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Meet the Rwandan Catholic saving taxpayers millions by giving refuges and migrants a dream

Practical support: Sunnybank parish priest Fr Dan Ryan (left) is supporting parishioner Protais Muhirwa in the good work he doing with refugees through Active Refugee and Migrant Integration in Australia.

“A LACK of dream, a lack of belonging; the best way to combat youth crime is not to build bigger detention centres,” Sunnybank parishioner Protais Muhirwa, who founded Active Refugee and Migrant Integration in Australia five years ago, said.

“It’s wrong, it’s very wrong; when they release them they’re worse criminals.

“The best way to combat terrorism, it’s not to increase the number of police; the police are not going into your head or your heart, they’re not going to sleep in your home; if you are determined to commit terrorism you’ll still find a way. 

“There’s no software that’s going to read your thoughts. 

“The best way is to give them back the dream, the hope, the sense of belonging. 

“Those young people need to have a dream in the community.”

Mr Muhirwa runs ARMIA from an old brick convent, doing his best to give migrants and refugees – new arrivals and long-time Aussies – that dream back.

And he does it with no government funding.

By his estimates, he’s saved taxpayers millions of dollars by removing people from Centrelink payments through employment.

He does this by teaching English to migrants and refugees, because learning the language is perhaps the greatest obstacle to employment, socialisation, and physical and mental health. 

Inside the convent, down the narrow halls was a sewing room, a full English class, offices, counselling rooms and Mr Muhirwa’s own office; it was fitted, like every room, with remnants of its previous tenants like a hand-wash sink in his office and a stained-glass window in the sewing room.

The English class was practising Advance Australia Fair up the hall. 

A million Australians didn’t speak English, Mr Muhirwa said.

He told the story of a girl from South Sudan who lived in a refugee camp in Kenya, where she received “nursery school”.

That was it.

When she arrived in Australia, she was put in Year 6 at school.

“She has never done (Year) 1 and (Year) 2, she doesn’t know how to write and read, she barely can write,” Mr Muhirwa said.

“Then the mother said, ‘I begged the principal to put her in the lower grade – he refused’.

“He said, ‘In Australia, we follow the age’.”

The girl had “terrible” results at the end of Year 6 and, after the mother begged to have her repeat, she was pushed into Year 7, and then Year 8, and so on.

“They kept pushing her until she finished (Year) 12.”

Mr Muhirwa said university was out of the question and she would never get a good job.

He warned if she fell into “bad company” with drugs and alcohol, and money and extremism, brainwashing could follow and they could “make her go commit some atrocities”. 

“This person is vulnerable, exposed to all those things.

“Youth prostitution – it’s a reality.”

Youth suicide was also a reality, he said.

Offering hope: An English class at Active Refugee and Migrant Integration in Australia at Sunnybank.

Those who come from overseas with accreditations may not fair any better either.

Without English, they couldn’t evaluate their overseas accreditations for jobs in Australia, rendering their education useless.

“That lack of employment leads to, of course, a lack of proper integration,” Mr Muhirwa said.

This led to family issues like domestic violence.

Mr Muhirwa told a story of a man he knew when he was doing similar work in the Netherlands though it was a common story in Australia too.

The man was from Iran but studied in London, achieving a doctorate in chemistry.

Unable to get a job in England, he migrated to the Netherlands for better chances, but they didn’t come.  

When he met Mr Muhirwa, he said he had been receiving 1200 euros a month from the government, but decided to give it up for any job he could get.

He started driving a small van to deliver milk for 1100 euros a month. 

“I said you must be an idiot … You lost a hundred euros,” Mr Muhirwa said.

But the man told him, “No, man, when my children were going to school before I was still sleeping, the whole day I’m with my wife fighting because she wants to have a private life, we were there 24/7; when the children come from school in the afternoon, I’m sitting on the couch watching TV every day”.

“And then he said, ‘Protais, when do you think I can teach them that to work hard to study hard is important, when they know that I have PhD and I’m doing nothing?’

“‘There’s no way I can teach them those values’.

“‘That’s why, Protais, I took that job – when they go to school, Daddy’s going to work, when they come from school, Daddy’s at work, when I come in the evening, with a bottle of milk, some chocolates, (they say), yes, Daddy is home. 

“‘Now my family relationships are normal; no more domestic violence, parenting issues, no counselling expenses’.”

Mr Muhirwa said welfare dependency affected family relationships. 

“Centrelink becomes the father and the husband – that is a problem between the man and the wife, the parents and children, all the money that feeds the children, to take them to school whatever, from Centrelink,” he said. 

“So the breadwinner is not my father, is not my mother, it’s Centrelink.” 

Those who come to ARMIA often brought trauma of their own.

“The consequences of war are multi-dimensional and long-term,” Mr Muhirwa said.

“And one of them, (is it) affects your pride, your dignity, your self-confidence; that’s very damaging, (and) is multi-generational. 

“Until, you have those programs and structures which help them to recover – those values – you cannot buy from the market.”

Mr Muhirwa has seen this trauma firsthand.

At a recent English class, Mr Muhirwa asked people to talk about their lives.

“Many did well, but this girl – she’s originally from Burma – she remembered her experience with the police in Thailand, how she was abused there,” he said.

“She cried very badly, until myself, I felt bad, so I stopped it. 

“Then I had to talk about how in Australia the police, the army, the government are there to help you … Australia is a completely different (country).”

Mr Muhirwa and his team encounter a wide variety of issues, which require innovative therapies. 

The convent is surrounded by a multicultural garden, where community members grow fruit and vegetables, which are distributed in part by a broken mower re-engineered into a trolley.

Multicultural garden: Protais Muhirwa with eggplants and tomatoes from the ARMIA garden.

“The idea is many refugees or new Australians used to be farmers before migrating to Australia,” Mr Muhirwa said. 

“The poor men and women here don’t have any farms, and many are not educated, so they are stuck at home.”

Being stuck at home contributed to the social isolation that defined many of those lives.

The garden was a way to get out and engaged.

“And then another important thing – nutritional literacy,” Mr Muhirwa said.

“Many are not educated, thinking that eating McDonalds every day, KFC every day is good; Coke and Fanta is not very expensive, they drink as much as they can and not know they’re drinking sugar.”

Throughout dealing with these crises, Mr Muhirwa has drawn strength from his Catholic faith.

He said Sunnybank parish was his one and only parish.

“That is where I belong, that is my parish, that is my priest – a good friend,” he said.

“My personal thanks to Fr Dan (Ryan) and all the priests, I put my head on their shoulders when I cry.”

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