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How a Rwandan man is transforming the lives of refugees

Protais Muhirwa

Welcoming: Prohais Muhirwa is ready to greet any fellow refugees into the ARMIA community.

IT’S an explosion of colour, costume, dance and even cuisine.

About 15 different nationalities collide in this most unusual sight in Brisbane’s southern suburbs.

People from South America, the Middle East, parts of Africa and even eastern Europe.

But there is one thing that stands out more than the colours, smell and sounds.

It’s the smiles on these faces.

Welcome to ARMIA – a most inspiring story from Sunnybank’s Our Lady of Lourdes parish.

ARMIA is also known as the Active Refugee and Migrant Integration in Australia – a group founded by Sunnybank parishioner Protais Muhirwa to help people who haven’t quite integrated into their new country.

The smiles can be seen at ARMIA’s graduation celebrations.

Each of the graduates has obtained a certificate from one of the ARMIA’s programs.

“It’s so beautiful. Those people who were completely lost three to four months ago are as happy as you can imagine,” Mr Muhirwa said.

“At the end of the term we give them certificates. We have around 15 to 20 nationalities and they do traditional songs, dances, cuisine, costumes. So many things. It’s something to watch.”
Those certificates come from one of the five programs made available by ARMIA and its team of volunteers.

Since opening last year, ARMIA has not been able to pay any salaries.

It doesn’t have any funding. But still the volunteers keep coming – more than 30 in the group’s first year.

They’re teaching and helping refugees and migrants who have been in the country more than five years.

That’s when government support runs out for these new Australians but Mr Muhirwa says not everyone is ready for life in this new country.

So he created ARMIA, which has programs in life skills and vocational training, education, health and wellbeing, business initiatives and community engagement.

Mr Muhirwa – a Rwandan-born former university lecturer who has lived in many parts of the world – based ARMIA on a similar organisation he founded in South Africa.

“I was lecturing in Pretoria and, going to and from work, I could see an increasing number of refugees who were lost,” he says.

“Lots of people including women with children. They were desperate. They had nobody to look after them. Nowhere to live, nothing to eat, no clothing.

“And the majority came from non English-speaking countries.

“I kept listening to their sad stories until, one day, I got upset. I didn’t know if my wife and I had the money to do the work I wanted but we had to do something.”

Mr Muhirwa then tells of the “miracles” that made his idea into reality.

A nun helped him locate textbooks to teach English.

A Methodist pastor found three classrooms and offered them for a peppercorn rent.

And then an English teacher, whom he’d never met, rung him and offered her services. She was the first of many volunteers.

On the first day, Mr Muhirwa had 50 students.

More than 400 would graduate with a certificate in each of the eight years before Mr Muhirwa moved to Australia.

“I witnessed that transformation in South Africa. People who went from our classrooms to university and did degrees. People who started their own small to medium businesses,” he said.

People who became politicians. Some became professionals.

“Many went back to where they came from. That human transformation has never left me.”

After several years in Brisbane, Mr Muhirwa saw the need for a new version of his Pretorian project.

And the “miracles” flowed again, delivered by the likes of Fr Dan Ryan and the people of Sunnybank.

Fr Ryan gave Mr Muhirwa the use of a vacant convent on Mains Rd. It’s 10 metres from a bus stop and 100 metres from a train station so the students can easily travel.

It’s now housed with a classroom full of donated computers, two counseling rooms, a sewing workshop and a dining area that is a meeting point for these many people looking for help.

“This is a different environment to South Africa – they’re not homeless,” he said.

“But they’re refugees who have been here five, 10 or even 15 years and they’re still unemployed.

“They’re doctors, engineers, teachers, nurses and other professions.

“In our language we call it chronic unemployment or underemployment.

“We add into that people who have mental health problems. We have domestic violence. We have drug and alcohol abuse.

“You name it – there is a long list of evils.”

ARMIA caters for students of all ages, down to homework assistance for primary school students.

All help is delivered by the team of volunteers.

Mr Muhirwa would desperately love to give them a salary but there is no money.

“In the last nine or 10 months, without any funding or any advertising, we have been receiving about 100 people per week,” he said.

“We haven’t advertised because we don’t have funds. We would have huge numbers if we advertised.”

March will mark one year of classes for ARMIA and Mr Muhirwa is now intent on gaining funding.

He has told Fr Ryan that he would begin paying rent, but he can’t do that without support.

“My biggest priority is to get salaries. We are very positive people. We believe it will happen,” Mr Muhirwa said.

“Because I’m a Catholic, I don’t see how we can survive without faith. So I believe it will happen because I’m sure we’re doing the right thing.

“But I hope someone can help us.

“I don’t think about what will happen if we can’t get that funding.”

By Michael Crutcher

Written by: Staff writers
Catholic Church Insurance

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