Like so many refugees, Nicole Dilubenzi has lived much of her life on the run, fleeing violence and unrest from Congo to Lesotho to Namibia before finally making her home in Echuca, the community that has embraced her and is now backing her dream of launching a fashion label. She sat down with CHARMAYNE ALLISON to share her remarkable story of heartbreak and hope.
NICOLE Dilubenzi has a dazzling, infectious smile that makes you want to be as happy as she is.
But her happiness has been, at best, a brittle mask; for Nicole it blurs the reality of life on the run; of fearing for your life, of being driven from the country of your birth and then from the country of your refuge.
Of finding your home torn apart, your pet dog butchered, and your husband vanished, presumed murdered.
For Nicole and her three children, Echuca-Moama is hopefully the last stop.
The family’s nightmare began with a phone call.
In 2006 Nicole – by then a university graduate in fashion – married Chicco, a local doctor.
Struggling to find decent jobs in Congo, the newlyweds moved to Lesotho, a small kingdom inside South Africa, before finally settling in Namibia.
Chicco started working rurally while Nicole stayed in a neighbouring town so the children could go to school.
The new job seemed like a dream come true, providing enough money for the couple to help support their families back home; where the average annual salary is below $400.
But in May last year, their dream turned into a nightmare.
“Chicco’s friend called and said, ‘your husband didn’t turn up to work’,” Nicole said.
Her heart in her throat, she raced to the house where Chicco lived – and arrived at a crime scene.
“I found everything upside down, a mess, and our dog had been killed,” she said.
“When I saw the dog, I thought, ‘maybe they killed Chicco also’.”
Suddenly Nicole found herself trapped and terrified; fearing for her safety and that of her children, unsure whether they still had a father; whether she still had a husband.
Having suffered trauma in Congo – her physical and mental scars still too raw to share – and now wondering what evil stalked them in Namibia, there was nowhere left to turn in Africa.
“Before Chicco went missing, he and I had booked a holiday for the family to Australia,” Nicole said.
“We had the money and Chicco and the kids had their visas. I was just waiting for mine – and three days after Chicco went missing, it arrived.
“I couldn’t go back to Congo. I called my dad and he just said, ‘since you've got your visa, go and seek protection in Australia’.”
Days later Nicole and her children arrived in Melbourne and stepped straight into a maze of visas, interviews and endless queues.
In the middle of the chaos Nicole was put in touch with the Brigidine Sisters, a congregation of nuns offering aid to refugees and asylum seekers.
“While they were swamped in Melbourne, they said they could find us a place to settle in the country,” Nicole said.
Three days later they arrived in Echuca-Moama, met by the warm smile and open arms of local Brigidine nun Sister Cecilia.
Who, along with a band of community helpers including Echuca Moama Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR), ensured the family was quickly re-settled.
Nicole’s two older children Andrew, 9, and Celeste, 8, started at St Mary’s Primary School, while Nicole set up their new home and continued to raise her youngest son Bryan (now 2).
But life was still anything but normal for Nicole and the children – none of their new classmates would go home each day and ask if their father was still alive.
“The children definitely grasped what was going on with their dad,” she said.
“They kept asking, ‘is he dead’? But even though I thought he was, I just couldn’t say it to them. I had to be very strong for my kids.”
If there were any doubts Australia would be their safe haven, the best news of her life might just be enough of an omen to convince her she was finally ‘home’.
From the day he went missing Nicole had sent letters to her husband, with no reply.
Until, after nine months of silence, she received an email that almost made her collapse.
“It was from Chicco. I ran to Sister Cecilia and said, ‘I don't know if someone is trying to make a joke’,” she said.
But a phone call the next day confirmed what seemed too good to be true.
It was Chicco.
While she struggles to remember that first conversation, Nicole can still feel the warm relief that washed over her on hearing his voice.
“I was like, ‘are you okay? Are you sure you are okay’? And he said, ‘no, I’m fine, we'll talk more when you cool down’,” she said.
Nicole would eventually piece together everything that happened to her husband in those silent nine months.
Chicco had been kidnapped and tortured – worse, they both knew the man who did it.
“In April last year, my husband did an autopsy on a lady who was the sister of a traditional chief in the rural area where my husband was working,” she said.
“She was a businesswoman who had put money together with her business partner. But by the time they went to share their money, his sister collapsed in the office and died on the spot.
“She died a normal death, from a heart attack. But the chief wanted my husband to lie about the cause of the death and say it was the other lady, the business partner, who killed her.”
But Chicco refused.
“The chief said, ‘since you did not do what I asked you to do, I'll show you that Namibia belongs to us and we fought for our independence so foreigners cannot come and rule us’,” Nicole said.
“I was worried and told Chicco to talk about it to the police, but he was like, ‘it’s just a joke’. We didn’t know he would go so far, to the extent of kidnapping and torture and ruining people’s lives.”
Incredibly, instead of killing Chicco, his kidnappers eventually released him on the condition they never saw him again.
He fled to neighbouring Angola, where he lay low for months before daring a quick trip back to Namibia to resign from his job and collect the money he was owed.
And just last week he arrived safely in America, where he will now undergo specialist medical training until his application for an Australian visa is accepted and he is reunited with his family.
In the meantime, Nicole has done anything but sit still, using every spare minute to assemble her eclectic clothing line Molato – which means “the art of dressing” in Congolese dialect.
“Sometimes I just imagine the clothes, other times I see something on someone and try to copy it. I like to try a lot of different styles,” she said.
“When I told Sister Cecilia I was a clothing designer she started spreading the news I made beautiful clothes. And people started coming with fabrics and sewing machines.
“I love that fashion design is like an art. It makes me so happy when I can transform a piece of fabric into something beautiful someone can wear. It’s therapeutic to me.”
No surprise, her designs are already turning heads, with Moama Bowling Club and St Joseph’s College – along with “the Molato committee”, a supportive group of community members – joining forces to organise her debut runway event.
“It’s an incredible opportunity they’ve given me,” Nicole said.
“I always dreamed about it throughout the years, but it never happened.
“It’s amazing to be able to show people what I can do and what I can contribute to the Echuca community.”
The fashion parade will be at Moama Bowling Club on Friday, October 11, kicking off at 7pm for a 7.30pm start.
Tickets are available through the Echuca Moama Visitor Information Centre and are $15 standing and $25 seated, with all guests receiving a drink and nibbles on arrival.
To support Nicole and her children, donations can be transferred to the following account:
Account No: 167816750
Customer name: The Molato Project