officer of Red Cross,
and I was also involved in doing some administration work in our main office.
What area was that?
That was Bukavu in the east of DRC, yes, yes.
Then, when I moved again to Tanzania in the refugee camp again,
I used to work with the Red Cross as well.
I used to work with a different organisation over there.
I used to work with Red Cross,
I was also working with Christian Outreach as a community health education worker.
So, that was some of the work, which I was involved.
I was involved in the humanitarian work since a long time, yes.
Were you in physical areas of conflict?
When I left the country, yes.
Because part of the war of 1996 in DRC
did only start in the east of the country,
this is where the war started.
We are one of the people who just left the country -
we were forced to leave the country as early as possible,
because the war was around us.
It’s true, the American missionaries
who did help me with my family to escape, because it was -
we were really in danger of losing our life as well. So we did, yes.
When you say you were helped with your family,
what was your family situation then? Was it you and -
My family, some part of my family, are living in the capital city,
and other part of my family are living in the east of the DRC.
My wife and my kid, well, we left the country earlier.
We didn’t want to go to the capital city, where it wasn't safe,
but we just decided to cross the lake and go to another country,
which was Tanzania.
So we crossed the lake, and we go straightaway to Tanzania.
What year was that?
That was in 1996.
How did you cross?
We used the boat.
We pay the boat, and then some people, we cross the lake.
Was it a lot of money?
No. Not really. Each person, at that time, we used to pay $10.
$10, yes, which was not a really big money. But there was no choice -
you have to cross, otherwise you were left; you will lose your life.
Yeah. Tell me about when you got to Tanzania.
When I went to Tanzania to live as a refugee in Tanzania,
but because of my background,
I was lucky when I went to Tanzania straightaway and get a job from Red Cross.
Because Red Cross also was providing assistance to refugees in the camp.
As a former Red Cross staff, when I get in the camp, I approach Red Cross
and they were lucky to give me a job straightaway.
So I start working with Red Cross again in the refugee camp,
providing assistance to refugees, and I was involved in providing health -
community health education to refugees, on how to prevent HIV,
on how to prevent malaria, on how to prevent the tuberculosis,
on how to and try to encourage refugee women to attend, to take children to vaccination.
So, different program, which within the Red Cross in the camp,
and that was some of the work
which I was doing with Red Cross in the refugee camp.
So you had your UNHCR status there?
Is that correct?
Yes, UNHCR was there.
All those agencies like Red Cross, Christian Outreach, Oxfam, Caritas;
all those agencies are under the UNHCR.
The UNHCR is there, it is the one which is providing support to those agencies
in order to provide services, direct services to refugees.
So, sometimes we were involved within the UNHCR, trained to -
we used to be trained by UNHCR.
Sometimes, we would be getting some training also from our own agency.
So something like that, yes.
What was the camp, refugee camp called?
Nyarugusu Refugee Camp. That was the refugee camp where I was.
But when I was in my process of coming to Australia, they moved -
I moved from that camp to another camp, a protection camp.
Yes, yes, yes.
Why was that?
That was another camp. It's a bit far away from Nyarugusu.
Because when you are in the process of coming to Australia,
they have to move you from their camp
and they put somewhere where you will be waiting for the process,
because it is a long process, you have to wait for it somewhere.
Right. So at the first camp, what was the daily life like in the camp?
What was the shelter and the food?
In the camp, normally -
the UNHCR do provide assistance through Oxfam in some area.
Oxfam was, in some ways, involved in providing safe water to refugees.
That was part of it.
Red Cross was involved in providing medical assistance to refugees.
You will see Red Cross, also they were having two programs,
tracing program to assist refugees with sending information around, or letters,
something like that.
There was Care Tanzania or something, which was involved in environment -
the refugees will not destroy the environment.
So, each agency was having a specific role to play in assisting refugees.
Refugees do, in the camp, receive assistance; food, oil.
Sometimes, they will assist them with second-hand stuff - clothes, whatever.
I was also lucky in the camp,
because I was elected in the camp to be one of the camp leaders, in the camp.
During my time when I was a camp leader,
we used also to approach a number of missionaries across Tanzania,
around the world, to bring assistance, more assistance to refugees,
especially clothes, whatever. So, that was - but it was a very hard life.
Very hard life, because there is not much work over there, and food -
there is limited food over there. So, everything was very hard.
A camp is a camp.
So, even if to leave the camp, if you want to go outside the camp,
you have to get permission from the government of Tanzania.
You are not allowed to go outside the camp, which is a very small place.
The camp where we were living over there,
when I was there, the camp used to have 56 million people -
Ah. 56,000 people.
They have got 56,000 people, so it was a very large number of people.
That was how the camp - camp life is very hard, very hard, yes.
What were the living conditions?
