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 how she arrived in Australia.
23 July 2010.
It’s 3:00 pm I am here in this cold and unfamiliar airport waiting for Sergio and Lucrecia to come and collect me. The seconds and minutes become eternal. I have a number of contradictory feelings. I feel happy and sad at the same time. And I also fear for the new world that awaits me, the world I only know from my family’s stories. I have an immense desire to hug them, cover them in kisses, tell them that I love them and how much I have missed them during the three months of separation. But I am also sad for everything that I have left behind in my country and for my mum, who has still not left the clinic.
I have just turned 45. Even though I feel young and hopefully still have fifty years more to live, I think that it will not be easy beginning this adventure in another country without speaking the language.
The challenge is to quickly learn English. I imagine that three months will be sufficient and then I will be able to keep working as a consultant and university lecturer and at the same time organise a home once more.
And now, after almost two days travelling, overcoming initial fears of travelling alone, trying to understand basic instructions in English, passing through customs without any difficulties, crying in front of the check-in staff in Sydney because they wanted to charge me $500 excess baggage to transfer to the domestic airline, after having tried to understand where I should go to wait for my family. At last, I am here in Melbourne, in my new home.
The next days were filled with great happiness. Although from the airport we passed through the city, I had eyes only for my family. My first impressions of Melbourne were on arrival at Mount Martha, one of the most distant suburbs from the heart of the city.
It was there that I made my first comparisons between Melbourne and Bogota, between Australia and Colombia. Even today, one year later, I keep making these comparisons, since, for an immigrant, life is divided in two. For me, I came from a crowded city where the life is on the streets.
Arriving at Mount Martha I saw only tranquillity, large fields and forest reserves mixed with spacious houses on the outskirts. Oh, and hardly any people in the streets.
Our family life began in the shed of the house of a marvellous friend. When Sergio arrived with Lucrecia, he had generously adapted it for them into an apartment, with a comfortable bed, a sofa on which Lucrecia slept after my arrival and a dining room. In the bathroom, there was a microwave and a small fridge so that it could also serve as a kitchen.
We have nothing but thanks for Jörg y Cate. Despite having a large family they welcomed each of us as we arrived. They helped to soften our landing in this new life, and without their help, this would have been so much harder. For example, their children were Lucrecia’s first friends. Recognising her basic English, they quickly helped her begin her foray into the language with games and through their warm company.
Cate did the same for me. She understood me more though love, respect and understanding than through the words that I tried to stammer. Today I don’t know how it was that we were able to philosophise about life, trying to tell each other our experiences as women and as mothers. I think with her I began to understand that to learn this new language I should not only be rational, logical and grammatical, but I should also take risks to express what I was thinking and feeling, without thinking about the perfect structure or words.
When the first weekend arrived, I could take on the world with the helping hands of Sergio and Lucrecia and enjoy constant translation to facilitate my communication with others. But when Sergio got up to work and then study on Monday I took Lucrecia to the school bus stop, 15 minutes walk away, and I felt like Gretel without Hansel. I had to memorise the way back, then pass a forest reserve, two parks, and crossroads of houses and streets which all seemed the same to me. Once again some comparisons: If I were in Bogotá, when I looked up I would see mountains and I would know exactly where I was. But in Mount Martha everything was flat. How could I locate myself? From that moment, the novelty slowly began to change to fear and dependency.
During those first days, after taking Lucrecia to the bus stop, I would shut myself away in our small home and take refuge in my thesis for a Masters in Communication which I had not managed to finish in Colombia.
I would only come out of that room when Sergio or Lucrecia came to protect me. I went from total independence in Colombia to complete dependence in Australia.
I remember one day I lost sight of Sergio in the supermarket, where we only bought noodles and sausages, and canned and prepared food because we only had the microwave with which to cook in our kitchen. I panicked. I looked everywhere but could only see strangers who were ignoring me.
What would I do if he didn’t appear? How could I communicate and ask for help if I didn’t know the address of the house? How would I get home? I didn’t know his mobile number and I didn’t have a phone. Oh God! What was I to do? At that moment he appeared and I cried bitterly like a child.
(We will continue with chapter 4 soon.)