Ballarat refugee community advocate and mentor Deruka Dekuek counts herself lucky to live in a world full of opportunity and security.
But she is using her new lease on life to fight for women’s rights and equality.
At just seven years old, Ms Dekuek fled into the bush with her family to escape civil war raging in South Sudan.
When she eventually left the war-torn country at 14, she also left behind her widowed mother and siblings.
She then lived in a Kenyan refugee camp before moving to Nairobi, where she began her education at 16.
Now, at 30, Ms Dekuek works with the Ballarat Regional Multicultural Council to help refugees and newly-arrived migrants find housing, employment and settle into the community.
Ms Dekuek said her traumatic childhood along with 14 years spent in Australia meant she could both relate to the people she worked with and act as an example of what the future could hold.
“Given I'm a refugee myself, it really connects me with the people I’m working with – I don’t hear their stories, I feel their pain, it resonates,” Ms Dekuek said.
She described Ballarat as her second home, with the “warm” people, the council and organisations all working together to welcome refugees and build a multicultural community.
Despite being in her mid teens when she began her education, the mother of five has a Certificate in Aged Care in Community Services and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Victoria University.
She has just completed her Masters in Development Studies and says her ultimate goal is to obtain her PhD and become “Dr Deruka”.
Ms Dekuek may have had to fight hard for her achievements, but does not regret the hardships of her past.
“I believe that my past has been the strongest weapon in my life, and I do embrace it because I went through a lot and that hardship has been the main driver of my everyday progress and success in life,” she said.
“Without those sufferings, I wouldn’t be who I am today.
“I would love my kids to understand my lived experience so that they can get their energy from me or to be empowered and say, ‘if mum can go this far, how about us’.”
Ms Dekuek is one of 10 women featured in the Her Place Women’s Museum Australia exhibition celebrating women and their stories.
While Ms Dekuek was surprised when contacted about being featured in the exhibition, she believed she was selected because of her work with refugees and her incredible education journey.
She is excited to take her children to see the end result.
Her Place Women’s Museum Australia exhibition launches at Ballarat’s Eureka Centre on November 14 and will run until December 9.