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Sharing her culture: Nicole Dilubenzi on life as a refugee

Brave: Nicole Dilubenzi and her family fled Africa and came to Australia in 2018. Four years later, she tells The Riv what life is like as a refugee in Echuca Moama. Photo by Cath Grey

For Nicole Dilubenzi and her family, moving from Namibia to the small regional town of Echuca in 2018 was a big adjustment.

Ms Dilubenzi and her family decided to flee to Australia after her husband, Chicco disappeared, her home was torn apart and their dog was killed — a fate that she feared Chicco may have met as well.

Upon arriving in Melbourne, Ms Dilubenzi was put in touch with the Brigidine Sisters, a congregation of nuns offering aid to refugees and asylum seekers, who offered her a home in Echuca.

Although she was grateful to finally find a safe and secure home for her family, Ms Dilubenzi said the move did not come without its challenges.

“Initially, it was very difficult for us to adjust, in both an emotional and a social sense. Australia is very different to Africa and Echuca even more so,” she said.

“In Africa, we are used to going over to someone’s house without letting the person know beforehand and being welcomed instantly, but here everything requires appointments and bookings. People won’t just open the door for you and let you into their home — they have to be expecting you and they have to know you well.”

Ms Dilubenzi said another difference was that no-one in Echuca was able to do her or her children’s hair, so she needed to travel to Shepparton or Melbourne to see a hairdresser who specialised in dealing with African hair.

As to what she misses the most, Ms Dilubenzi said attending African parties and eating African cuisine were some of her most treasured memories.

“In Echuca, there is not a big African community so if I want to cook African dishes then I need to travel to places that sell the kind of ingredients that I need to use,” she said.

Ms Dilubenzi said she wished that she could share the beauty of her culture with the people of Echuca-Moama, who had embraced her and her family with open arms.

But some would argue that Ms Dilubenzi has already connected the community to her culture, through her fashion label Molato.

Molato showcases vibrantly coloured African designs, fabrics and patterns that are eclectic and catch your eye instantly.

Ms Dilubenzi said the community had always welcomed and gave her positive feedback when it came to her fashion label.

“In Echuca, lots of people do not know what African style is or what that looks like, so it is nice to be the one to share that with them and show them where I come from,” she said.

“I think people within this community love my designs because they are so different and unique to what they are used to seeing.

“My designs convey a message of bravery, of hope and of re-construction. They are a product of courage — they demonstrate the courage to be a single mum who works and looks after three children, the courage of a woman who has fled violence to come across the world and the courage of a family who has moved far away from family and friends.”

Being that this week is Refugee Week, Ms Dilubenzi’s story is a telling reminder of what life is like as a refugee in Australia.

When asked what she wants people to know about refugees, Ms Dilubenzi said that although some people had the misconception that refugees come from either a poor or a criminal background, that was not always true.

“It’s the extreme circumstances that are happening in our country that make us leave everything behind and move to a new place,” she said.

“When you fear for your family’s life, you look at other options.”

As to what’s next for Ms Dilubenzi, she hopes to be re-united with her husband, who was discovered alive, nine months after he vanished.

By the end of this year, she said she aimed to move her family over to Montreal in Canada, where Chicco is living.

To view or order any of Molato’s designs, visit https://www.facebook.com/molatobynicole