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 explains why she left everything behind and started a new life as a refugee woman in Australia. (Chapter 1 is here.)
Valentina and Lucrecia, last time they were together before our life changed
Our oldest daughter Valentina was the first to leave home. She had earned herself a scholarship to finish her baccalaureate at the British College in India. How could she turn down such an opportunity in life? So about four years ago, one month after her 17th birthday, we helped her pack her bags, filled with dreams and hopes, and we watched her move away. At that moment I felt that my heart was breaking; that I had cut off an arm and part of my life had been taken away. The sadness of not having her close was in contrast to the joy she had at exploring and learning new things. With her departure went much of the joy, excitement and vitality of the house and it became a lot quieter.
One year after Valentina's departure, it was Sergio's turn. He was heading to Australia where he would stay for two years to study and acquaint himself with another country.
I agreed with the trip; this was one of his first dreams, which was almost lost upon marrying me. So after almost twenty years of marriage, we felt it was the perfect time to rediscover this dream, while I would stay with Lucrecia and assume the financial responsibility.
To our family and friends, it was a crazy and risky decision. Sergio was disconnecting from his working relationships as an independent architect. He was also putting at risk his relationship with me and also with Lucrecia, who was on the verge of adolescence. But to the contrary, I felt confident in having this big challenge to pursue. My business had a name around town, ‘know how', and I had a list of important clients who supported my work. For this reason, Sergio's voyage was a good opportunity to prove to myself that I could manage the costs of living and be completely independent.
In the beginning, his departure was not too painful, perhaps because we had learnt that thanks to the internet and mobile phone, we can stay in touch with each other. The two years would pass quickly. To fill the extra hours I suddenly had, I increased the amount of work and study and became active in the Colombian leftist party. Still, spending time with Lucrecia was my priority. Her temperament has always brought her closer to Sergio than to Valentina or myself. This was then the perfect time for us to become better friends.
One night, as I was leaving one of my activities at the university, I called Lucrecia to tell her I would be home soon and I immediately took a taxi. That day altered the sense of security in the comfortable bubble we had built for our lives.
The taxi driver was a criminal who was being paid by someone. He had probably followed me and knew about our lives and my routine. On the way home, he let his two buddies in and a nightmare began that I do not want to recall. Not only did they rob and fondle me, but they also threatened my daughter's life if I continued working for the political party. It all happened so quickly. All I could think about was what I could do to escape with my life and get home quickly to console Lucrecia, who was desperately crying, having been alone so long not knowing what to do.
It is incredible how life can be changed so dramatically in a few hours. The bubble burst and insecurity, fear and paranoia began to invade our lives. Managing finances would not have been a problem if I had been alone. But caring for my daughter was a very different responsibility and I couldn't allow anything to happen to her. Australia seemed to be a way out, even though Sergio only held a student visa.
Sergio suspended his studies in Australia and returned to Colombia for us. He applied for our Australian visas and began the process. When the visas arrived, however, we had still not rented the house and I still had work to finish.
And so Lucrecia was the next one to leave home on her father's arm, her hero who was going to teach her the magic world of kangaroos
I was left alone in the vast and silent house. While I was trying to rent it out, I dedicated myself to letting go of my space and learning how to say goodbye to my friends and relations. One of the most painful things was saying goodbye to the university, a place not only filled with intellectual challenges, students who I was accompanying on their journey of self-discovery and of learning their own worth, but also perhaps because I began to wonder when I would again have another opportunity like it. On the last day of class, I not only farewelled my students, but I also said goodbye to being a university lecturer for a long time.
I also said goodbye to my business of ten years: Edutainment, through which I had provided my services as a communications consultant for multinational corporations and government. It meant a lot to me. I had transformed from an employee with the certainty of a salary to an independent business woman learning to rely on my own ingenuity to survive. Putting aside a career as an executive in health and hospital insurance following my medical studies, I chose to offer my services as a consultant in any kind of company, designing teaching tools for teams through games. Edutainment was more of a passion than a job. It was part of my life's work. However, I had to leave it, in the hope that in Australia I could set up a branch of this magical business, perhaps with a more social focus… but only time would tell.
And so, as soon as my work project was completed, I started to pack or give away the home stuff that we had built up over twenty years. The more space one has, the more one accumulates. Letting go of material things was sad, not only because you know that you shall need these things in your new home, but because some of them were obtained through great effort. More significant was the enormous emotional weight that many of these things held for us, the antiques that came from our ancestors, the photo albums, the music…my books.
But for all our possessions, I could only carry two bags of 23 kilos, so in one I chose to pack some books and music. Clothes would be easy to get.
The day arrived when I saw the truck depart for the warehouse with all the things accumulated throughout my marriage; my mementoes, my history. I still have the hope of being able to have them some day when we return to our home, wherever we are. Fortunately, the house was rented immediately, closing a chapter of my life to begin another, as uncertain as it was mysterious.
The morning that I had to hand it over, after packing into my utility the remaining things that were left, I began to slowly go around my dream house, now unoccupied, but full of memories. I walked slowly looking into every corner. Until the new occupants arrived to take over, I could not stop the tears from falling.
I was the last of the family to leave there, from the house that represented comfort, certainty and tranquillity, to go towards an unknown future. Without wanting it and without dreaming of it, I was ready to change country, as if it was a security exit for everyone. Although I don't think it ever crossed my mind what it really meant to be an immigrant, it is, however, the case that the future is not certain. What you have planned may not happen…and that is how it was for me.