Content warning: War and conflict
Atosha Birongo is a third year Bachelor of Politics and International Relations student at the University of Canberra. You might not guess from her stellar grades, upbeat attitude and cheerful smile, that Atosha experienced significant disruptions to her education and considerable hardships in her early years.
Atosha was born and raised in a period of political instability in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s her experiences as a young refugee – and the lessons of perseverance passed down by her parents – that have shaped her into the young woman she is today.
Civil war broke out when Atosha was only very young; her father was forced to move away for his safety and her mother became the sole breadwinner for their nine children.
Just months later, her family were forced to separate again, with only three of the 11 family members able to move to the neighbouring country of Kenya as refugees.
Atosha vividly remembers the move to Kenya. Although the people were very welcoming, growing up there was much different to her life in the Congo, and Atosha initially struggled to adjust to the new country, customs, and languages.
“The circumstances were very difficult for us, living as refugees,” Atosha says.
“My parents were without work, and we lived in a one-bedroom flat with five people – but we were very blessed to have been reunited with my dad and one of my brothers.”
Atosha repeated a grade due to the language barrier —in the Congo they spoke Swahili and French, but in Kenya, they spoke Swahili and English. At just 12 years old, she was already working after school to help provide for her family.
Just over six years after moving to Kenya, Atosha’s family received news that they had been accepted to Australia on a Humanitarian Visa.
“We were very privileged to be resettled and it was a great relief for our family. My parents were over the moon – but I was not,” Atosha explains.
She felt apprehensive about making another move, having had a difficult time adjusting to life in Kenya, but after touching down at Sydney airport, her whole outlook changed.
“I was mesmerised when I saw the diversity in all races represented here,” Atosha says.
“I did not know how diverse Australia was prior to my arrival, but now I knew this is somewhere that I could create a life, contribute and be part of the community.”
The family settled in Wodonga, Victoria, where Atosha attended high school and found herself, once again, starting over in a new country, with a new way of life. Although her Kenyan school had provided a good foundation for her English language skills, she knew she still had much to learn. Additionally, as her parents spoke no English, she took on the responsibility of being their translator.
It was a challenge, but she was determined to make the life that she wanted. She didn’t just want to integrate into the Australian community — she wanted to stand out.
“I pushed myself so hard, seeing the opportunities available to me. I decided to engage myself in leadership at my school. Through my engagements, I gained so much confidence with who I was,” Atosha says.
She signed herself up for every opportunity that arose, threw herself into her studies, and connected with students and other locals to begin building bonds. She organised multicultural events in the community, volunteered with her local council and campaigned for refugees in her community.
Although to begin with, her experience in high school wasn’t entirely positive — she did experience some prejudice and bias — she understood that this was born from a lack of understanding and dedicated herself to helping the community understand.
“I knew it was just that my peers hadn’t been exposed to refugees before. When I shared my story with them, they were able to embrace who I was and learn from me and I learned from them,” Atosha says.
In her senior years of high school, she knew her interests lay in government relations, foreign aid, and public policy, so when an opportunity arose to become an UNICEF Australia Young Ambassador, she applied without hesitation.
Each year, the UNICEF Australia Young Ambassadors meet with thousands of children in their communities to find out what matters to young people. They then raise these issues with the nation’s key decision-makers.
“It was such a great privilege and great honour to be selected as one of eight UNICEF Australia Young Ambassadors. It was a great experience working with young people across Australia and learning through that,” Atosha says.
She was trained in media and communications, government relations, how to conduct consultations, report writing and had the chance to speak to other young Australians from around the country. She presented her findings at Parliament House and spoke with lawmakers — it was a proud moment for Atosha — one that helped reinforce that she was on the right path.
That same year, she also received an unconditional offer to study at the University of Canberra. She was immediately connected with the Refugee Transition Program, where she could access support and funds to help alleviate the barriers to getting an education.
“My experience at the University of Canberra has been great and being the first person in my family to attend a tertiary education is massive,” Atosha says.
“My parents don’t hold degrees, but they’ve always acknowledged how important education is. Education, to me, is the key to help me make meaningful change here.”
Now, in 2022, Atosha is studying for a Bachelor of Politics and International Relations and works as Research Intern at Centre of Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at UC.
She recently passed her Australian citizenship test and has even managed to reconnect with the siblings she had lost contact with – all are alive and well, with two living in Kenya and the others living in the Congo.
Although she was originally a very shy child, Atosha’s grown into an outspoken advocate, an optimist and an empathetic young leader with a bright future ahead of her.
Atosha’s experiences taught her the importance of taking every opportunity available and she’s extremely passionate about the life changing opportunities that education provides: “Education is the passport to the current world and to the future.”
Words by Kelly White. Photo by David Beach Photography.
Refugee Week 2022 runs from Sunday 19 June to Saturday 25 June.
This week, we are sharing the stories and achievements of UC community members who come from refugee backgrounds, to celebrate their successes and highlight different aspects of the refugee experience.
The University of Canberra is dedicated to equity, outreach and the support of all students at every stage of their education life cycle. Visit our website to learn more about our Student Equity and Participation programs.