Dressed in civilian clothes, Private Jean Marc Bukasa looked at home mingling with former Cedars Christian College classmates and teachers on Tuesday.
It was at the Unanderra school that the 21-year-old finally found a safe place to express himself and chase after his dreams.
Private Bukasa was seven when he fled war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo with his family to escape persecution from the military.
They spent several years living in temporary camps before being granted Australian refugee status and settling in Wollongong in 2010.
The city and its people ‘’were so welcoming’’ that Pt Bukasa wanted to give something back. So in 2015 he signed up to the army, just three days after being granted Australian citizenship.
He told the Mercury that he was still driven by a strong desire to serve his new homeland, and help and protect those in war zones.
‘’But I am also studying criminology and criminal justice and hope to one day become a criminologist or work for the AFP [Australian Federal Police],’’ Pte Bukasa said.
‘’I have enjoyed my time in the Army so far and have been posted in both Iraq and Malaysia. I became very fond of the Iraqis while helping the soldiers train to defeat Islamic State terrorists.’’
Cedars principal Steve Walton said Pt Bukasa, who features in a new campaign launched by the college this week, was an inspiration.
‘’I am amazed and proud that, one of our students, after fleeing war, living in a refugee camp, and finally finding a new home in Australia, signed up to defend the freedoms we often take for granted soon after gaining citizenship and graduating from high school,’’ Mr Walton said.
‘’We had the great honour of serving one of our students who is now serving In the Australian Army.’’
Pte Bukasa also has fond memories of his time at Cedars. His four brothers have or are still attending the school.
‘’This place has been important for my family,’’ he said.
‘’I value the friendships I made and the teachers who encouraged me to achieve the goals I set for myself.’’