Like, what did you sleep in, and what shelter?
You have to have your shelter, yes.
Yeah. What is it?
What is the physical shelter that you would be -
When you get in the camp, you have to receive a shelter from the UNHCR,
and make your own place, your own house, to live in there. Yes.
So as long you have been there for long time,
you can now build a small house, yes. You can build a house to live in.
Some people have already now built some specific house,
which is not the modern house, is traditional house or something like that.
What would it be made of?
You make it from glass, whatever.
Yeah. So timber?
Timber, something like that. Yes, yes.
What about the food, what type of food did you eat?
The food over there is mixed, mix of food, yes.
Cassava was one, maize was another one, and there were -
Maize, was it?
Maize, yes, yes. People also do receive oil from -
and soap, you will get spared three or four bars of soap from UNHCR.
Some people also will go outside, they used to go outside the camp,
they would bring a new food, like fish or something, to sell,
because we used to have market in the camp.
So those people, who have a little bit of the money, they do -
they used to go outside, bring new stuff in the camp,
so people who have the money, they can buy.
But no one will have the money in the camp, yes.
It is a very hard life, very hard life.
You talked about being there with your family,
but I don’t think we have spoken about how many children in your family
that were in the camp, and the ages of them.
When I was in the camp, I used to live with my two kids in the camp,
and the youngest was probably -
the youngest was three, and the eldest was five, or something.
They tried - we lived there with them, but that was the age of those kids.
There is not much places where you can take a kid to play with or something.
It’s a very hard life.
When you experience life, refugee life, it's a very hard life.
But as a parent, you have to do all the best
to see how you can probably provide more assistance to kids.
I can say that I was one of the lucky persons in the camp,
because I get my small - my job over there within Red Cross.
That job did assist me a lot within my family too,
because I used to get money from my job.
The salary, it was not too much money,
but that was one of the biggest assistance,
and that helped me also to assist my kids.
But it is a hard situation,
because everyone will come to you and probably seek assistance and say,
“Because you are working, can I get this?”
They will try to borrow money, whatever, from you, so -
That must have been difficult.
Difficult, yes; difficult, yes.
What about the education for the children?
The education in the camp, yes -
the UNHCR has already established schools in the camp.
In Nyarugusu too, people were lucky,
because even if they did establish primary school,
11 schools in the camp for primary school and six secondary schools,
and on top of that again, they did establish university in the camp.
Also, the Namiir University, the Belgium Namiir University,
also do come in the camp and provide some education in some particular programs.
So that was the education. Yes, they have school in the camp;
primary, secondary, and, as well, one university in the camp.
So, it’s like a college in the camp.
They are lucky, and the UNHCR do always assist people with books,
recruitment of teachers, payment of teachers, something like that. So that is -
when the schools were established in the camp, it is something,
which did help most of the people to get a job,
because most of people did apply to become teachers.
That was the boom of the job in the camp,
because each school will have 10-20 teachers.
Most of the people got a job
when the school was established by UNHCR in the camp.
That was free education?
The education, yes. The education was free to all refugees.
That was free of charge, so people will not pay anything,
children will not pay anything. It was a free education, yes.
So there were no payment over there.
The University, was that free?
The university was not really free.
People used to pay a few money for the university.
I can’t remember exactly which amount of money they used to pay.
But there were some fees to pay
before the person can be registered to study as a university student.
Do you know what type of courses that they offered,
like what they could study while they were there?
What I can still remember over there, they were mostly involved in health.
Health is the one, yes, which I know. Health, and also international law.
Some people, yes. Also another course,
which I remember, was community development - it's another one.
The fourth one was -
they were involved in biology -
biology, yes, because it was involved,
or it’s one of the courses which people were doing,
those people who were doing medicine or something in the camp, yes.
When you are talking about your work with the health issues,
how prevalent were they within the community? Were they - within the camps?
In the camp? Yes.
Were those health things a big problem? Like the HIV and the -
Yes. Disease, few - well.
Some of the common disease in the camp, which was a big issue, was malaria.
Malaria was one of the very huge -
one of the very biggest issue within the camp.
In term of HIV in the camp, I don’t -
I didn’t have the chance to have a very good figure or picture of that,
because - a few cases, yes, where it can be seen from the hospital.
But within the community, there were not really any specific statistics.
But most of the people were treated with malaria.
They would be with diarrhea, they would be treated with tuberculosis,
something like that, yes. Those are some of the cases which we used to see.
Also, there were some kids who were treated, getting assistance from there,
because they were suffering the malnutrition.
So they would get some assistance to assist them with the malnutrition.
Yeah, something like that.
Do you know, generally speaking within the camps,
was there a life expectancy of a certain age?
Like, within the camps, or was it -
There were - life expectancy over there, I don’t know exactly,
because I didn’t been there for a long time.
