Birth of a project…Of life?


This personal blog was written six years ago by Luz Restrepo, founder of SisterWorks. As a political refugee, she arrived in Australia in 2010, with her life in tatters and unable to speak English. At the age of 45, as a medical doctor and a communication expert, she left behind everything in Colombia. She felt like a nobody: frightened, isolated and disempowered. In this chapter, Luz tells about the first attempts to create her love project, SisterWorks. 

A picture that Luz's daughter drew when Luz first put together her pitch for the Multicultural Centre

I met Anne when she was a volunteer teacher at the Community Centre in Mornington. She was there just for me, unlike the other community centres where I was just one more person.  Although it is easier for me to read and write, we agreed that we would work on conversational English.  For once in my life in this country, I had someone with whom I could have a deeper conversation.  We began analysing the situation in Australia, then the history of Australia and the similarities between the indigenous people of both countries, continuing with the problems of migrant women, a theme which often resonated with me, perhaps because I was also living it.

It was a challenge to understand her and for her to understand me. I decided to write my feelings at the moment and my thoughts about seeing migrant women who I felt were a vision of my own future if I did not change my existing reality.  This paper moved her deeply, but she suggested we try and publish it in a newspaper.   

She thought that the English-speaking community should know about the problem of migrant women who were disadvantaged by the language barrier.  This was a wonderful catharsis for me and showed me the way forward.

And so, together with Anne, I began to dream about searching for ways to help myself and at the same time help other migrant women.  My paper wasn’t published.  Then, I showed my text to Roberto, a Salvadorean gentleman who had taken me to work as a volunteer at the Good Shepherd.  He was the one who not only opened my eyes to the possibility of working with, and on behalf of, disadvantaged refugees and migrant women, but who also encouraged me to show the document to his boss.  It moved him and after reading it he quickly told me to design a project through which the organisation could bring it to life.  

It was incredible.  To have written reflections, fears and observations and now I had in my hands a wonderful opportunity, to work, to be useful, to find my new path in this country.  The problem was that it was getting close to Christmas and all work and academic activity were winding up for the end of the year.   And so during this time I had the additional task of thinking about what to do while I waited to present it the following February.

During the months that the project was gestating, I went around Dandenong with my backpack looking for information, finding institutions that assisted women, families or migrants, sharing my initial ideas which each person I would meet and at the same time practising my new skills in English.  

My life in Australia now made sense, and this filled me with energy.  

In February I started again English classes and at one of them, I met a Colombian accountant in a similar situation to myself.  I invited her to work with me on the project and she immediately accepted.  Thanks to her, everything I had conceived was coming together, with a projected five-year cash flow, where we imagined we would have a fully serviced house.  We worked out the full budget, and a multidisciplinary team in addition to ourselves who would support the process.  

I then locked myself away at home to write the business plan in English and make a PowerPoint presentation.  When the date for the presentation was confirmed I invited all the friends who had helped me in one way or another with ideas for the project design to come with me.

The presentation would be at one of the main offices of the Good Shepherd, on the second floor of the same building where I did my volunteering.  With Roberto’s help, we made copies of the business plan for each of the attendees and organised the presentation around an executive table where in few a minutes the 10 invited people would arrive.  

As time passed I felt that I was still not fully prepared, that a lot of information was missing, that I wouldn’t have the right words.  I was ‘shit scared’ and just before I began to cry uncontrollably in the bathroom.  “Luz, what’s wrong with you?  Have faith in yourself.  It isn’t the first time you have spoken in public.  You have often faced bigger and more demanding situations.  Why the fear?”

As if it was easy after being here for six months to present a project in English that had so much meaning.  

That meeting was one of the biggest challenges of my life as a communicator and a lecturer.  I have only cried before a presentation on two occasions:  the first time in public more than 15 years ago and now, when I was again putting my self-esteem to the test, which had been knocked every day since I arrived in Australia, when I would stutter trying to find the words that would allow me to express what I was thinking and feeling, and when I could not understand what others said.    

I began the presentation.  I explained why I thought that those refugees and migrant women with non-English speaking background are more vulnerable than the other members of the family, where learning English is neither the only problem nor the only solution.  

At that moment, my voice broke and I couldn’t hold back the tears.  I looked at the manager of the Good Shepherd who also had tears in his eyes and he told me to continue and that he could understand me.  Then I looked at my friends and found in their eyes more motivation to keep going.  And so, for almost two hours I spoke, not just with words, but also with my hands, my eyes, gestures and above all my heart, presenting this ambitious project.

