SisterWorks blog #6 - English, English, English…my new obsession


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 explains how she started a new life in Australia.

With the possibility of getting myself around without having to depend on others, I decided to look for a place where I could study English.  I checked in several specialist sites, universities and the TAFE where Sergio had studied.  I came to the conclusion that with my status my options are more limited and costly.  These courses do not cost less than $300 per month.  These costs are a fortune that we cannot afford.  I have cried a lot, trying to understand my new reality.  With our final savings from our work in Colombia and a loan from our families, we are paying high fees for Sergio’s university and school for Lucrecia. It seems unfair that because the money doesn’t also stretch to me I have to stay home.  

So I cry and grumble with every new door that is shut in my search for places to study English.  

Sergio and Lucrecia make jokes at my continuous tantrums.  My crying intensifies towards the middle of the week.  When Wednesday approaches they are already waiting for me start to cry at any moment.  My logic is that Wednesdays are the days for my emotional imbalance because during the weekend we are all together, sometimes with Spanish-speaking friends, or I am glued to Sergio and/or Lucre when we go to places where only English is spoken.  

But when the week begins I am alone, cleaning, cooking and looking for things to do.  So between the fruitless search for a place to study and learning to be a housewife, the time comes when the past hits me and then the crying returns together with the desire to rebel against my current situation.  Why did they force me to leave my house, my work, my friends and family to be in this country where I don’t know who I am and what I am worth?

The Spanish speaking community is a small world that is interconnected. One friend knows another, who knows others and we all end up knowing each other.  Through some Chilean friends who live in Mornington I met Leena, a medical colleague who works in Dandenong.  Through her I met many of my current friends and Spanish-speaking acquaintances.  Also through her, I found the first places where I began to study English.  

By the end of the second month of living in Australia I was fully occupied between my voluntary work at the Good Shepherd and studying English in three community centres, plus with the help of three fantastic women who donate their time to also teach me.

I put down the cleaning rag and devoted myself to going out by bus and train to fulfil my new commitments.  For example, to go to Keysborough, a suburb near Dandenong, I had to catch three buses from my house.  Between the trips and the wait between connections, it could take me three hours there and three back. At first this didn’t bother me because I had things to do away from the house, learning to look after myself and babble on a bit in my new language.

I met a lot of adults from Africa, Western and Eastern Europe, Vietnam, China and other Asian countries at my community English classes.  People who like me were trying to learn the language.  The majority were women.  The few men there had an advantage in that they would speak more fluently perhaps because they were not so shy.  What I particularly noticed was that my companions were people who had spent more than five years in Australia, the majority more than twenty.  So why were they studying English?  Why hadn’t they learnt it before?

I don’t know much about their lives.  What I do know is that like me they were immersed in their communities and most of the time would speak in their own language.  The men had businesses for their own communities or worked in factories whose owners spoke the same language.  The women were mothers and/or grandmothers who spent the most of their time looking after their families.  And when they worked they would do so as a cleaner for someone they knew, where the payment was cash between 10 and 15 dollars an hour, which is less than the basic average labour rate in this country.  

And now they were studying English for different reasons, to be able to apply for a better job, get a driver’s license, make friends, be able to read the newspaper or understand television better.  

I further questioned my present and future life during these classes.  I wanted to get back what I had had in the past.  Why am I here?  What does life want to teach me?  What is it showing me?  I know that I am learning a huge dose of humility.  As someone who cannot communicate, I can’t be a communications consultant.  And my knowledge in marketing, business administration and adult education doesn’t help.  How am I going to go forward?  How am I going to find my path?  How can I be useful to others?

Already I laugh at my innocence back in Colombia when I would say to my friends that I would learn English in the first three months in Australia and would have my life organized so that I could work in my profession.  But co-existing with my classmates I wondered, How long is it going to take me?  What do I need to do to achieve it quickly?

Sergio learned English when he was an adult in Colombia.  He began to study it there because of his determination to come and live for a while in Australia.  He was very sensible and persistent.  When he left, while he felt that although he what he had learned wasn’t enough, he could look after himself in this new world.  However, when he arrived, he had a bucket of cold water poured over his head.  He understood very little and stuttered when he tried to speak.  

But exposed to the language at the university and at work, he had to keep trying as there was no other option and so he continued to keep learning it.  

The learning process for Lucrecia was quite different.  The first months were very difficult not only because of the language barrier but also because of the sharp dive into a radical change of life, food, climate, school and above all not having any friends.  The first days of school were a novelty.  Her little friends looked upon her as a new toy.  But as soon as they realized that she couldn’t converse, that she didn’t understand what they were saying, they ignored her.  Despairingly, she would go to the library to study English and count the minutes until the class started.  Knowing this, Sergio would go to the school to be with her as he had still not yet returned to his studies.

She had no choice but to learn.  Every day when she would arrive at school she would only hear English.  And when she would arrive at Jorg and Cate’s house her new little friends would speak to her in English.  When I came four months after her arrival I found Lucrecia smiling and calm.  She may not have been a great conversationalist, but she understood more and she moved like a fish through water, not only at friends’ houses, where she would play and laugh but in any English-speaking environment.  

After a while, I realized that it was likely that she didn’t understand everything, but in her own way was beginning to get the main idea.  She was determined to make friends and her ears more than any of her other senses were very receptive to the new language.  

My process was much slower.  I could choose to stay home and hide my fear through the vacuum cleaner and the kitchen, or by looking for opportunities in the small Spanish speaking community.  Or I could struggle with myself and go out looking for English-speaking places that would challenge me, trying to maintain my self-esteem and taking the risk of speaking even if I sounded were ridiculous, making mistakes and exploring new words.  These places at the time were my classes and the voluntary work.