But most of the people who used to live over there,
everyone was just struggling with the life.
Everyone said this is not a really good life.
It was a very hard life, because you are living like you are in prison.
In the camp, it's like a prison. To go outside the camp is a long process.
You have to apply to get permission from Tanzanian government, whatever.
So, you are living like prison. You are not really - yes.
Did you ever go outside the camp?
Sometimes I used to go outside,
sometimes I would go for training outside the camp.
Sometimes, I would attend some information session in Kigoma,
far away, something like that.
Sometimes, I would have the chance to visit other camps around Nyarugusu.
Something like that. Yeah, so I was having a chance to go outside.
But before I go outside,
I have to apply to get permission from the UNHCR as well.
How long were you in the camps
before you arrived in Australia with your family?
I spent about four years in the camp -
three years in the camp, and one year outside the camp.
So that's probably nearly four years of my refuge.
Is that an average time, or is that a -
do you know what the average time is, people would spend in a camp?
It depends, It depends.
When you lodge your application, your settlement application,
and if your family doesn’t have a lot of issues -
because some issues within the resettlement process is,
when somebody found in the family has disease, it would -
that is one of the very bad thing for a family which is applying to go overseas,
because that will take you time. Australia will not take you.
You can’t get the chance to come to Australia while you are still sick.
You have to get some - to feel okay before they can take you.
Even if you have a single problem, health problem,
they have to check it seriously.
So that may make your case a bit -
that may bring some delay about your resettlement process.
So, every single issue which you can have -
but the average is, it’s like in my case,
we did only take nine months before we come to Australia.
From the date which we lodged the application and we came, it took us nine month.
But there were no known issues with it. We didn’t have any issue.
When we go, my wife and my kid, when we go for the medical exam,
everything goes clear with us.
Then they tell us that, in a few months, you will go to Australia. So, we come.
The process took us nine months,
but for other families, it may take two years or three years. Yes.
What year was that that you arrived in Australia?
I arrived in Australia in May 2004. Yes. Yes.
Tell me about the actual process of - through the camps
and then here, how you travelled here.
Normally, when everything is clear, when you complete everything,
all the requirement of resettlement,
the UNHCR will come and advise the family
that you’ll be flying to Australia tomorrow,
and the whole family will be happy with that.
That is very good news for the family. Like in our case,
we flew from Kigoma to Dares Salaam,
the capital city of Tanzania.
We spent in Dares Salaam three days, just waiting.
We stay in Dares Salaam for three days; after three days,
the UNHCR again came to the place where we were living. They said,
"Yes, tomorrow is your actual trip. You have to go tomorrow."
So we flew from Tanzania, Dares Salaam to Johannesburg, in South Africa.
From Johannesburg, we spend probably seven, six hours in Johannesburg.
Then we flew from Johannesburg to Western Australia, Perth,
so from Perth to Sydney.
How long were you in Perth?
I stayed in Perth for a couple of years before I came to Sydney.
I moved to Sydney, because when we came to Perth - when I arrived in Perth,
I found that there were some Congolese families over there,
and I decided that I'd ask them, “Is it okay if I can stay in Perth?”
They said, “Yes. You can stay in Perth.” So I stayed in Perth.
I lived there nearly two years in Perth, and then I decided to move to Sydney,
because the course which I would like to do was only in Sydney.
The university course which I would like to do was at UWS. I said,
"Yes, because of my studies, I have to move from Perth to Sydney
and stay there doing my studies." So that is - so I spent in Perth two years.
Did you have a choice initially, as to which state to go to?
When you are in Africa, you don’t have a choice. Yeah.
You don’t choose that I have to go in this specific state. No.
You can move when you are here. Over there, too, you can still have a chance.
If you explain clearly to resettlement officer that,
"I have part of my family living in this particular state,
and I want to go in this state,"
yes, they can make some arrangement for you
to go straightaway in that particular state
where your member of the family are living. But there is not much chance.
So when you arrive here, you can probably move to any state which you want.
But over there, there is not much chance for you to apply for that, yes.
Tell me about the first 24 hours when you were here,
on the plane and then arriving, and then what happened?
When I land in Perth, it was during the wintertime. Yes, it was a bit cold.
I was really surprised with a few things - a few things, which was culture.
Culture was one of the big surprise.
I met with the people, so sometimes some people which we met,
you can’t shake hand, something like that.
I start - in that 24 hours, I was just thinking about the culture.
I said, I have to learn more about it. I tried to say hello to some people,
but they didn’t accept my hand, something like that.
My wife also told me that,
“I try also to say hello to somebody, he didn’t answer,” something like that.
So culture is something which come up straightaway in those 24 hours,
and we were just thinking about the culture.
The second thing was also, we were thinking about our relatives,
which we left in Africa.
