Coming from a refugee background isn’t a hindrance for Rosemine Mutamuliza. She’s gone on to play a pivotal role in the lives of others like her, who are making Aotearoa their home.
At the age of twelve, Rosemine was caught up in the 1994 Rwanda genocide against Tutsi where over 800,000 Rwandans were killed in the space of 100 days. She and her sister Tasmine had to flee their hometown of Gisenyi and learn to fend for themselves. Separated from their parents and other siblings, they spent the next few years alone in neighbouring countries.
“We had no idea if our family had made it out of Rwanda. So, when we were contacted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1999 and learnt that our mother, three sisters and brother had made it to New Zealand, we couldn’t believe our ears. There were a lot of tears! Thanks to Red Cross we were reunited through the New Zealand refugee quota system, and our new life began here.”
Through sheer hard work, Rosemine taught herself English – picking up the language by watching television with her two young children Tuyi and Doucette, who were born in 2001 and 2004 respectively. As the children grew, Rosemine decided that she wanted to put her own experiences to good use by helping other former refugees to settle well in Aotearoa.
In 2010 she embarked on a Bachelor of Social Practice degree at Unitec, majoring in community development. She says the degree really helped put structure around some of the things she had actually already been doing.
“My refugee background made me want to help others using my personal experiences – I just didn’t realise it was social work! Acquiring the degree helped me put a framework around that. I was determined to do well and put everything into it, so when at the end of my degree I was presented as a senior scholar I knew it was all worth it.”
The degree prompted Rosemine to do some soul searching – something she found both difficult and painful.
“In order to be able to better serve others, I had to deconstruct myself – find out who I really was and embrace who I’d become. It was a difficult but rewarding process that left me in a better position to understand my past. What I went through has shaped who I am today.”
Rosemine became the first person in her family to get a degree when she graduated in 2014. She began work at Auckland Regional Migrant Services (ARMS), now known as Belong Aotearoa, as an Assistant Project Coordinator for the WISE Collective – a joint project with Aotearoa Resettled Community Coalition enabling former refugee women to support their families using their unique skills and talents. Here she was instrumental in setting up WISE Hubs, market stalls and catering – now a successful Auckland catering service offering authentic ethnic dishes from around the world.
From there, Rosemine’s career took a serendipitous turn. She was offered a role as a Social Worker at the New Zealand Red Cross, providing support to former refugees newly settling in Auckland.
“For me, working at the Red Cross was like coming full circle. Thanks to the Red Cross Restoring Family Links programme, my mother was able to locate my sister and I in 1999, and the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement was instrumental in enabling us to reunite with our family. To become part of this organisation and be able to help others in a similar way was incredible.”
Rosemine’s role included not only supporting families and individuals emotionally, but working with them to implement their settlement plan and ensure they were well established and connected. She’d then work alongside them, advocating on their behalf as they learnt to access mainstream services in New Zealand.
“Part of my role was to advise service providers on how to best serve former refugees; pivotal things like making sure they had access to interpreters. It required networking with provider groups to ensure former refugees received equitable and adequate access to resources and appropriate services.
“Coming from a refugee background myself, I was able to understand and appreciate what they were going through. A refugee is an ordinary person who has experienced extraordinary circumstances. Everyone’s story is different, but what they all share is an amazing resilience. I always try to tap into that.”
After two years, Rosemine was promoted to Humanitarian Services Coordinator for the Red Cross. Here she managed community programmes in Auckland, initiated resilience building activities, supported NZRC members and worked to raise the organisation’s profile – building relationships with external stakeholders and the wider community. She was not only a staff member, but also volunteered for the Red Cross Disaster Welfare Support Team. Rosemine says one of her many proud moments was being selected to attend and speak at conference in Geneva in 2018.
“The New Zealand Red Cross needed someone with a refugee background to attend the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement (ATCR) – a meeting between government representatives from resettlement states, NGOs involved in refugee resettlement, intergovernmental and international organisations and UNHCR in Geneva. I can’t even explain how nervous I was, knowing I was delivering an opening address to delegates!”
Rosemine says her speech gave her the opportunity to challenge the state government and NGO representatives about the role former refugees play in resettlement decision making.
“As former refugees, we often have roles as frontline workers or consultants, only called upon when needed. But how many of us are sitting at the decision-making tables? I put the case forward that we need these voices to drive processes and make decisions. We are the subject matter experts after all!”
It’s been quite a journey since Rosemine first arrived on the shores of Aotearoa. When she looks back at her time at Unitec, she says it gave her the confidence and structure she needed to kickstart her career. She still has close relationships with the lecturers at Unitec, and has been back a number of times as a guest lecturer.
“My lecturers have become my colleagues! I’ve lectured for Unitec’s Working with Migrant and Refugee Background Families and Communities paper, sharing my practice on how to best work with former refugees, how to provide adequate support and which networks you might need to work with. I’ve also led peer mentoring, spoken to new graduates as a Unitec Alumni, and supervised Unitec students on placements.”
Today, Rosemine and her family live in Perth, Australia, where she’s still exploring her next steps.
“What really motivates me are the people and being able to make a difference in their lives. You’re often interacting with them at their lowest, but 99% of the time there is a spark in their story – I hold on tight to that and work with it. It’s a learning process really; you are enriched by the story of every person you support. It’s a real privilege to be part of their life journeys.”