From the Democratic Republic of Congo to the AFL

For many new migrants, Australian culture can be confusing – including our numerous football codes. But for one refugee from the DR Congo, unfamiliarity with the game hasn’t stopped him getting on the field.

Running has always been part of Masange Runezerwa’s life.

He ran while growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

He ran in Kenya, where he went to escape conflict in his home country.

And when he arrived in Australia 18 months ago, he surprised the local running club one evening in Wodonga, Victoria, along the New South Wales border.

Nadia Mellor, of the Wodonga Athletics Club, remembers the night he showed up unannounced to join in with training.

“He had nothing, he’d only been in Australia for a few weeks,” she says.

“Members of the club went and bought him some gear – some running shoes, a t-shirt and some shorts and a singlet.

“Then Wodonga Athletics Club took him on board and gave him membership and gave him a club singlet and invited him to all of our training sessions and athletics meets."

Before long, Masange Runezerwa was running in long-distance competitions across the region.

And he was winning them, Mellor says.

"He's an amazing runner. I think, for the Wangaratta half-marathon, he ran about 72 minutes, if I remember correctly, and, even with that, he ran probably a kilometre longer than he should have -- he got lost.”

It was his speed and endurance that led Runezerwa to a sport he had never heard of before arriving in Australia: Aussie Rules football.

"The first time, even when I arrived here, I was confused about Aussie Rules,” he says.

“Some of my friends tell me, 'Masange, because you are fit enough, you can keep up with Aussie Rules. You can be a referee, boundary referee, something like that.' I said, 'Guys, that's too hard.'"

Now, he has taken a role as an umpire at the highest level of the local league.

He had no trouble keeping up on the field, but it took longer to learn the rules of the game.

"It was funny, the first time when I throw the ball in, I throw the wrong way, just the opposite," he says, laughing at the memory.

Mark Bywater is the Umpire Development Manager of AFL north-east border.

He says Runezerwa's running helped him keep pace with the game.

"He certainly has the athletic ability, you can't fault him there,” he says.

“He could actually overcome some of those areas where he didn't know the rules, because he has that speed. He was able to catch up to the play if he couldn't quite read the play."

Masange Runezerwa now lives with his brother in Wodonga, but it has been many years since he has seen the rest of his family.

Through sport, he has found a community to help ease the transition.

"I can say it is my pleasure to do that sport, that Aussie [Rules], because, the more I do this game, I feel free and I feel at home -- as an Australian."





3 min read
Published 8 June 2015 at 1:57pm
By Rhiannon Elston
Source: SBS