Career advice

My journey into nursing: how my experience of suffering can make me a more compassionate nurse

A former refugee explains why years living in a camp convinced him he had to become a nurse

A former refugee explains why years living in a camp convinced him he had to become a nurse


Newly qualified nurse Justin Mwange arrived in the UK with the kind of rich life
experience that is so valuable to nursing

For Justin Mwange, much of his experience as a refugee inspired his passion to become a nurse, but he thought it was probably a dream that could never come true.

‘When you are in a refugee camp you lose all your ambition,’ he says. ‘You feel you will never achieve anything. All you can think about is surviving. You live on what you’re given, you have no choices and you can’t go anywhere.’

Any contribution I make will be an achievement

But this year, two decades on from his arrival in a Zambian refugee camp, Mr Mwange finally qualified as a nurse.

He was just a teenager when he fled the war in Democratic Republic of Congo that would result in the deaths of more than five million people.

‘I’m very proud and feel that I can now fulfil my mission,’ Mr Mwange says. ‘Even if my contribution is small and I can just bring a smile to someone’s face, that will be brilliant for me and a good achievement.’

His desire to help humanity was ignited after witnessing people dying for simple lack of medical attention, as he and his family made the journey to the refugee zone. ‘We were seeing people with wounds that needed just a simple bandage. But there was no one to help them, so they were just left dying at the side of the road,’ he recalls. ‘I saw many children struggling with malaria. I felt if I was trained, perhaps I could do something.’

Life in the refugee camp, where healthcare resources were scarce

Once at the camp, where he and his family lived for seven years, Mr Mwange volunteered as a support worker with the charity Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), supporting people with malnutrition. Alongside helping to monitor blood sugars and weigh patients, he distributed supplementary food parcels to children and the most vulnerable adults to keep them alive.

Although there were as many as 25,000 people living at the camp, healthcare facilities were extremely limited. ‘We had only one hospital, with less than 20 beds for adults and 12 for children,’ he says. ‘In the children’s ward, you would often see four children sharing a bed, with some on the floor.’

‘My original ambition was always to become a nurse’

In March 2007, Mr Mwange and his wife finally arrived in the UK as part of a refugee resettlement programme, spending a couple of days in London before making Hull their permanent home. ‘When I got here, I felt very lucky,’ he says.

First, find a job and learn a new language

Mr Mwange, who was fluent in French and Swahili, spoke little English at first, but started classes while working in a factory. Keen to progress, he completed an English-as-a-foreign-language programme at the University of Hull, before securing a place to study for a social work degree there. He achieved a 2:1.

Finding it difficult to get a job in his chosen field, he worked with older people as a support worker, helping them to carry on living independently. He then worked in a school, supporting children with autism, followed by a nursing home. ‘My original ambition was always to become a nurse,’ says Mr Mwange. ‘But I went into social work because I thought it was similar in that you’re helping people.’


Seeing life in a refugee camp made Justin Mwange realise he wanted to forge a career
based on helping people. This photograph was taken at a camp in Ivory Coast   
Picture: Alamy

Embarking on nursing studies was the key to realising a career ambition  

In 2016, he applied for an adult nursing course, again at Hull, which included several placements at Hull Royal Infirmary and Castle Hill Hospital, part of Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust.

‘When you have gone through a lot, it improves your resilience and compassion’

Earlier this year, he was nominated for the chief nursing officer’s award in the category of black and minority ethnic student diversity. ‘I feel really proud just to have been nominated,’ says Mr Mwange. ‘I’ve had really positive responses and it has raised my confidence and self-esteem.’

He has now embarked on his first job as a staff nurse, working on a colorectal ward at Castle Hill Hospital. ‘It was a long journey to get to where I am now, but it’s going well so far,’ he says. ‘It’s challenging, but I’m learning something new every day.’

Experience of suffering can help you understand what someone else is going through

He believes his extraordinary life experience underpins his professional approach to the nursing care he gives his patients. ‘When you have gone through a lot of suffering, it improves your own resilience and increases your compassion and empathy.

‘You understand how difficult it can be for someone else who is suffering or in pain. I’ve been through some very difficult times and you come to realise that every person is unique and needs to be recognised for who they are, wherever they come from or their background.’  

His advice to others is simple. ‘I tell people never to give up,’ says Mr Mwange. ‘If there is something you really want to do, you can still do it. The doors can still open.’ 


Lynne Pearce is a health journalist

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