Australia Day 2021: New citiznes sworn in at Rathmines Theatre on the shores of Lake Macquarie

Fulgence Mbonimpa of Gateshead became an Australian citizen at Rathmines Theatre on Tuesday. Picture: Marina Neil
Fulgence Mbonimpa of Gateshead became an Australian citizen at Rathmines Theatre on Tuesday. Picture: Marina Neil

Shortland MP Pat Conroy was rattling off numbers like an auctioneer. He had asked 40 of Lake Macquarie's newest citizens, about to take the oath, to indulge him in a game.

"Could you hold up your hand if you have been in Australia for five years," he said. Around half the congregation at Rathmines Theatre on the western bank of Lake Macquarie raised their hands.

"Could you keep your hand up if it's 10 years?" Mr Conroy said. Then: "15?"

Fulgence Mbonimpa, of Gateshead, in a sharp suit and port-wine tie, dropped his hand.

The landscape gardener was born in Burundi but, when conflict broke out there in the '90s, he fled to a refugee camp in Tanzania where he lived for 16 years before coming to Australia.

"Twenty years?" Mr Conroy says, as a few more hands drop. "25. 30. 35." There were only a few still in it, "40. 45. 50."

At the back of the theatre, Judith Wilson, the secretary of the Valentine Hydrotherapy Pool committee, was the last one standing. She arrived in Australia from England with her late husband, John, in 1968.

"It was a BOAC flight," she recalls. "It was the first time I had been on a plane. I was 21 and seven months pregnant."

"Citizenship is a really serious issue," Charlestown MP Jodie Harrison says. "It is a real issue of identity. Our identity isn't just "Australia", it's what we bring to Australia, and where we come from."

When Mr Mbonimpa arrived in the refugee camp, there were no roads and no buildings. Everything had to be constructed after he arrived. For years, he had lived by hunting and farming, but this would mean starting all over again.

"Living in Tanzania for that long was really tough," he said. "It is great to be in a country where I don't feel like a refugee anymore. I haven't been able to belong as a citizen of a country for a long time. To be a citizen means everything."

CITIZENS: Judith Wilson

CITIZENS: Judith Wilson

For more than half a century, Mrs Wilson has belonged to Lake Macquarie; she and her family are about as local as anyone could hope to be. She has been involved with the Valentine Pool since 1975. Her family still owns the house she and her husband settled in at Marks Point. For decades, the only exception was her citizenship. The realisation struck her during a visit to England, in the weeks before the pandemic struck.

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"It hit here sooner than it did in England," she said. "I think I suddenly realised that I wasn't an Australian citizen and that I might not get back for a long time ... My husband passed away two years ago. He never became a citizen because he was very British. He thought about it at times, but then he let it go."

"I could still be in England if I hadn't come home. And I say 'come home' now."