Former Refugee becomes Teacher at his School

Iginas Gasengayire

Iginas Gasengayire spent his early years in refugee camps in Africa terrified of teachers; he never imagined he would become one.

“Teachers were really mean to us,” he said.

“We’d just get beat up all the time for no reason … so I was terrified by teachers.”

A marked difference in experience at school in Australia would eventually inspire Mr Gasengayire to become a teacher — “Mr Iggy” — and return to the high school where he arrived 14 years ago as a nervous student who spoke no English.

Almost an accountant

The Gasengayire family fled Burundi when Mr Gasengayire was two years old and settled in what was then Zaire. Two years later, war forced them to flee to Tanzania where they lived for nine years in a refugee camp.

In 2006, the family arrived in Coffs Harbour — a refugee resettlement zone — after his mother was granted a humanitarian visa.


Iginas Gasengayire
“I want to be able to inspire kids … not everyone in the world is getting these kind of opportunities,” Mr Gasengayire said.(ABC Coffs Coast: Melissa Martin)
Mr Gasengayire had only learned the greetings of “Hi” and “Hello” when he walked through the gates of Orara High School. He laughed when he reflected on the communication problems that arose when he could not tell the difference between, “How are you?” and, “How old are you?”

“So, it was actually funny because I walked around like, ‘Hello, hello’ and then people [were asking], ‘How are you?’ and I’m like, ‘I’m 15, thank you,'” Mr Gasengayire said.

While his English eventually development, it was just one more obstacle Mr Gasengayire took in his stride during his time at Orara High School. Determined to finish Year 12, he completed his Higher School Certificate (HSC) over three years, and gained a scholarship to study accounting at university.

While studying, Mr Gasengayire worked at Orara High School as a Student Learning Support Officer with refugee students. More than 30 languages are spoken by families within the school. It was this work that eventually made him realise a career in accounting was not what he wanted — he wanted to become a teacher.

“When I was helping the students in a class, what I realised is that I understood how they felt,” Mr Gasengayire said.

“Although we’re from different continents, different countries who have different experiences, we still went through the same thing. “They were trying to start over and it’s overwhelming.”

‘A real success story’

Staff at Orara High School were thrilled with their former student’s change of heart, including the head teacher of English as an Additional Language or Dialect Education (EAL/D), Marguerite Barwell, who saw an opportunity to put Mr Gasengayire in front of the class.

“A position came up in the maths department and somebody said that they were looking for a teacher and I said, ‘Well, what about Iggy?'” she said.

Ms Barwell said Mr Gasengayire joining the faculty was a win for staff and students.

“He’s so inspiring; he shows that anything is possible,” she said.

“The fact that he has had to wait for things has made him a very patient person. “Bit by bit, step by step, the HSC was possible, then university was possible, then back working with us [as a Student Learning Support Officer], and then of course this job in the maths department. “He’s a real success story.”

Mr Gasengayire said his first weeks in his teaching role did not feel real. “I was sitting there and I was like, ‘Wait. I’m a teacher,'” he said. “Even the students were like, ‘Wait, weren’t you a teacher’s aide yesterday?’ and I was like, ‘Yes. Yes, I was, but I’m a teacher today’. “They were like, ‘Cool.'”

Mr Iggy impresses students

Year 8 students Kiara Hughes and Mersadies McNickle are enjoying maths with Mr Iggy. “He’s really caring and he’s always making sure everyone in the class understands the work,” Kiara said.


Mersadies McNickle (left) and Kiara Hughes
Orara High School girls Mersadies McNickle (left) and Kiara Hughes say they enjoy having “Mr Iggy” as their maths teacher.(ABC News: Melissa Martin)

Mr Gasengayire’s story of progressing from refugee student to teacher has also impressed his class. “That was really cool,” Mersadies said. “I know we have a lot of people from different backgrounds at our school, so it was cool to find out that he went here as well.” “It’s really great seeing how far he’s come from a non-English-speaking background to now teaching an excel class,” Kiara added.


School Principal, Malcolm McFarlane
“Even if we were in a school that wasn’t as diverse as ours [Iggy] would be inspiration”, Principal, Malcolm McFarlane said.(ABC Coffs Coast: Melissa Martin)

Orara High School principal Malcolm McFarlane said for a school with such a diverse student population base, the example that Mr Gasengayire set was invaluable to the school’s culture. “The more diversity there is across our school, the more chance there is for students to feel a real sense of connectedness with school, and hopefully their families can feel that sense of connectedness [too],” he said.

“We should be representative of our school community in every way including with our staffing.” With another term now underway, Mr Gasengayire is happy with how his journey has unfolded. “It’s the best choice I’ve ever made. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything different at the moment,” he said.


Iginas Gasengayire
Iginas Gasengayire now works as a maths teacher in Coffs Harbour.(ABC Coffs Coast: Melissa Martin)

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