We say, "When are we going? This is a very long trip, way out.
How are we going one day to see those relatives who are in Africa?”
So in those 24 hours, we were just thinking about all those kinds of things.
But culture shock was one of the very biggest issue with us.
I’m assuming it continues?
Then we continue. Now, we feel a bit - now we are -
we have already fully, probably more integrated in Australian culture.
We can understand a bit about the culture.
But when we were just new arrivals,
culture shock was one of the biggest issues at first, yes.
So when you went to shake hands with someone to greet them
and they didn’t respond, how did you feel? What was your reaction to that?
That, I just accept that it may happen, it may happen.
Sometimes I used to think probably the person was not happy or something.
But that was it, because in my culture,
if somebody wants to shake with you the hand, you have to shake.
If you refuse in my culture, it’s very rude. But in here, I can understand.
I should not expect that I shall see the same culture which is in Congo
in Australia, no.
So you arrived and were you assigned a settlement officer,
or how does it work when you arrive here?
Who’s looking after you when you first arrive?
When I first arrive,
the government has a very clear plan to receive new arrivals,
because they do always organise a caseworker to meet with you at the airport,
which was in our case when we land from Perth International Airport,
we met with a case worker. The caseworker was there.
When we came here, we couldn’t speak any English at all, all the family.
The caseworker wasn't at the airport with an interpreter who could speak French,
because we are French-speaking people.
So, they took us from the airport to a well prepared home.
Of course, they took us to the hotel, Modena Place Hotel in Perth.
This is where we stay in that hotel, probably two weeks,
and the caseworker was looking for a house for us to move.
It took us seven days before we moved,
and the caseworker come again to the hotel to tell us that,
“I’ve already organised the house for you,
so you will move as soon as possible.”
Also, the caseworker was there to -
he was involved in taking us in different appointments.
He took us to the Medicare, he took us to Centrelink,
he took us in different settlement offices. So, that was our case.
So the caseworker was there, trying to assist us more.
Were you prepared for those scenarios when you landed,
like of what was physically going to happen to you,
or did you just arrive and you were looked after?
Did somebody brief you beforehand, to say,
“When you get here, this is going to happen, that’s going to happen?”
When people are ready to come to Australia,
the immigration officers do organize -
no, OIM, the OIM [Organisation internationale pour les migrations].
Do you know what that stands for?
International Organisation for Migration something, OIM, yes.
Those people do organise an information session with people.
They will brief you about the life in Australia,
they will tell you what will happen when you arrive in Australia.
They do provide more information to people before they can come.
But few things also can happen when you are here.
So, we were a bit prepared on those kinds of scenario.
So, we would go to this office, this office, this office.
Then a few things also were not really new to us,
because we were familiar with the city life.
We knew before we came how to use a fridge, how to use electricity,
how to use this, so a few things was not really new to us, yes.
But I can see there are some refugees who are coming here
who are not prepared in all those,
who doesn’t know how to use electricity, how to - so, yes.
Then what about with -
obviously, because you didn’t speak English when you first arrived,
what about going to those services like Centrelink and Medicare?
That must have been -
Yes. When we were -
the caseworker used to take us to all those area, all those offices.
We used to have an interpreter.
Sometimes, when we go to Centrelink,
Centrelink will call an interpreter, phone interpreter,
so that we can stay on the phone and discuss a few things.
We couldn’t speak any English at all. That was one of the big issue.
Even if to integrate in Australian society without language,
the language was one of the biggest barriers for us.
So, now we are trying all our best to speak some English.
What’s the process of learning English?
The process of learning English also is,
when refugees arrive in Australia,
the government do provide them 510 hours to learn English.
They give you 510 hours. So you register with TAFE, you go to TAFE.
When you finish those 510 hours,
if you feel that your English is still not okay,
you can still also get some support from other agencies.
But that is the normal process to learn English, was to go to TAFE,
and complete the 510 hours.
How long did it take you to -
Nearly one year.
Nearly one year?
Nearly one year, yes.
Some people may complete or you may finish those hours
without having your English being improved. You have to do all the best.
You can use other people, sometimes you can learn English from a friend.
If you have more connection,
you can pick quickly your English and improve it as quick as you can.
How often did you go?
Were you quite committed, were you there like each day, or once a week?
Yes. I used to - it’s in normal school, English,
but you are learning English in different process.
You can learn English, how to write English.
You can learn some grammar, you can learn how to speak.
You’ll be also learning through listening, something like that,
and there is also some test which will involve, yes,
so some exam you will go through, because you have to get a certificate. Yes.
What’s the certificate? What is it called?
It's a certificate, because, myself,
I did Certificate II, Certificate III and then Certificate IV,
which is speaking and writing English.
When you have Certificate IV, it’s enough.
