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From a refugee camp to the Australian Training Awards—the incredible story of Shaona Imaru

December 5, 2019

In 1996, Africa’s First World War broke out in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), which displaced tens of thousands of Zairians. Some of them made their way across the border to Tanzania, to the relative safety of a refugee camp—a sprawling area home to around 150,000 people. Two of those people would become the parents of Shaona Imaru, a girl whose desperate circumstances would create an inexhaustible desire to help others.

Shaona (pronounced “Shahona”) was born at the turn of the millennium, in her parent’s tent in the refugee camp. The few ambulances in the camp were reserved for clearing the dead, not for medical purposes, so there was no way to get to the hospital on time; no sterile environment in which Shaona’s mother could give birth. Despite the circumstances, Shaona was born with few difficulties, turning the family of three into four—a family that would eventually grow to ten.

Shaona Imaru aged 10
Shaona, aged 10

Shaona’s prospects were bleak. Jobs in the camp were rare: teaching, medicine, a few private companies. Even if you were qualified for a job, you needed the right connections to get it. Shaona’s mum studied nursing but failed to get a job because she didn’t know the right people. It didn’t matter anyway—girls are expected to get married from around 15 onwards, so school felt like going through the motions. Few girls would end up completing year 12—what was the point? Opportunity was a dirty word.

“The education system was very bad. You go to school with no hopes for tomorrow.”
—Shaona Imaru

Healthcare in the camp was woeful—if you were sick, you’d have to wait for a doctor to come from the nearest town. If you were really sick, you’d be ridden to hospital on a pushbike. If there was no pushbike, you’d be carried on someone’s back. As a young girl, what Shaona saw in this desperate situation was an ever-mounting tally of lost lives; lives that could have been saved with proper medical support. Her soul bristled with the injustice of it all—the nascent stirrings of a life dedicated to helping people.

Nyarugusu Refugee Camp, where Shaona grew up
Nyarugusu Refugee Camp, where Shaona grew up

In 2011, when Shaona was 11-years old, her family received news that would change their lives. The Australian government had approved their application for resettlement, allowing the entire family to leave the refugee camp behind, and start fresh in Australia. Brimming with excitement, the family arrived in the country towards the end of the year, touching down in Darwin airport, ready for the next stage of their lives.

In the taxi ride to their new home, Shaona gleefully pointed out the blankets of trees that surrounded the airport, expecting not a single tree to exist in Australia, just endless rows of high-rise buildings. Then an ambulance whizzed past with sirens roaring, and having grown up in a place where ambulances are reserved for transporting the dead, she felt pangs of sorrow for the dead person inside.

After more hiccups and unmet expectations, the family adjusted to their life in Darwin. School was tough for Shaona, who spoke fluent Swahili and Kimbembe, but no English, making it hard to understand lessons or make friends. That wouldn’t do. Shaona resolved to learn English, and fast. Children’s TV programs turned out to be a great way to do so, and little by little, as she sat cross-legged in front of the TV and absorbed show after show, she became a confident English speaker.

“In Australia, you can become anything you want if you put your mind to it. If I wake up tomorrow and say that I want to become a nurse, no-one is going to stop me.”
—Shaona Imaru

By the time the family relocated to Adelaide when Shaona was 12, she had put herself in the best possible position to succeed at school, quickly making friends, and passing all of her classes. But that wasn’t enough—having been deprived of opportunities her entire life, not taking them in Australia seemed almost criminal to Shaona. This amazing country was offering her the chance to soar.

To represent and improve the lives of her fellow classmates, Shaona joined the Student Voice committee. She completed a Find Your Voice course to become a better speaker, and helped to win a debating competition for her school. She took on anything and everything that would help her grow, gaining confidence with every passing day, until eventually, as secondary school was coming to a close, a VET coordinator introduced Shaona to a course that seemed to be designed just for her: a Cert III in Health Services Assistance.

“When the VET coordinator came through and talked about health services, because of my experiences as a child, I knew it was the perfect choice for me. If you’re a doctor or a nurse or a midwife, you have the ability to help people around the world.”
—Shaona Imaru

Shaona, aged 16
Shaona, aged 16

VET turned out to be perfect for Shaona—unrushed, understandable, and run by compassionate, knowledgeable teachers. When Shaona struggled, she had the leeway she needed to battle through. When faced with baffling medical terminologies, her patient teachers offered support. And best of all, the nursing home placement that was part of her course allowed her to apply what she was learning in the real world, intensifying her desire to become a healthcare professional.

“When we worked at the nursing home, I really fell in love with the industry. My VET course really helped me to find what I wanted to do.”
—Shaona Imaru

Shaona completed her course with flying colours, and her teachers in Adelaide were so impressed with her performance that they put her name forward for the South Australia Training Awards. Meanwhile, Shaona applied for a Bachelor of Nursing degree, with a view to become a midwife—a way to better the situation of people who grew up in similar circumstances to herself, wherever in the world that might be. Giving back to the community was an urgent priority for Shaona.

“Sometimes at uni when I’m doing an assignment, I think ‘God I don’t want to do this,’ but then I think about the whole reason behind doing it, and it motivates me to continue.”
—Shaona Imaru

Shaona is a few months into her degree, and on the way to being a nurse. She’s even encouraging her mum to follow her footsteps, as she never had the chance to work as a nurse in Tanzania. Educational opportunities aren’t hindered by age restrictions or marital obligations in the same way as Tanzania, so why not?

A few months ago, Shaona got word from the SA Training Awards—she was to be a finalist in her category: Vocational Student of the Year.

She won it.

After that, she was put forward for the same award at the national level—the Australian Training Awards. 

She won that too.

After her award had been announced at the event, as she stood on the stage before hundreds of people, streams of tears wetting her face, and struggling to say a single word of her acceptance speech, the crowd roared with deafening applause. The little girl born in a tent in a dusty refugee camp 10,000km away, whose prospects during childhood had been hopeless, had just beaten thousands of students to take home the award for Vocational Student of the Year at the Australian Training Awards. 

Shaona has recognised the value of every single opportunity that the education system in Australia has offered her, seizing them with a gratitude born from dire circumstances. There can be no doubts about Shaona’s future, and how many people are going to benefit from the benevolence of her spirit. She’s an inspiration to every single student in the country, and evidence of the VET industry’s ability to improve people’s lives.

Her family, friends, the VET industry, and the people of Tanzania and Australia should be proud of this girl’s incredible achievements.

Shaona wins Vocational Student of the Year 2019

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