Determination is Alfred Mupenzi’s defining characteristic.

Born in a Ugandan settlement camp to Rwandan refugees, he was an orphan by the time he was 12.

The Western Sydney University academic said it was not until he arrived in Australia in 2013 that his life began to take “shape”.

His drive to overcome a challenging past led to a post-doctoral degree on the resilience of African students, which he completed last month while on a bridging visa.

Now he is sharing his experience for International Refugee Week to highlight how migrants from refugee backgrounds can thrive, with the right support, in new countries.

Education is liberation

After years of living life “one day at a time”, Dr Mupenzi came to see education as the only way to improve his circumstances.

“Education was the only liberating factor, that’s what the university offered me,” he told ABC Radio Sydney’s Breakfast program.

There are about 25.9 million refugees in 2020, according to UNHCR.(AP: Karsten Thielker, file)

He managed to win an aid-funded scholarship from the Rwandan Government that would allow him to study in Australia.

Like many refugees, he faced cultural and linguistic obstacles, as well as the lingering trauma of his younger years.

“There was no-one here that I could talk to when I first arrived,” he said.

Friendly students helped him with shopping and eventually he connected with members of Sydney’s Rwandan community.

But everything from the names of streets to the food was totally new for the first 12 months.

“It was a learning curve and a very long journey,” he said.

A smiling family flanks a man in a graduation outfit.
Dr Mupenzi says finding his way in Australia was a “big learning curve”.(Supplied: Sally Tsoutas)

Searching for strength

Flying his wife and three children to Australia after eight months was “the greatest thing that ever happened” to him.

As his confidence grew, he balanced his study with a full-time job — including some night work at a local nursing home — to make ends meet.

Focusing on his strengths helped him navigate the obstacles and later informed his research.

“Students with a refugee background are strong, dynamic, and have a high capacity of adaptability,” he wrote.

Australia takes in about 57,000 refugees each year.

Some have thrived, while others have struggled to adapt to their new life.

But rather than examining their deficits, Dr Mupenzi wanted to understand what was working.

“The starting point of my research wasn’t on the traumatic histories of these students,” he said.

He found that strong communities were essential in fostering resilience, which can lead to lifechanging outcomes through education.

A young-looking man of African background wearing a graduation hat and gown.
Dr Mupenzi completed his doctorate while on a bridging visa.(Supplied: Sally Tsoutas)

Focus on the positive

But interviewing other African students was harder than he thought.

“My personal story became alive in my mind every time I heard my participants’ stories,” he said.

Remaining neutral during the interviews was difficult, but the experience gave him new insights into his own childhood.

“I started realising that my family protected me as a child from the troubles of being a refugee,” he said.

“So that even in a refugee camp, I never felt like a refugee.”

Winning a postgraduate researcher award at the Australian Association for Research in Education Conference in 2016 helped validate his approach.

Focusing on the shortcomings of refugees, he argues, will lead to greater rifts in Australian communities.



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