A mother's story of tragedy and hope

 Little Eliana’s life could not be more different from the terror and uncertainty her mother, Therese, faced in war-torn Congo. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

Little Eliana’s life could not be more different from the terror and uncertainty her mother, Therese, faced in war-torn Congo. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

Therese Milolo fled her warring homeland and survived a refugee camp only to face gut-wrenching tragedy once she settled in Australia. Yet her story is one of hope, writes KATE WALSH.

The gurgling baby on Therese Milolo's lap knows nothing of the hardship her mother has faced.

Content, sheltered, safe and much loved by her two older brothers, Elwin and Godwin, six-month-old Eliana has never experienced pangs of hunger while living in a foreign country, nor the grief of losing a family member.

If her mother has her way, she never will.

Therese came to the Illawarra in 2008, after spending four years living as a refugee in Cameroon with her son, Eliachim (Eli for short).

With her baby in her arms, she had fled civil war-torn Congo, leaving her siblings and father behind.

"I stayed there all those four years without any contact," she said.

"It's only when I get here to Australia that I had the possibility to start to look for them because you need money, a mobile phone.

"I was calling everywhere in my country, everyone I knew, until my sister was located."

Her older sister, a single mother to six children, is currently living in a refugee camp in Tanzania.

Her brother has found refuge in the United States.

She hasn't heard from her father since.

Therese prays for her sister every day, hoping that she will find somewhere safe to raise her children.

After all, she knows how tough it can be - her memories of Cameroon are not fond.

"I didn't have a good experience there.

"I was a single mum. It's a big struggle being a single mum, you're not protected, you're very vulnerable.

"It was very hard with a little child to find food. You need to work hard."

But she persevered, taking care of Eli in the challenging circumstances, until she and her son were able to come to Australia where they started to build a happy life.

Eli attended the Illawarra Christian School, while Therese began studying at TAFE for diplomas in business administration and community services, which she has now attained, became heavily involved in her church and gave birth to her twin boys.

But in January last year, Therese had another tragedy to overcome.

Eli, then eight years old, was swept up by a rip and drowned at Corrimal Beach.

Therese still doesn't know how to explain why her child was taken from her.

"It was so hard, I really struggled to raise him up to five years.

"[In Cameroon], feeding him was a big deal, my main problem was to get him somewhere to sleep, keep him safe and find him something to eat.

"It was so hard, and that's why I don't know how to explain why is he gone.

"I was in this situation, I was worried I could lose him but I didn't lose him and here, where I finally was like 'my son is safe, he's happy', I lost him."

State Emergency Services continue the search for Eliachim’s body at Towradgi Beach in January 2012. Picture: MELANIE RUSSELL

State Emergency Services continue the search for Eliachim’s body at Towradgi Beach in January 2012. Picture: MELANIE RUSSELL

Therese's friends and church rallied around her in the aftermath of Eli's death, visiting her at home, cooking meals, looking after the twins and comforting her.

"I don't know how I [would have got] out of bed without those people," she recalled.

But Therese knew she could work to get through the dark time.

Soon after arriving in the Illawarra, Therese started working with the Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS) as a facilitator, helping new arrivals adjust to the quirks and practicalities of life in Australia.

She was keen to share her journey with other refugees as part of the Families in Cultural Transition Program, a cultural orientation for people who have newly arrived in Australia, and eager to recommend counselling for people overcoming trauma.

Therese didn't seek out counselling for herself until 2010, after she had given birth to her twins.

The strategies she developed for dealing with past and present pain helped her deal with the loss of her boy.

"I had someone who was listening to me," she said.

"I felt like I had someone who was supporting me, someone who wouldn't judge me or give his opinion, who was giving me some strategies and some tools as well to help deal with my situation.

"They helped me focus on my strengths. To see what I'm achieving and not my failures - that's really what I took from the counselling services.

"The counselling helped me overcome that fear and I was strong again."

She has recommended others in similar situations seek out STARTTS, certain it will help them find some peace.

"People I have been talking to find the service helpful, one told me he didn't know about himself until he started to use the service, he didn't know how to help himself," Therese said.

"A few people told me they were confident again to live life."

STARTTS has been running in the Illawarra for almost 20 years, but the organisation itself, which has offices and outreach services across NSW, celebrated its 25th anniversary this month.

The service primarily works with refugee communities to help members overcome trauma and torture.

It focuses on fostering empowerment and control through counselling, group therapy and community development activities, providing help to individuals and families regardless of how old they are or how long they've lived in Australia.

In the Illawarra, a team of two counsellors, John Payne and Amy Luschwitz, liaise with their regional manager and other services in the region to assist refugees' transition into their new lives.

STARTTS counsellor John Payne says while the stories his clients tell can be confronting, seeing them start to get better is rewarding. Picture: GREG TOTMAN

STARTTS counsellor John Payne says while the stories his clients tell can be confronting, seeing them start to get better is rewarding. Picture: GREG TOTMAN

Payne says over time, the make-up of Wollongong's refugee community has shifted.

When he started with the organisation six years ago, most people came from Burma and countries in Central Africa but now, increasing numbers are arriving from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

He estimates close to 300 refugees settled in the Illawarra this year - a number that has grown in part due to women on "woman at risk" visas settling in the region.

Though he has heard scores of stories of injustice, Payne says he's still not immune to being shocked by what a client has shared, nor from taking home thoughts about why people inflict terrible things on others.

"It's probably the job I've reflected on the most after hours - more than any other job in the past," he said.

"Whether that's good or not so good, I'm not sure.

"It's not totally to do with the clients' stories, though that's a big part of it - you link that [individual story] to bigger injustices and can get a bit angry at things, you start thinking about international events and connections.

"Just thinking about the way people treat each other in such horrendous ways - will that ever end? You start to ponder lots of issues, as well as reflecting on clients' individual circumstances."

Therese prays for her sister every day, hoping that she will find somewhere safe to raise her children.

Therese prays for her sister every day, hoping that she will find somewhere safe to raise her children.

Confronting past trauma isn't always easy, and some clients choose not to revisit it, preferring to leave the past behind them.

When a client does decide to open up, Payne says watching them show progress is always rewarding.

"When you see them generally better and taking on new challenges, feeling like they've settled here, it's very encouraging," he said.

"It doesn't always happen like that; clients, not infrequently, continue to struggle for a whole host of reasons.

"It would be great if everyone made significant progress, but for some people it's a slower journey."

Some who have used the service, like Therese, remain involved with the organisation, helping to run orientation programs for new arrivals or becoming caseworkers with other services.

Therese plans to continue working closely with STARTTS, and eventually hopes to study law, a path she began pursuing while working for a law firm that supported single women before she left Congo.

Her love of law and of helping the less fortunate, she says, was instilled in her by her father.

"He would say 'educating a woman is educating a society'. He was focused on sending us to school. It's why I have that passion to keep supporting women in their lives," she said.

"Sometimes when I'm talking to my brother, I say 'I wish he was here to see the result of what he built in us'."

"Even though we went through the darkest time without hope, that seed he put in us to keep living life, we started to value what he did.

"I've got three kids now in my hand that make me smile, that make me wake up in the morning, so I have to look after them now and help them grow up."

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