John Mapatano a poster boy for the courage of local refugees

Published in the June-July 2017 issue

Most fathers hold their new bubs within minutes of them being born. Southern Cross University student John Mapatano had to wait 14 months to meet his precious son.

His partner Caroline and baby boy Ian arrived on the Gold Coast in June after being separated in 2015 when John was forced to leave Caroline in Kenya when she was pregnan.

John Mapatano with family. (Credit: Gold Coast Bulletin)

“Now I can finally hold my child,” he said.

“I am so happy and excited to finally be with my family.”

As a teenager John and his youngest sister fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo when soldiers set upon their family home in response to his parent’s political stance as pro-human rights advocates.

“I lost my parents to the war. My sister was raped. I was tortured … life was very tough,” he said.

The siblings believed they were the only survivors from their family, and lived together in a refugee camp in Rwanda for almost seven years with the memories of past horrors, before moving to Kenya temporarily where John was reunited with the love of his life, Caroline.

When John received word his older brother was alive in Australia, he and his sister had the chance to travel on a family unification visa and seek refuge under the Southern Cross.

“Because our marriage wasn’t registered, I had to make the heartbreaking decision which was best for my wife and unborn child. She said it was important for our future for me to move to Australia,” he said.

“I came to Australia in tears because I didn’t want to leave her.”

John Mapatano poster

John studied English at TAFE and worked part-time to send money to his partner before studying English Language Proficiency and the Preparing for Success Program at Southern Cross University at Lismore.

He also became involved in the Lismore African Choir and Centre Church.

“I love working with people and the feeling of being connected to each other and supportive of each other. At church, I have met people who inspire me and who love me unconditionally,” he said.

John then headed north to study a Bachelor of Social Welfare at the University’s Gold Coast campus and work at a before-and after-school care centre. He has now been successful in obtaining a marriage prospectus visa, and he and Caroline will be wed in Lennox Head in July.

During national Refugee Week (June 18-24), John featured in a series of posters for a Lismore-based initiative which explored the question “When does a refugee start to identify as a local?” led by the St Vincent de Paul Society and Southern Cross University. The aim of the project is to celebrate those people who came to Lismore as refugees, and to acknowledge their contributions to our community.

The “I’m a local” poster project featured seven refugees who now identify as locals. Three of them – John along with Anthony Leju and Cassie Aguot – are studying at Southern Cross University.

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