You can - even if you go to university.
That was the process which I went through.
When they assessed my English, when I just arrived,
they assessed my English and they said I have to start from Certificate II.
I was not really confident that I could start from Certificate IV.
But your English is good.
I found it very hard. It’s a bit okay, but still need more improve -
I’ll need to improve it more.
Probably in two or three years, yes, I will improve.
What about the writing?
My writing is better than my speaking. Yes, yes.
Right. That’s good.
You said that you stayed in a motel,
and then the government found you a house? How long did you stay in that house?
I stayed in that house probably a year, because it was an aged house.
So I stayed there in a year. The owner of that house come to me and said,
“We will feel we want you to move in this place,
because we want to fix this house. It’s getting older.”
So, I move. I stay there just only one year.
Was that a government department house or a house, private rented?
No, no. It was from an agency, real estate agency, yes.
But, who helped us to find that house was the caseworker from - yes.
So you went and looked with the caseworker
to find a house that was suitable for you?
Yes. The caseworker was taking me around.
Also, I was lucky, because when I came here, I knew how to drive.
It took me probably three or four months to learn roads or whatever,
and then I was - probably in six months of my arrival, I was able to drive,
not far away but around.
That’s obviously a really key thing in terms of settling here,
being able to drive?
Yes, yes. It’s one of the key things.
If you know how to drive, that will help you a lot,
because you will be able to attend a number of training,
a number of session, information sessions.
It's a key thing within the resettlement, knowing how to drive.
Because in some area, public transport is an issue.
So if you know how to drive, that may save you,
save your time and be able to attend a number of session,
school, information, event, whatever. So, it’s a key in resettlement.
What about your community?
You said you knew there were some people from your country in Perth.
How important were they when you first settled?
When we first settled,
I did receive a number of assistance from member of my community.
In what way?
In which way?
They used to come to our place all the time and assist us with some information.
They did also assist us to take us around
where we can probably buy some African food, whatever.
So, a few things which we need when we arrive,
those members of the community were able to assist us in that particular area.
So, sometimes they would come, stay with us.
It was something like a culture support. They used to support us.
That was something which I did really appreciate
with the members of our community.
All the time, they would come, they will visit us, yes.
Some weekends, they will take us to their home to visit them.
We really feel more connected to those members of our communities.
One year after, they elected me to become a leader of the community.
It was a very -
A year after that?
Yes. A year after that, they selected me - they elected me
to be the President of the Congolese Community of Western Australia.
So, that was something which I did appreciate too.
What did that involve? What is it?
That involved looking after the member of your community.
If they have any issue, as a community leader, you have to advocate.
You have to find some ways to -
it's trying to provide more support to members of the community.
Also, if there is an internal problem within the community,
you will be involved in solving that problem.
If there is somebody who is sick, you can bring the community together
and see in which way you can support the person.
Yes, it involve a number of -
also, you have to organise a few culture events,
like the Congolese Independence Day, one day on 30 June.
So, a few things - a number of activities,
because you don’t want people from your community to live in isolation.
As the community leader, you have to see how you can support the community.
So, it was a very nice thing for me.
Is the isolation - is that a problem within -
Yes, isolation within the community -
it's a big problem in some communities, because if there is not much activities,
if the community doesn’t run a number of activities to involve other people,
some people always will feel that they are living in isolation.
So having a community organisation is a key thing also to support refugees,
because you do bring all the refugees together.
So people feel more connected when they are coming all the time together;
there is an event, something will happen in the community,
people are always together.
People can still get support from each other,
which is one of the very good things.
You talked before that you moved from Perth to Sydney for some studies.
Tell us about what you are doing there.
Yes. I did already complete some studies,
and I’m still doing some studies as well. I complete - when I move three years after,
I did complete my Bachelor Degree of Community Welfare at UWS.
Then, soon after that, I start also doing my master’s degree,
which I still not really complete.
But it's a long way to go, but I’m still involved in doing it -
probably I’ll complete it soon. Soon, I finish my first degree at UWS.
One of the thing which I think to do is,
I did bring people of the community together
in order to establish an international organisation,
which is part of my study experience,
and also is part of my past experience within an international organisation
like Red Cross, whatever. So, I finish those -
I complete that particular degree.
I move from that degree to establish an organisation,
which is an international organisation.
I’m now involved working with this organisation,
which is Great Lakes Agency for Peace and Development,
as the Director-General.
I’m working with that agency, and I’m doing also my master’s,
the part-time studies of my master’s degree,
which I’m thinking probably I will complete soon, before the end of this year.
It must be difficult to study. Do you study it in English or French?
It's in English.
It's in English.
I had a few difficulties when I just went for the university.
I went to university in 2009, that was -
I had a few difficulties at the beginning of my studies.
