After a turbulent process that commenced over two decades ago in his homeland of Sierra Leone, John finally believes he belongs and is welcome in Australia.
In an official ceremony led by the Lord Mayor of Newcastle Nuatali Nelmes on Australia Day 2019, John Sandy was declared an Australian Citizen.
“I am very grateful,” John said, “I am very proud.”
John is a humble man who, through his kind nature, has amassed a strong following of supporters and loyal friends in Newcastle and across the Hunter.
He has shown an enormous amount of courage in the face of adversity. A war in Sierra Leone in 1991 meant he became displaced, living in inhumane conditions in a refugee camp in Guinea where he was no longer able to continue his career as a teacher and most unbearably, torn apart from his wife. It was in this camp that he learned his wife had been transported across the other side of the world, to Australia, as a refugee.
John knew he had to make contact with her and after he heard that a man, in a refugee camp thousands of kilometres away in Ivory Coast had a mobile phone, he stopped at nothing to make a connection. He wasted no time, setting off on foot and walking for 23 days with no food or water bar what he saw on the road along the way, in the scorching African desert. In this time he walked the distance between Adelaide and Sydney and eventually found the man, with the phone, and made a call.
Sadly, that wasn’t the end of John’s hardship. In total, the refugee camp in Guinea took six years to process his refugee application to come to Australia – and the application wasn’t accepted. John then resorted to requesting to come to Australia on a spouse visa, a process which took another six years. In total, John and his wife were separated for 12 years with incredibly limited contact during that time. They eventually reunited in Newcastle in 2011.
“Becoming a refugee was not something that I chose and it was the hardest thing I have ever had to go through, but after all, it made me a stronger and better person today,” John said.
“When I came to Australia as a refugee, the first place I visited was the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle’s Development and Relief Agency (DARA) (formerly known as Penola House).
“DARA changed my life forever. Without this amazingly welcoming place, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Without this place, I would be scared to be different. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to move on with my life, to make new friends and to pursue my dreams.”
Sadly for John, even after moving to Newcastle, he continued to experience violence at the hands of another.
In July 2018 John was punched, kicked, threatened and verbally abused in a racially-motivated attack by a stranger in Mayfield East. John and his wife were also verbally threatened, and he says the experience evoked the trauma of fleeing his war-torn homeland.
“I was shocked this could happen to me in Australia. Other places in the world yes, but not here. Though, I remain firm in my belief that this single man’s behaviour is not a representative of the entire community; a community who has supported me and that I have come to count as my own” John said.
The University of Newcastle Honours student did not allow this horrid experience to deter him from forging ahead with his application to become an Australian citizen.
John says as an Australian; his dream is to ‘support other refugees and give back to his community.’
For many years John has dedicated his time volunteering at DARA and is now employed by the organisation as its lead Project Liaison Officer, where he has mentored hundreds of refugees and assisted them to settle into the Australian way of life. Additionally, John has used his growing presence in the community to advocate for better treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, particularly at Nauru.
Following the Official Australia Day Ceremony at Newcastle City Hall, John headed to Islington Park as he does every Saturday afternoon, where he was joined by volunteers to serve meals to approximately 100 vulnerable and homeless people.
Though on this occasion, it was a little more special. The community was invited to celebrate John’s citizenship with him, sharing a BBQ, lamingtons and a sponge cake adorned with the Australian flag and the words ‘Congratulations John.’
While we can all agree that John’s journey to Australia has been far from a ‘piece of cake,’ the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle community for one, is incredibly proud of his achievements and contributions. He is a remarkable Australian, and we could all learn a lot from him.