On donated farmland near Mildura in Victoria’s north west, Congolese refugees are busy planting peas.
- Small-scale refugee farmers grow food on unused land to eat and sell
- Crops grown are typically ones that are also grown in Africa
- Many of the refugees were farmers in the countries they fled from
It is a simple, repetitive task, but planting pods is helping Maria Nyirakamana and her son, Innocent Makuza, stay connected to their past while nurturing hope for their future.
“We planted a lot of things such as maize, corn, peas and potatoes back home,” Ms Nyirakamana said.
“There was a diversity of crops that we used to farm and plant.”
When the Great War of Africa came to visit their village, Ms Nyirakamana and her husband and two sons fled Congo for neighbouring Rwanda, where they remained for the next 13 years in a refugee camp under the supervision of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“It was not easy to be in the camp,” Ms Nyirakamana said.
“There were challenges … It was difficult to get something to wear, there was hunger, but we had some kind of peace.”
Through UNHCR and the Australian Government, Ms Nyirakamana and her family have now settled in Mildura, where the family have once again been able to grow their own crops.
“I like when I’m planting and farming,” Ms Nyirakamana said.
“We get food to eat and to sell; I’m very happy to be here.”
Over a decade in refugee camp
Congolese refugee, Jules Kangeta, has been in Mildura for two years.
He has been working as a project officer and translator at the garden community co-op, Food Next Door, and has been helping new migrants access land to grow crops to eat and to sell.
But his journey to Mildura has been nightmarish and tragic.
“When the war came, I was at school and my family was at home,” he said.
“We fled at different times; it was difficult to leave the Congo, to know where to pass.
“We thought we were safe and suddenly the rebels from Burundi attacked us.
Mr Kangeta survived the attack but witnessed his mother murdered by the rebels.
“The UNHCR and Government helped us to bury our friends and our family; just bury all of them in the same hole,” he said.
“It was not easy, but that was the situation.”
For the next 14 years, Mr Kangeta languished in a Burundi refugee camp, unsure as to where the future would take him.
“It’s not easy to be in the camp,” he said.
From camp to university and back again
Determined to use the time to better his prospects, Mr Kangeta applied for permission to leave the camp and attend the local university where he studied computer science.
“My uncle helped me to pay the school fees,” Mr Kangeta said.
“I stayed five years at university to get my degree.
“Then in 2017 I got a letter from the Australian Government that they will accept me; I was very excited, very happy.”
The day when Mr Kangeta finally arrived in Australia, he was at first a little confused, he thought he had got on the wrong plane.
“When I saw the screen it was in Chinese … I was very surprised, I was thinking: ‘Am I in China or in Australia?’,” he said.
Mr Kangeta soon realised the airport made passenger announcements in various languages.
As Mr Kangeta’s wife and daughter remain in Burundi, awaiting permission to migrate to Australia, Mr Kangeta is busying himself with further study.
“I’ve completed a Certificate IV in Accounting and a Diploma in Business at SuniTafe,” he said.
“I also manage a project called Mildura Community Water Bank to help small-scale farmers get access to affordable irrigation.
“One day I’d like to start my own business.”
Peace brings relief to bright future
Innocent Makuza has been helping to sow a small patch of land with his mum, and said he has been enjoying the peace that living in Australia has offered him.
“It is a good country,” he said.
Mr Makuza said he would like to start his own family one day.
“I’m still looking,” he said.
“I plant for my family and for my future wife.”