But now I’m also - I’m now okay, because I’m familiar.
My English also has improved a little bit.
So now, it’s okay, but at the beginning of my university studies,
yes, I used to have some difficulties with the language,
because English is my second language.
My background study was in French, so within English, it is a new thing.
Your background study, what was that?
Yes. I did a Bachelor of Rural Development.
In DRC, yes.
Yeah. Can you use that here?
Or you have to obviously, by the look of things, study again. Is it -
All the Congolese diploma, when you bring your diploma in Australia,
are not recognised. Your diploma is not recognised. They don’t really recognise it.
But you can get some credit,
if you did study in any well-recognised institution, you can get some credit.
But your diploma from overseas will not be recognised in here.
So you have to study. You have to start again from the beginning.
This has happened to us. I complete my bachelor’s degree overseas.
When I bring it in here, they didn’t recognise it. It's a very -
That must be frustrating.
Frustrating, and it's a very big shock. Shock.
So you didn’t know that, before you came here?
I didn’t know, not before I came. I was lucky - I said,
“I have my bachelor’s degree here,
so I will try to use this bachelor’s degree and do some work.”
My expectation was, when I get to Australia,
I learn English a little bit and go back to work.
But my diploma was not recognised.
So, what does GLAPD do? What’s -
Thank you very much for that question.
I want to give you some explanation about GLAPD.
GLAPD is an international organisation, which was established in 2011.
The establishment of this organisation
was due to our past experience in the Great Lakes region of Africa.
Where is the Great Lakes?
The Great Lakes of Africa,
it’s in Central Africa and it’s involved four countries,
which is Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
So it involves four countries.
What happened, with the establishment of this organisation,
Great Lakes Agency for Peace, is we ask community leaders from the Great Lakes -
so Burundi and Congolese, Rwandan and Ugandan -
we came together with these ideas. We say, let us -
because you can see we have some similarities, in terms of our life in Africa;
you can see that we have experienced the same things.
You see, like Congo has experienced war, Rwanda has experienced genocide,
Burundi has experienced civil war, and Uganda also did experience civil war.
Until now Joseph Kony in Uganda still disturbing the peace in Uganda.
So, we came together due to our past experience,
and we have learned from our experience that our relationship,
people from the Great Lakes, we are living as rivals,
because there is war which did affect seriously the life of the people.
Also, in here in Australia, our relationship between us was not really good.
Between Congolese, Rwandan, Burundian,
everyone used to accuse each other from bad doing.
If there is war in Congo,
Congolese will say they are the Rwandan who are doing this,
if there is a war in Uganda, or something.
So, those kinds of -
Those wars we did experience
did seriously affect the life of the Great Lakes communities,
and our relationship was not really good, clear and whatever.
It must be difficult -
being in conflict over there and then coming here,
into a peaceful country.
So, as we are living now in the peaceful country like Australia, we said,
“Let us establish an organisation.
That organisation will be involved in peace promotion.”
We have to promote peace.
We have also to promote harmony within our communities,
and see in which way we can contribute on the development.
So, that is the key things.
GLAPD is involved in promoting harmony between the community of the Great Lakes.
We are also supporting, doing some publication on -
we are developing some publications, how to live in peace,
material to assist the member of the community.
In Australia, yes.
Our big dream is to go to Africa one day and support the communities,
the rural community,
how they can probably promote some development in the community,
in the rural area of the Great Lakes.
So, our big dream is to go to Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda;
try to provide some support
in terms of development within the rural community, the people.
So, that is something. In here, too, we are doing a lot as GLAPD.
What are you doing to promote peace here?
Here, we do organise conflict resolution training
within the people of the Great Lakes.
Is that inviting people from the different -
Different communities; Rwanda, Burundi, Congolese.
We bring them together, yes,
and we train them in how to solve the conflict within the community.
We do also organise excursion within the people of the community.
We do take Congolese, Rwanda and Burundi and whatever,
we take them for an excursion, something in Taree.
Yeah, yes. So we take them for an excursion.
During that excursion, we do also provide some training.
When they are there we say,
“This is the way we could live in peace. We could live in harmony.”
So, we are bringing those members of the community always together
in order to promote their relationship.
On top of that again,
GLAPD in here do provide settlement services to new arrivals,
so we are providing assistance to new arrivals,
refugees from the Great Lakes communities.
On top of that too, GLAPD are also involved in organising conferences.
We do organise conferences, that is part of promoting also peace.
What type of conferences?
We do organise a conference within different terms, topics,
which is, for example, we did organise one conference on mental health,
which is one of the very good key things to assist the new arrival,
to learn how to - where they can get support
if there is a case of mental health,
to make them to be familiar with the mental health services.
Is that something that they would have been familiar with in Africa?
I think, yes.
In Africa, mental health in some parts of Africa is a taboo thing.
