CLEOPHAS Biringanine escaped torture and violence in Africa to find a peaceful haven in Brisbane, but he can’t forget the five children he left behind in Malawi’s Dzaleka Refugee Camp.
Now he and his wife Hope Mugalihya, with the assistance of a Catholic couple and others in their Jubilee Parish, are working steadily to get these children to the safety of Australia.
In the camp, Cleophas took responsibility for five Congolese children – four girls and a boy aged nine to 15 – who had fled there after rebel soldiers killed their parents.
In February 2010, prior to the children’s arrival in June, he had been elected as one of the three representatives of the 5000-strong Congolese community in Dzaleka camp.
“Others in the camp were reluctant to care for these children who were in a pitiful state,” he said.
“I felt responsible for them.”
After much pleading with authorities, he was able to get ration cards for the children.
“In the meantime I shared what I had – and I went and bought a bigger bowl,” he said.
Cleophas and Hope know the dangers these children are facing as orphans in the camp where there are less than a dozen police officers for 12,000 refugees.
“I had a terrible time there as a 20-year-old woman,” Hope said.
“Life for a nine-year-old girl would be a nightmare.”
The Congolese couple met in another refugee camp, Luwani, in early 2007. Both were traumatised having witnessed the slaughter of their families.
Cleophas, the eldest son of a traditional chief in the South Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, escaped from a group of militia who raided his family home in 2005.
He was eventually captured and spent 10 months in Kabare prison.
Here he was beaten and tortured between 4am and 5am every morning along with his brother, Muderhwa, who eventually died from his injuries.
Hope is the only survivor of a family of 15, comprising parents and nine children as well as three cousins whom her parents had adopted after their parents had been killed in the Congolese civil war of 1996.
Her father was a well-known businessman, mining engineer and local governor.
In a night home invasion by rebel soldiers in June 2005, she witnessed the massacre of her entire family including her beloved twin sister.
Left for dead, Hope was found and taken to hospital where she remained for four months.
After almost five years in refugee camps, and often in fear of her personal safety as an unmarried young woman, Hope finally received a humanitarian visa sponsored by Australian Immigration as a “Woman at Risk”.
In 2007, Hope had become betrothed to Cleophas.
On arriving in Brisbane in 2009, it became her mission to secure his safe passage to Australia.
Their ongoing communications were ensured by an American aid worker “Ann W’s” gift of a mobile phone.
“I left this phone with Cleophas and we communicated by text messages once I got to Australia,” Hope said.
“I also sent money saved from my Newstart Allowance to help him and the children.”
This same mobile phone now forms a communication link between the couple and the children in Dzaleka camp.
Cleophas was reluctant to leave the children behind, but was advised it was best to get Australian residency and bring them later.
He said the news from the camp in recent times had not been good.
In the past six to eight months, the relationship between the children and their carer has progressively deteriorated, he said.
Part of the reason for this is she is now married.
The children’s United Nations High Com-missioner for Refugees ration card was at one stage confiscated and their monthly ration allotment used by others.
The prized card is now in the safe keeping of an adult couple who are friends of Cleophas.
“However, the rations are now being pilfered while the children are at school,” he said.
“The children report intimidation and constant harassment in the camp where child kidnap, rape and violence are not unknown.”
The Brisbane couple from Jubilee Parish who have become family – “aunty and uncle” – to the Congolese couple are doing their best to help.
“Our goal is for the children to be granted an Australian humanitarian protection visa and to come to the safety of Brisbane,” the “uncle” said.
“Several hurdles have been cleared recently and we are hopeful of a good outcome.”
Meanwhile, Cleophas waits anxiously.
“All we can do is pray to God at the moment,” he said.