Pacific Hagenimana celebrates six years of safety and opportunity in Australia

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE: Pacific Hagenimana.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE: Pacific Hagenimana.

During this week, six years ago, Pacific Hagenimana arrived in Australia to embark on a new life.

“When I landed here I felt like life had now changed,” he said.

It took a couple of years, but Mr Hagenimana said these days he can sleep through the night, without nightmares and the fear that someone is going to attack or kill him.

It was 1994 and his family was torn apart as genocide swept across Rwanda. 

In just 100 days more than 800,000 people were slaughtered by ethnic Hutu extremists targeting members of the Tutsi minority as well as moderate Hutus and political opponents irrespective of their ethnicity.

Barely five years old and without parents, he fled to the southern district and into Burundi following strangers.

But violence escalated and the diaspora grew, the child soon found himself in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), seeking shelter and food in the forests, along with the other children and adults.

It was during that time in DRC that he and his friends were forced to become child soldiers against their will.

“One afternoon I was captured with other little kids,” he said.

“They started killing men, those that looked like they were strong and raping women in front of us so they could put fear into us.

“They told us if we didn’t comply they would kill us, so we agreed, because we saw those who didn’t get killed that same night.

“My best friend, he was from Burundi, he broke a rule and was just shot dead right in front of me, so that was when I started a plan to escape.

“Every day we were forced to drink a beer called Ngazi made from palm trees.

“It was very strong and they could control our minds with it.

“One night we pretended to drink and when everyone get drunk and fell asleep we all escaped.

“After about five days of running we made it to Zambia and went to the UNHCR’s refugee camp located in Natende in Kasama district.”

There, as an unaccompanied minor, Mr Hagenimana was fortunate enough to gain access to school.

After a few months in the camp, Mr Hagenimana was transferred to the Meheba refugee camp, situated 75 km from Solwezi, the provincial headquarters of the North-Western Province.

“During Grade 6 I was told that one of my family members had been seen in the refugee camp in Malawi, so I left for there, but found it wasn’t true, so I went back to Zambia, because in Malawi the conditions for refugees weren’t good,” he said.

Upon completion of his Grade 12 at Meheba International High School in 2007, Mr Hagenimana sought opportunities to further his studies.

“Just being identified as a refugee limits you on options to get scholarships or better opportunities,” he said.

He found an opportunity through the Mahebe Project, a program established by UNHCR to teach language and arts to refugee students.

“I received a scholarship from MRCU and Holy Cross and became a middle school teacher, teaching Grade 5 students,” he said.

Two years later in 2009 Mr Hagenimana leant that his application for a humanitarian visa had been successful.

“It was such a relief to me, because it’s do or die in those camps, and some people will spend their whole lives in there,” he said.

“Thousands and thousands of people are applying for visas to be settled, but when you are in the camp you are given three options; go back to your home country; remain and integrate into the country where you are or get resettled in a third country.

“Not many people are successful with option three, but after going through three interviews the Australian government accepted me.”

Now 26 years old, Mr Hagenimana said he already felt like an old man, but that the experiences of his childhood as a stateless, displaced, parentless boy had made him stronger.

Having witnessed the fear of reprisal killings, mass arbitrary arrests, reports about grossly overcrowded prisons, the lack of an effective judicial system and the control exercised by political leaders over the refugee camps in Africa,  Mr Hagenimana has been inspired to undertake a degree in criminology and criminal justice at Griffith University. 

“In Australia I initially went into community service, which is about giving back, and that is what I am most aspiring to, but after a few years I decided to get into a field which would allow me to really give back, really make a difference,” he said.

In 2014 Mr Hagenimana was awarded a high commendation in the volunteer category of the 2014 Celebration of African Australian Awards in recognition for his volunteer and community service efforts with Multicultural Development Association (MDA).

Two years prior he had been a cast member of the highly acclaimed musical theatre production I Am Here, which was based on the real stories of six refugees, including Mr Hagenimana.

It was devised by Two Thumbs Up and presented by Queensland Theatre Company (QTC) and the MDA.

He said he had found the experience of revisiting his childhood and expressing it through performance arts enormously healing.

Today he is the treasurer of the Rwandan Association of Queensland, which exists as a support network for newly arrived Rwandan migrants, educating them on how to integrate with the Australian culture, catch a bus and sign up for Medicare, among others. 

It also strives to bring Rwandans together and foster reconciliation between its three ethnic groups.

It was this healing of wounds that inspired Mr Hagenimana to establish and join the Rwandan Football Club which is based in Browns Plains.

“When we’re playing together, we are all the same, we are one, so it is really healing for us, it’s beautiful, it makes me really happy,” he said.

Last month Mr Hagenimana received his Australian citizenship, and for the first time in his life has a nationality.