Taboo, yes. People cannot talk it, discuss it in open way.
But within this opportunity in Australia,
we are having this opportunity to meet with member of our communities,
discuss about mental health in open way,
and people are learning from each other, which is one of the very good thing.
Because refugees can still develop - the refugees are people who are exposed.
They can develop mental health anytime,
because some refugees did witness very bad things,
when they fled their country or something like that.
See, for example, a person who is coming from Rwanda
who did experience genocide may probably witness something which is very bad,
which can probably affect her or his life in the future.
So, learning on how to prevent mental health is one of the very good things.
So, we are providing all those kind of training to members of the community,
so that they can learn. Also -
Is there special services for refugees with mental health
that come from those conflict areas?
Yes. There is some case -
we have learned from some agencies, which do provide counselling.
What type of agencies, what are they?
There is a number of agencies, like Transcultural Mental Health.
There is a service like STARTTS New South Wales. There is services like Karitane.
So there is a number of services, which do provide assistance to refugees.
From those agencies, we have learned
that there is some cases of mental health within our communities.
As leaders, we have to take some initiatives on how to address those issues.
Because what I learn is, the government also of Australia, federal government,
do always spend a lot of money on mental health.
We, as leaders, we have to take also an initiative
to see how we can support the government
in addressing those case of mental health.
Do you know how that mental health manifests?
Like, is it commonly a particular type, like a depression or a -
Mental health can -
see, depression is one of the mental health problems too also,
and yes, losing memory.
A few things which can be involved in mental health,
so that is one of the things
which we are trying to address within our community,
to see how we can support the community in that.
So, anything else you want to tell me about the Great Lakes Agency?
I think, within the Great Lakes Agency,
there is a few things which probably I can tell you about this organisation.
This organisation today is registered -
Great Lakes is a registered organisation.
Yeah. Registered, yes.
State or national?
National. Yes, national.
Our dream is a big dream within this organisation,
but we have put in place a number of policies at the moment.
We have also applied to become -
to get an accreditation from Australian Council for International Development.
Soon, we finish all those processes, we would like to go to Africa
and set an international liaison office in Central Africa.
That is part of what we are dreaming now within this organisation.
We have an office in Sydney, which is this office, which is in Sydney.
In a few days, we are planning also
to have another office in Brisbane, of the GLAPD.
In a few months, we will be appointing state coordinators,
because GLAPD now has members in all over Australia,
so we want to establish some -
appoint people who will be in charge of GLAPD in each state.
The organisation is growing up all the time, and we are happy with that.
It’s going to be a national, very big national organisation, GLAPD.
Even if, in the future,
we are thinking also to have some branch of GLAPD in other state,
like GLAPD New Zealand, GLAPD Canada, GLAPD Europe,
so it is an international organisation, and it’s growing up. That is our dream.
We are really mostly encourage people to join the GLAPD and support.
GLAPD, in my view, is something like -
it’s support from Australia to African refugees,
and also to those people who are living in Africa.
Because GLAPD is - like, we want to establish -
this organisation is a bridge between members of the Australian communities
and the Great Lakes community, so it’s something which is bringing us together.
You can see how GLAPD looks like.
The board of GLAPD has Africans and Australians as well,
so it’s a multicultural organisation,
and we do encourage all those Australians and other Africans to join GLAPD.
You were saying that GLAPD
will also be doing some settlement services as well?
So, as the director of GLAPD
and somebody that’s been through the settlement service,
what are the main issues for refugees when they arrive here, around settlement?
So there is a few issues, especially as an African leader.
Can I mention that there is a number of issues when the refugee arrive here -
so, housing is one of the very huge issues.
How? In what way?
Yeah. In what way?
To rent, to rent a place,
to get a place to rent for new arrival refugees is a very hard thing.
The person needs to provide the history of rent, while that person is a new arrival,
which is one of the very hard thing for them to get a house.
Do you think there is any sort of discrimination against people?
It’s not really discrimination,
but those policies around are affecting those refugees.
So, the policy could change that may make it easy,
even if the person doesn’t have a history of renting in New South Wales.
That person should be given an opportunity to rent a house, for example.
The second issue is an issue of unemployment.
Unemployment is one of the very serious issues within refugees.
Because I know refugees from the Great Lakes who have been in New South Wales
five, six years, without having a job. Unemployment is one of the serious issue.
There is some discrimination, which I can say also, which is around.
But this unemployment is a very -
because we have a very large number of Great Lakes -
member of the Great Lakes community,
who never had a chance to get a job since they are in Australia.
So they’ve been here for like five or six years and - wow.
Seven years, yes, without getting a job, yes. That is another issue.
Another issue is the issue of a lack of support.
Because we have a large number of Great Lakes group organisations,
but those groups are not getting more funding from the government.
