Congolese refugee on road to rural nursing

Leon Mupapira

Leon Mupapira has wanted to work in the health industry for as long as he can remember.

“I find satisfaction in helping people. When somebody needs help, picking them up, providing care and companionship, especially when they are at their worst, is always nice,” he says, with a genuine smile lighting up his face.

The second-year nursing student has first-hand experience at facing the worst and needing help – his family fled their village after the Second Congo War.

“I was very young, just four, but I remember when the rebels would come we had to run and hide, mostly in the bushes or in the mountains. Then we’d return and they’d come back and it would start again. We would come and go often.

“There was one instance where I ran ahead of mum and dad and they could not find me for a few days, and there was another time when my older brother ran out with my uncle and they were missing for a week and a half.

“It was often chaotic, you’d be in your house and you’d see everyone running down the street or running away and you’d panic. You’d just grab your things and run too.”

After many years enduring the conflict, Leon’s parents decided it was time to “go and find a better place”.

They took Leon and his two brothers, travelling thousands of kilometres through Tanzania and Zambia to Malawi.

“To get there it was a nightmare. We had to walk most of it, sometimes we cycled, and one time we were in a boat that was crammed with loads of people. My older brother got really, really sick in the boat and there was nothing we could do because everyone was in panic.”

Leon’s family spent six years in a Malawian refugee camp, while they applied for refugee status and resettlement through the United Nations.

“The refugee process was very long: we’d do paperwork, have interviews, wait sometimes years for a response. We had to show we had a problem to be fixed. Our case was that my older brother was very sick – he couldn’t sleep for months – we needed help for him.

“Finally we were told we were going to Denmark, so we got ready and learnt as much as we could about Denmark. However, a few weeks before leaving we found out that we were actually headed to Australia. We quickly tried to find out what we could about Australia. All I remember is brochures with pictures of kangaroos, Australia Zoo and Bindi Irwin,” Leon chuckles.

There’s always light at the end of the tunnel

The family landed in Australia knowing only the words ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’.

“I can recall that first day so clearly; it was like paradise to be honest, compared to where we’d come from. There were street lights and cars. It was my first time being in a car, and seeing lights at night. It was amazing. It was magical. I will never forget that day. We’d finally made it.

“Coming here helped me, it gave me hope that there’s a future. So now, when someone is sad or not in a good place I want to be able to show them that there is hope and that there’s a future for everyone. No matter how low you may be and no matter how dark it may seem you don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel.”

Leon’s family has grown since arriving in Australia, with the addition of three more brothers. His father continues to work as a mechanic and his mother runs a family day care centre.

It’s clear that Leon’s older brother was also inspired by their time in the refugee camp – just as Leon aspires to be a nurse and help people, his brother in now a baker after so many years of “going to sleep hungry each night”.

The first person in his family to go to university, Leon started his studies in paramedicine at the University of Southern Queensland, where he met his now wife Tessa who is also studying nursing.

“I thought I wanted to be a paramedic but I realised nursing was a better fit for me. I want to be there longer for the patient and see them through their journey.”

When asked about what area of nursing he’d like to specialise in, Leon replies instantly – it’s clear he’s already given it plenty of thought.

“I used to have three options – mental health, emergency nursing, and paediatrics. However, I recently went on placement in India and I loved working in the tribal rural communities despite the limited resources and staff. It made me wonder about rural nursing in Australia and now I would love to work in remote and rural Australia, particularly with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

“One of my subjects this semester was Indigenous Health, and that has enlightened me to the health gap in Australia and I now want to be involved in providing holistic care to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. My wife feels the same, so once we  graduate we will be heading out to work in rural Australia.”

Leon's India placement

in his own words

“From the moment we arrived we could tell we were in a completely different country with the scent of spices in the air. I’m not kidding – you could smell spices in the air from the airport! After a few hours it became normal and I couldn’t detect it anymore.

The environment was different with constant honking by cars and taxis. For the first few nights, all we could hear was the traffic beeping well into the night and early morning, but again, it’s something you quickly get used to it. 

Before beginning placement, we had a few days to explore India. A highlight was visiting the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is a tomb and every inch is marble, engraved with intricate details and decorations – it is truly magnificent and a must-see site if you ever visit India.

As you have probably heard, the sighting of cows in the streets of India is common. The first time seeing them in the streets was surprising. It wasn’t just cows casually walking around either, but other animals like goats and stray dogs, casually roaming around too. Very different to Australia!

After our sight-seeing tour, we set off from Bengaluru to Gudalur, a seven-hour drive to Adivasi rural communities.  

On our way there we drove through a tiger reserve and got to see some of the amazing wildlife of India: elephants, lots of monkeys, deer, buffalos and more. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see a tiger. 

We arrived at the Gudulur Adivasi Hospital and began placement catering to the rural communities of Gudulur.

One of the most memorable moments while placed in the rural communities was participating in surgery. We observed very interesting cases and were able to participate in surgical activities that are not readily available to student nurses in Australia.

Another highlight was where we travelled to the tribal communities and performed health screenings.

The most difficult part in the rural communities was the language barrier as each tribal community spoke different languages. We were able to learn a few phrases that got us by, but I relied greatly on my non-verbal communication skills to communicate with the nurses as well as the patients.

After two weeks in the rural communities, we embarked on a journey back to Bangalore where we spent the following two weeks placed at the St. Philomena’s Hospital. Here in Bangalore City the hospital closely resembles Australian hospitals, compared to the rural hospital.

My definite highlight while placed at St. Philomena’s Hospital was having the privilege to observe a birth via caesarean section; it was truly wonderful to see new life brought into the world. It was also a great experience being placed in the Emergency Department, where I was able to observe the teamwork needed to work under such critical conditions.”

The traditional dress of the Gudalur community is a Mundu: a large piece of wrap-around fabric that can be worn straight or folded, as seen here.

The traditional dress of the Gudalur community is a Mundu: a large piece of wrap-around fabric that can be worn straight or folded, as seen here.