SIBOMANA Nzaramba thought he had a good grasp of English until he got to Australia and was greeted with a friendly "g'day".
The quietly spoken man laughs at the memory as we sit discussing the excellence awards he and his wife, Emilienne Mukarwema, received from Lismore TAFE.
Two recent immigrants receiving learning awards would make a great stand-alone story anywhere, but for these two Rwandan refugees, it caps a harrowing journey of trauma and resilience over decades.
Mr Nzaramba was awarded an Outstanding Achievement for Certificate III in spoken and written English while Ms Mukarwema received the Robyn Butler Memorial Award for overcoming barriers to education by demonstrating exemplary commitment and focus.
With five languages now under his belt, the former church minister and French teacher from Africa wells up when recounting a journey that began during the 1994 Rwandan civil war during which more than half a million of his people were massacred, including the couple's three children and most of their extended families.
"I feel good about this award because when I came here in 2010 I understand British English, but Aussie English was very hard," he laughed.
Mr Nzaramba's humour masks a story that includes years surviving as a refugee in the Congo and Kenya, and several hiding from soldiers in the jungle.
He has testified at international war crime tribunals.
They have spent years in the Australian asylum seeker queue.
Today the couple is simply enjoying the freedoms we take for granted here in Australia and raising their three teenage children.
As well as his language studies, Mr Nzaramba has also completed, or is undertaking, a raft of courses in business management, human resources and community services.
He explains his motivation for study: "When I came here, everywhere I went to look for a job, they ask me for documents and we had no documents because they were all lost during the war," he said.
"So I wanted to study to have the qualifications and my plan when I finish at the end of the year is to get a job in community services, or anywhere really.
"I love this area.
"If I find a job in this area I will be so happy because many, many people here are so friendly."
TAFE teacher Lorraine Jenkinson said the awards reflected the incredible resilience, determination and focus of the couple to overcome obstacles that many of us might take for granted.
"They are working very hard on their vocational and English language skills to participate in the Australian workforce.
"It is very important for Sibomana to provide for his family."
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