The roar of applause from family and friends when John received his certificate of citizenship from Newcastle Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes, at Newcastle City Hall on Australia Day, was a testament to how traumatic and inspirational his journey to that point had been.
“I am very grateful,” John said after taking the pledge. “I am very proud to be a citizen.”
A war in his native Sierra Leone in the 1990s led him to a refugee camp in Guinea and he was unable to continue his work as a teacher. Cruelly, he was then separated from his wife who was transported to Australia and he had no way to reach her. Desperate to make contact with her, John walked thousands of kilometres without supplies to reach another refugee on the coast of West Africa who he learned had access to a mobile phone.
In 2011, after 12 years of separation and a six year fight to have his refugee application processed, John and his wife were finally reunited in Australia. “Becoming a refugee was not something that I chose…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.
After arriving in Australia, the first place John visited was the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle’s Development and Relief Agency (DARA), formerly known as Penola House.
His positive experience resulted in an intense desire to give back to his new community and help others in need. “DARA changed my life forever. Without this amazingly welcoming place, I wouldn’t be the person I am today,” he said. “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.”
John began by volunteering and is now employed by DARA as lead Project Liaison Officer, where he has mentored hundreds of refugees and assisted their settlement in Australia. Following his citizenship ceremony John headed to Islington Park, as he does every Saturday afternoon, where he joins other volunteers to serve meals to over 100 disadvantaged and homeless people.
Sadly John’s experience with violence did not completely end when he reached Australia. In July 2018 John was punched, kicked, threatened and verbally abused in a racially-motivated attack by a stranger in Mayfield East. Despite this he remains steadfast in his belief that the Newcastle community is predominately compassionate and welcoming.
“I was shocked this could happen to me in Australia. Other places in the world yes, but not here,” he said. “However, I remain firm in my belief that this single man’s behaviour is not representative of the entire community; a community who has supported me and that I have come to count as my own.”
John is now completing an honours degree at the University of Newcastle and with his citizenship achieved, the future is looking bright. After such a harrowing journey, few people deserve it more.