MARIE Jose Niyowera has set her alarm for 4am on Australia Day.
She and her husband John Bukuru, 56, and daughters Memory, 17, and Ivona, 11, don’t have to be at Newcastle City Hall to register for their citizenship ceremony until 8am, but they’re not taking any chances of being late.
“I’ve been waiting 23 years for this day,” Ms Niyowera, 45, said.
“We bought brand new clothes and laid them out on Thursday.
“Every night before I go to sleep I’ve been thinking about how many more days we have to wait.
“It will be the day that changes my life, that makes me feel like a human being.”
The family will be among 180 people from 32 nations who will pledge loyalty to their new homeland on Friday, in what will be the biggest Australia Day citizenship ceremony anywhere in NSW and the largest in Newcastle’s history.
“It’s a miracle and an honour, because this is the best country in the world,” Ms Niyowera said.
“Half of my life I’ve been a refugee, so I can’t understand if this is happening to me or another person, it does not feel real yet.
“I can’t believe we have a country now – I feel like I’m in paradise and like I’m going to be truly happy for the first time in my life.”
Ms Niyowera and Mr Bukuru were living in the Rwandan countryside when war broke out and they were forced to flee in the middle of the night in 1994.
They left with just the clothes on their back.
Marie received a knife wound to her left arm in the conflict.
“Someone wanted to kill me but I didn’t die – I’m a survivor,” she said.
Ms Niyowera, who lost her father as a child, said her three brothers died and she does not know what happened to her mother and two sisters. Mr Bukuru also has family members still missing.
The couple spent about a year in refugee camps in Burundi and the Congo before returning to Rwanda.
“But it always felt very scary and like something could happen,” she said. “We couldn’t sleep at night.”
They left a year later for a Tanzanian refugee camp and then Malawi, where they stayed for 16 years.
“Life was difficult, but it was safe,” Ms Niyowera said.
The unexpected death of their eldest daughter Aline, 13, after a short illness in 2008 “changed everything” again.
The UNHCR helped the family appeal to Australia for assistance. “All we knew was it was big and beautiful.”
They arrived in Newcastle on June 20, 2012.
“The first time I saw it I thought there were so many roads and houses and cars and busy, busy traffic,” she said.
“There were lots of people shopping, and trains, and the best beaches. Everything was just so beautiful.”
Memory said the family expected snow.
“We were all wearing heavy clothes with fur and were so hot, but we still loved it,” Memory said.
“Then I saw the beach and fell even more in love, because we’d never been to a place with this much water.
“We go almost every Saturday.”
Since then, Ms Niyowera and Mr Bukuru have completed certificates in English at TAFE.
Ms Niyowera went on to study Aboriginal history and sociology at the University of Newcastle, but left to find a job as a cleaner, while Mr Bukuru is a taxi driver.
“My heart is in Australia now and I think I’ll live in Newcastle forever,” she said.
“I feel I’m home and that everything is going to be okay. We are safe, we can sleep well, eat, go to the hospital, we have everything.
“I have no worries about my kids’ future.
“If we were still in the refugee camp it would be very bad and they may have died already.”
Ms Niyowera wants to eventually return to university to study law and help other refugees.
This year she plans to learn to swim, get more involved in community groups and join a football or basketball team.
“This is a new chapter and we’ve tried to forget everything that happened before,” she said.
“This is our lives now, we are focused on Australia and feel Australian.”
Memory will complete her Higher School Certificate this year and hopes for a career in medicine.
“I feel now I’m part of something and I want to give back,” Memory said.
“Australians have helped us and given us all these opportunities, so we want to say thank you.
“I think our citizenship ceremony is going to very emotional.”
Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes said it was an honour to welcome people from so many nations and backgrounds.
“Hearing the stories of some of these people really opens your eyes to how lucky we are here in Australia – particularly in Newcastle – to enjoy the life we have.”
Polish immigrant Krysztof Kwiatkowski will provide an address at Friday’s ceremony on behalf of new citizens.
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