It’s an issue, because -
and that issue is affecting some member of the communities,
because what we do expect could be, when new arrivals came to Australia,
the community should be able to organise a welcome ceremony for them,
so they can feel that they have -
but to do all those, it will involve some assistance,
money, whatever, something.
If there is a lack of funding from the government,
how a group or a community organisation can be able to organise all those?
That’s something that GLAPD would like to do?
Yes. We, as GLAPD, we have made already a plan:
in every three months, we’ll be organising the welcome ceremony.
So all those new arrivals, when they came in every three months,
we call them together, they meet with people from the community,
they can learn, they can build the connectivity with the people.
So, that is part of something which we want to address as GLAPD,
because we want those new arrivals to feel
that they have been welcome in Australia.
How do you do when people arrive from those countries?
Is it like word of mouth, or does somebody let you know?
Yes, yes. We are in touch with the Department of Immigration.
If there is new arrivals, we do call the Department
and check with them if there was some new arrivals;
they can tell us, so that we can build the connectivity with them, yes,
and plan straightaway how to visit those people.
That deals with the issues around the isolation that you talked about.
Yes. Some refugees too, before they came to Australia,
when they are in Africa, they do call us.
They do call us, they say, “We will be arriving in this particular date.”
So we are informed about them.
They call us and we are informed,
there is a Great Lakes family which will be arriving.
Even if those people arrive in Perth, whatever,
we are connected with all those people.
It’s a good idea, the welcome ceremony.
Was there anything else? I think I might have cut you off
when you were talking about the issues of settlement - so those three?
Three, and I can add one more.
I can add one more issue, which is the issue of isolation.
Isolation is one of the huge issues within the community too,
because if there is - as I said before,
if there is no activities to bring people together,
how do you know people will build the connectivity with other people?
When we are bringing people together, it’s a good thing,
because we do bring those Great Lakes community,
members of the Great Lakes community - we do bring also Australian together.
So those new arrivals, when they have the chance to get involved in any event,
a community event like that, it will help them to establish a connectivity connection
between both member of the Great Lakes community and Australia.
Those connectivity can still help them in the -
this is something which can help them in their settlement process.
That is something which we want to offer the community.
We want to try - we are trying all our best to organise more activities.
Those activities within GLAPD should always be inclusive,
African and Australian together,
so it will help more members of our communities to build more connectivities.
Those are another issue.
So, we don’t want people who came here to feel that they are isolated,
something which is not very good in the community.
Do you, as a refugee that lives here,
do you feel connected to Australian society?
Yes, I feel.
It took me a few years before I can feel that now I’m connected.
I feel today, I’m connected.
I have a number of friend from the Australian community,
and I’m in touch with a number of Australian agencies, whatever.
I feel now, as I have fully integrated in this society,
which is one of the very good society - so in my case, I feel I’m connected.
Have you become an Australian citizen?
Yes, yes. I’m willing to become an Australian citizen.
You have or you haven’t?
But yes, I’m willing.
Is that something that you'd like to do?
Yes, yes. Yes, in the future, I will have that plan -
probably in a few months,
I’ll lodge an application to become an Australian citizen,
which will be one of the very good things.
Good. Is there anything else that you wanted to talk about,
in terms of your community or culture,
or being here as a new Australian that we haven’t spoken about yet?
I have probably a few things which I can mention, in terms of culture.
Our culture, Australian culture and Great Lakes community culture,
may be a bit different. But we do always care about our similarities.
We should not think about our differences.
But our similarities is something which I’m happy with.
Because, if we look in terms of differences, there is plenty of differences.
Those differences can still make us separate all the time.
Because in Australia, I’m allowed to, when I’m talking to somebody,
to look, to make eye contact.
Even if it’s an authority, it’s a woman, something like that.
But in my culture, that may be something different. Yes.
So in my home country, if there is -
if I have to marry the woman, I have to pay the dowry,
which is not the case in Australia. You can’t pay the dowry.
You still do that? How much do you have pay?
Currently it’s going up to - from one thousand to ten thousand.
$1,000 to $10,000, yes.
In dollars - Australian dollars?
Yes. Yes. It depends on how rich is the family.
So, that is something. There is a lot - a few differences. But we should not -
when you leave, you move your home country
and you are living in a new country like Australia, I think I have -
we do encourage our member of the community
to focus more on our common things.
They should not look all the time on our differences,
because if we look on the differences, that may make us separate all the time.
But I’m proud with the - this is a new culture, and I like it, yes.
A new culture, it’s a new culture, it’s a good culture, so I like it, yes.
That’s very good. All right.
Well, I know you’ve got to pick up someone from the airport,
so we might finish up there.
So, thank you so much for sharing your story with us.
Thank you very much, yes.
[End of interview]