Former refugee now a Passionist – for life
In October 1993, civil war erupted in Burundi, and a five year old boy named Erick Niyiragira and his three brothers were swooped up by their mother, Rose. They rushed out the back door of their farmhouse and literally ran for their lives. Their father, Andre was unable to escape with them, and the last view they had was seeing him being beaten up.
Burundi is a very small country immediately east of the Democratic Republic of Congo and south of Rwanda with whom it has shared many cultural similarities and strife. Uganda is north of Rwanda and the nearest neighbour to the east is Tanzania where almost 500,000 refugees, most of them Hutu, had fled from Burundi between 1993 and 1999. The huge numbers involved in the mass exodus resulted in twice as many deaths as would normally be expected because of inadequate relief operations.
It was a long journey involving incredible hardship, from that early survival in 1993 to January 30th this year, when Erick, now aged 26, made final profession as a Passionist at Templestowe, Melbourne, with his parents and siblings present for the occasion.
The family was given asylum status in Australia in August 2005 and at that stage, they had no idea whether Andre was alive or not. They had lived those twelve years with no knowledge of what happened to him. Throughout their years in the camp they witnessed great brutality and suffering. Virtually every friend that Erick had as a child died in those twelve years. There was insufficient food and medical supplies so poor health resulted, some people robbed others, depression was common and violent conflict between Hutu and Tutsi. Many children were orphaned. Sometime these factors resulted in death while others could no longer stand the hardship and took their own lives. Without his Mother, Erick knows he would never have survived.
The United Nations Refugee Agency UNHCR, provided enough food for one meal per day per person and this was rationed each fortnight. At around thirteen years of age, Erick told his Mother about two young boys whose grandmother had died recently. Without her they were unable to manage rationing their food to make it last two weeks. Erick feared they would die so he sought his Mother’s permission to live with them for some months to help them ration the decreasing amount of food provided by UNHCR and assist them with their studies. Both boys survived and Erick keeps in touch with Salum and Nuru today, on the other side of the world.
Erick’s mother Rose had been a nurse in Burundi and this was a great asset in the refugee camp. It enabled her to earn a small amount of money, and she had extra skills for managing sickness from which her own children and others benefited. Throughout his time in Tanzania, Erick had played a very active part in the faith life of the community who surrounded him. The rosary became a lifeline.
Rose became involved in the Legion of Mary and in the local church in the camp, as a reader and commentator. Erick felt inspired to go wherever she went and by age twelve he was the only child involved in the Legion of Mary. He would attend prayer with the group each morning before school and began leading some of these prayers. Over time, Erick became a reader and he was involved in the youth group and the choir. He studied for first communion and confirmation every Saturday for 3 years.
Apart from being inspired by his Mother, he was inspired by the work that the priests did for the community. His interest in become a priest was well known and as a teenager many people began to call him ‘Padiri’ meaning ‘Father (priest)’. Although he didn’t like this he saw it as a responsibility for him to be a good example to others.
By the age of fifteen, having received communion and been confirmed, Erick was Sunday School a teacher of and sometimes a choir master, one of the youth group leaders and school captain. He had firm ideas about becoming a priest.
Two years later the family were accepted into Australia, in Adelaide as migrants. Authorities helped them locate Andre and finally he arrived two years later. Andre found it difficult to believe that five year old Erick was now almost nineteen! Already familiar with the Kurundi and French language, and having learned Swahili in the refugee camp, the immediate challenge now for Erick and his the family was to learn English, and overcome the isolation of being strangers in a foreign land.
He credits St. Patrick’s, Croydon and their parsh priest, Fr Maurice Shinnock for the great welcome given them and the assistance provded for them. Initially they had very little English and could not understand much of the the Mass, but Erick became a Eucharistic Minister and sang in the African choir, which the family formed. Erick spoke with Fr Maurice about his desire to be a priest and Fr Maurice encouraged him. He urged him to keep learning English and complete his studies.
The Christian Brothers offered a very generous hand, enabling the boys to receive free education at CBC Wakefield Street in Adelaide, and Erick remains deeply grateful for this generosity and support he received. A bonus the school received was Erick’s long distance athletic ability, but this was to be a minor contribution compared with his personal qualities.
Because Erick spoke with the deputy principal at CBC about his vocation, Erick was introduced to a number of priests including the vocation director of Adelaide Archdiocese, Fr. Dean Marin and the Vocation Director of the Passionists, Fr Kevin Hennessy CP. Erick had not met religious order priests until this time.
He was desperate to join the diocese because he had always been in a diocesan parish. Fr Dean and Fr Kevin cooperated to ensure Erick discerned his calling with their encouragement and support. No doubt a Congregation who proclaimed a message of love and mercy through the cross of Jesus resonated with Erick’s profound experience of suffering. In order to discern unhurriedly and peacefully, Erick decided decided to live with the Christian Brothers Community at Thebarton in Adelaide. This community included other young people, and he sought to gain community living experience, study theology, and with the aid of a spiritual director discover where and how God was calling him at this time in his life.
Following this year of discernment, Erick applied to join the Passionists. He spent a year in Templestowe as a postulant where he began theological studies at the Yarra Theological Union. The following year he returned to Adelaide to undertake his novitiate with other young Passionists from Vietnam and China. He took vows for three years in January 2011, and returned to Melbourne to continue his theological studies where he earned a Bachelor of Theology in 2014.
In a very moving ceremony on January 30th 2015, Erick committed himself to God and the Passionist Congregation for life. Why was the ceremony so moving? In part it was because he lay prostrate in the form of a cross as the gospel of the Passion was read. Those present knew that Erick and his family had endured more suffering than they could comprehend so when, during the ceremony, Erick’s parents lay a cross on his shoulder and he was given a crown of thorns, it was extremely moving. Andre and Rose knew the burdens Erick had carried; the cross he had borne, but they knew that the sufferings were not all behind him. They urged him to take up this cross and commit himself to sharing the burdens of others.
Carrying the cross and wearing the crown, Erick moved very slowly around the large chapel to the haunting song ‘Mors Christi’ (The Death of Christ). Following the profession of his vows, the Passionist priests, brothers and sisters who were present, greeted Erick warmly. Fr Tom, McDonough CP, the Provincial invited Erick’s parents to also come forward to extend their greeting. The emrace that followed with each of his parents was a very powerful moment, and especially when Erick and his Mother embraced. This was an icon of the Madonna and son. No words could capture the powerfulness of that image.