He walked for 23 days across the African desert to make a phone call to his wife, had limited contact with her for over a decade, and was displaced by war.
Newcastle citizen John Sandy has gone through more trauma than most, but he is determined to help other refugees within the Hunter community.
John spoke of his experiences at Holy Family Primary School, Merewether, in the lead-up to a week of celebrations for the 20th anniversary of Harmony Day today (Thursday 21 March).
He said diversity was strength, in every shape and form.
“Harmony Day, to me, in Australia is the community coming together, regardless of who you are, what language you speak, or what your background is,” he told Newcastle Weekly.
“It is about building community strength and learning to appreciate our diversity.”
John arrived in Australia as a refugee after years of hardship.
While at a refugee camp in Guinea, he learned that his wife had been transported to the other side of the world, to Australia, as a refugee.
He heard that a man in another camp, thousands of kilometres of away in the Ivory Coast, had a mobile phone.
So, John set off on foot across the scorching desert, walking the equivalent distance between Adelaide and Sydney with little food and water.
He eventually found the man and made a call, but that wasn’t the end of his struggles.
The Guinea camp took six years to process his refugee application to Australia – only for it to be rejected.
Another attempt, on a spouse visa, took six more years.
Finally, after 12 years apart, John stood beside his wife again in 2011.
He has since taken up the role of project liaison officer with the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle’s Development and Relief Agency (DARA).
John said he wanted to build positive relationships with other males who suffered from high levels of trauma.
“Becoming a refugee is really challenging,” he said.
“[DARA] just want to reassure them, really listen to them, and try to walk them through their pathway.
“When they come to Newcastle, they can’t speak the language, they don’t have jobs, they’ve lost their roles, and they are so frustrated.”
John said DARA offered English lessons, a safe space to socialise, build confidence and self-worth, and show support.
He also works with young people to provide safety advice for activities such as riding a bike and going to the beach.
“Young people that come into Australia from refugee backgrounds are so confused with all the trauma,” John said.
“Everybody wants to ride a bike – but I said to them, it’s so important to ride a bike, but in Australia, there are rules and regulations.
“They [also] want to go to the beach and swim, but you’ve got to know your safety areas.”
John added DARA ultimately aimed to create equal access to opportunities, resources, and services in the community.
Harmony Week celebrations will conclude on Saturday 23 March.
Visit harmony.gov.au for more information.