A degree of dreams and celebration

Shepparton's Tina Mukasa graduates with a Bachelor of Health Sciences in Public Health, after arriving in Shepparton as an eight-year-old Congolese refugee with her father and four siblings in 2005. She had no education and no English language skills.

Image: Shepparton News
(Tina celebrates her graduation with twin sister Neema and brother Monga.)

With so many university courses being disrupted and delayed this year by COVID-19 restrictions, any graduation must be a cause for celebration.

However, the recent graduation of Shepparton's Tina Mukasa with a Bachelor of Health Sciences in Public Health from La Trobe University is particularly sweet for Tina and her family. It also a proud moment for the Shepparton community that has nurtured her.

Tina, now 22, arrived in Shepparton as an eight-year-old with her father, Maulidi, and four siblings in 2005. She had no education and no English language skills.

They were among the first Congolese families to arrive in Shepparton as refugees after fleeing the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo 10 years earlier.

In the chaos and brutality of war, Tina's mother was killed and Tina became separated from her twin sister, Neema.

Her childhood was spent in a Tanzanian refugee camp, where her father battled hunger, violence and poor sanitary conditions to keep his family together.

Not surprisingly, Tina describes her father as her hero.

“My dad did everything for us and raised us there, and it was very difficult. I do have some memories of that time, which as a young person you shouldn't be exposed to. It was a lot to go through,” she said.

“To get clean water you had to walk miles and miles, and there were some days we didn't have access to food.”

When she arrived in Shepparton, Tina said her life changed immediately.

“There was so much food and shops and there were toilets and basic needs. The community was so welcoming and vibrant and there were celebrations with other Congolese families that we had lived with,” she said.

A year after arriving in Shepparton, Tina was reunited with her twin sister at Melbourne airport in November 2006.

They attended St Brendan's Primary School, then Notre Dame Secondary College before going on to tertiary education. Neema is now studying to become a nurse.

Tina and her sister have changed from Swahili-speaking shy young girls to confident young Australian women looking forward to a bright future.

In addition to her studies, Tina has grabbed every opportunity on offer.

In 2016 she travelled to Canberra to tell her story as part of the ABC's national Heywire Regional Youth Summit team.

In 2018 she represented Australia as a model at the International Fashion Catwalk in Los Angeles.

Tina paid tribute to then St Brendan's principal Julie Cobbledick, who travelled to Kenya to bring Neema to Shepparton, and to the teachers and wider community that have supported her and her family.

“The teachers have been amazing, and we have felt so welcomed — learning English must be my best highlight,” she said.

Tina also thanked the charity The Smith Family.

“The Smith Family came into my life when I was in grade 3. It is a charity that has changed my life and inspired me to go further with my education,” she said.

Tina said her graduation at La Trobe's Bundoora campus in mid-December was delayed for a year because of COVID-19.

For now, she is looking forward to continuing her work as a case manager at UnitingCare in Shepparton and as a receptionist and ward clerk at Goulburn Valley Health.

“Who knows what the future holds, but for the moment I would like to stay here and work and give back to the community that has helped me so much,” she said.

Tina hoped her story and her achievement would inspire others to engage, ask for help and never give up on their dreams.

“My degree is dedicated to every little refugee girl and boy, who probably thinks that everything is impossible,” she said.

This article first appeared in Shepparton News, 14th January 2021.