That day perhaps I didn’t achieve the sponsorship that I was seeking, but I did gain many valuable things that are still with me.  Being able to speak in my new language with people who speak Spanish.  

Losing the fear of speaking in my incipient English and at the same time understanding that communication goes beyond words and that we can communicate more with a look, a gesture or just by opening our hearts and putting yourself in another’s shoes.   

That day I made my mark in Australia.  I am a sociologist or a social worker in the making, with a lot to give and above all a lot to learn.  I learned that the best things aren’t achieved overnight and instead one has to take it one step at a time…. The Multicultural Connection Centre is born and it has begun to take its first steps, while I also take mine.  

Working with and for refugees and migrant women who are disadvantaged in successfully integrating into Australian society, independently of the mother tongue they speak.  This is the project that I have made up my mind to take forward in this country.  But why?  Because I am also one of them.  I know what they feel at every step they make, inside and outside the house.  By helping others, I am helping myself.  

A year after the start of this journey in Australia, I would have many more anecdotes and stories to tell, small steps and lessons that I have followed in this wonderful country, some steps forwards and some backwards, all filled with lessons and morals which have allowed me to learn that living is a journey and in our travels we not only find new places and people, we are also finding ourselves.

I didn’t ask to be here.  It wasn’t part of my plan.  However today, almost 14 months after my arrival in the land of the kangaroos, I want to say that I am happy, that it hasn’t been easy, that I have lost a lot, but I have also had immense and valuable experiences.

My daughter Valentina came from Europe to visit us for two months to fill our lives and radiate joy.  It had been four years since the four of us had been together.  Four years that we couldn’t enjoy ourselves by simply being together, and seeing in each other the different roles and our new challenges.

She is both a grown woman and at the same time an eternal child, happy, intense, strong, contradictory and very reflective.  The world is now her space, full of possibilities to learn and explore.  In one year she will finish her undergraduate degree in “Culture Studies and Literature” and then she will decide what to do and she will do it with passion and commitment, as she does it today.

Lucrecia, our talented and creative daughter who refuses to be a woman, our travelling companion, flexible but at the same time strong in her decisions, is now testing herself in different situations, as a student, friend, athlete, sketcher, photographer and artist.  With the arrival of her sister, she found once again her great friend and reference, who she allowed her to leave with great generosity even though the tears still come when she speaks of her.

Even though Sergio and I have fewer material things and keep on struggling for work in this country, more with our heads and less in our hands, we are full of vitality, dreams,  new ideas and we feel together and secure and able to continue the adventure of living, enjoying and learning each new challenge at the moment, towards an uncertain future and with the lessons of the past.

With our lifestyle, we are still in a playhouse, where we can allow you the luxury of doing and undoing things.  We are applying for a new visa that will give us more security, but this also fills us with more uncertainty.  He keeps qualifying himself to work as a draftsman and architect and it’s now time for him to jump into the fray, to test himself again, insist and persist until he achieves it.

For myself, I know that I have barely begun and just like him I have to keep persisting to reach my new dream and challenges.  My English has significantly improved and even though I miss some details I understand radio and television partially if I concentrate on them and don’t distract my mind as I clean the bathroom, wash the plates or do other housework.  I have now decided that there will be no more courses in English.  I will learn to connect with Australian society.  I am now doing a Certificate III in Community Social Work and maybe next year I will go to university.  

Still with large and small things to do and learn, although the tears have reduced substantially after one year, I am still someone who reacts to difficulties, differences and disappointments with tears.  

Thanks to Richard, another wonderful Chilean psychologist, today I do not only have a space in Springvale on Mondays and Thursdays where I can scratch my head looking for alternative ways to move forward with the project, but I also have his confidence and his encouragement, which allows me to think that “achieving the impossible just takes a little longer.”

The joy, persistence and belief that the faithful followers of the Multicultural Connection Centre Nyangnayan, Elizabeth, Anila, Liliana, Andy y Doménico, have in me. They motivate me to keep looking for space for personal development for each of us.  Meanwhile, Roberto, Leena, Oscar, Gabriela, Richard and all those who find out about the project have been putting me in contact with refugees and migrants women who speak little English, have lots of problems and who need emotional support to keep going despite the mistreatment they have suffered.

Today, thanks to Melly, we are dreaming about the magic of recording on paper our stories, that could be more than a book for ourselves, our families, refugees and migrants who, through the book can live other experiences that are similar to their own personal struggles,  but can also be for the English-speaking community, so that they can engage more with the reality of people who share the same land, the same sky but not the same mother tongue nor their culture.

Luz Restrepo, 10 September 2011