14 June 2017
A USC student who came to Australia 14 years ago after fleeing civil war in Ethiopia has helped other refugees find safe havens while doing an internship with a United Nations agency in Malaysia.
Master of International Development student Onyongo Agira, 40, recently spent two months on a work placement with the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and used his own experiences as a refugee and his Amharic language skills to assist asylum seekers during interviews.
Warfare between government and rebel troops in Ethiopia forced Onyongo to escape his home country in 1994, and he spent many years in a refugee camp in neighbouring Kenya. His parents and five siblings were unable to leave Ethiopia.
Onyongo arrived in Australia on a humanitarian visa in 2003 and developed his English skills enough to complete several vocational courses in community work. From there, he completed a Bachelor of Social Science before enrolling in his current degree at USC.
The Enoggera resident and father-of-three said the UNHCR internship, undertaken as part of an intensive subject for his degree, had been an incredible opportunity to gain hands-on experience in the international development field.
“I felt very privileged to be seeing both sides of the UN process – going from being a refugee myself, to interviewing refugees,” Onyongo said.
“I thought the placement would mainly involve observing and learning from the UNHCR staff, but they put me to work as soon as I arrived, which was excellent.
“I was working in the registration unit of a major refugee camp, assisting with identity verification, interviews, and issuing documents. My Amharic language and my own background really helped in connecting with the refugees.”
Onyongo, who is writing a thesis on refugees living in urban areas, said he planned to use the skills and knowledge gained from his USC degree to build a career working with refugees.
“To work up from speaking almost no English to studying a Masters degree feels incredible,” he said. “I’ve been through a lot of challenges, but gaining an education was always my dream.
“I didn’t want to waste my opportunity in Australia, and I want to make sure I give back to other people who are struggling.”
— Gen Kennedy