14 OCTOBER 2007: This date will remain significant for us both. We now share a flag, national anthem and citizenship. Patience and Caroline, both dressed up for an affirmation ceremony at the Roma Street Parklands during the Queensland Multicultural Festival. It is bewildering to think that our lives have converged towards the same milestone under vastly different circumstances. Patience is a from a refugee background; I am a skilled migrant. Today, we are becoming Australian citizens.
Patience was born in Burundi. She comes from a rural part of the country, and has lived outside of her homeland for several years. When I met her in early 2007, she was proud of the fact that she was only a few months away from becoming an Australian citizen. Today’s event is significant as Patience came to Australia through the ‘Women at Risk’ program, as a single mother of four. At the time, her family had spent six years living in refugee camps in Rwanda and Tanzania. Her husband had become sick and the camp’s medical staff did not get to him on time. She became a widow at thirty-one. It took another three years, but she was overjoyed to be granted a permanent protection visa to a distant country called Australia. She often jokes that there is a good reason why her name is Patience.
She arrived on Australian soil on 17 July 2005, exactly two weeks after I arrived in Queensland. No migrant ever forgets the date of his or her arrival in a new homeland.
My journey was a relatively privileged one. I was born in Mauritius, and I had experienced the Australian way of life first as a tourist, then as an overseas student. When I returned to my home country after completing a postgraduate degree, I had trouble re-adapting, so decided to apply for permanent residency in Australia through the offshore ‘Skilled Migration’ program. It took eighteen months. My then-future-husband was looking for new challenges and decided to pursue further studies in Queensland, so we travelled to Australia together. We were lucky to go through the adaptation process at the same time albeit in different ways. We both spoke fluent English and were competitive on the job market. I applied for citizenship as soon as I had lived in the country for the required twenty-four months, just before the citizenship test was introduced. Travelling plans were postponed until then, since going away would delay my eligibility for citizenship.
I MET PATIENCE while I was volunteering in a community-based organisation, which offered subsidised driving lessons to single refugee women in their first language. We exchanged a few polite words in English, before I took a wild guess, ‘Do you speak French?’ She responded with a big smile, ‘Un p’tit peu’ – a little bit. She said how happy she was to meet someone who spoke French – one of the many languages Patience knew from her homeland and from living with other refugees in exile. Conversing in French meant that she could momentarily forget about the pressure of finding the right word in English and could revert to a language that was a bit more familiar. She knew that her limited English language abilities prevented her from finding a good job even after two years in Australia. She understood what others were saying – most of the time – but struggled to formulate a sentence and kept apologising for her hesitations and her accent.
I consider myself lucky for being fluent in English. In Mauritius I learnt English in primary and secondary school, even though French is my first language. So my experience of Australian systems and institutions as a migrant has been relatively easy. I can argue with the telephone company or ask for clarifications about my work contract. When I chose Australia as destination for my tertiary studies, it was with the knowledge that I was proficient enough to make the most of my time at university. I loved studying and missed it when I went back to Mauritius. I yearned to learn more. This is what motivated me to begin my PhD a few months after I migrated to Australia permanently.
Patience also wants to obtain formal Australian qualifications, as she will remain the provider of her family for many years to come. In fact, her eldest daughter has just had a baby and lives with her mother. Over the years Patience spent living in refugee camps in Rwanda and Tanzania, she practised as a midwife. Families in the camps trusted her more than the official medical staff. She remembers every baby that she’s helped bring into this world. She has come across some of these families when they happen to resettle in Brisbane. They remember her as their ‘benefactor’. She wants to continue midwifery in Australia but not until she can overcome the language barrier. This means she is considering going to university, even if it takes years to complete her program.
Patience wants to learn how to drive, because many community-based jobs she wants to apply for require a valid driver’s licence. As a single mother, she needs to drive her children around, which she does even though she knows it’s illegal. On some days, she has no one else but herself to count on. She has attempted the written road rules test twice so far, and really hopes to pass the next time. When she heard about the subsidised driving program, she was one of the first to apply.
I was anxious about getting my driver’s licence in 2005. I had three months as a new permanent resident to sit for the test. It seemed time enough, but amid the tasks of finding accommodation, getting settled in my new job, and adapting to a new environment, three months went by quickly and it became a mad rush to get my licence. I passed the written test but failed the practical test at first. I smiled at my own picture on the plastic card when I was successful the second time – here was undeniable proof that I was a Queenslander!
When I think back to those first few months adaptating to life in Australia, I remember feeling frustrated because of my lack of credit history to apply for loans or rent appliances. I washed our clothes in a bathtub until such a time when we could afford a washing machine. Before we owned a car, we did the grocery shopping by foot. My husband and I laugh about this now: why did we have to buy half the store knowing we had to walk back to our unit?
For Patience, the challenges she remembers vividly were learning how to use an ATM without fearing that her bankcard would be lost in the machine. It took months to get used to leaving items unattended in the front yard of her rental property, without being afraid that these would be stolen within minutes. She struggled with finding the confidence to ask a bus driver for directions, as she did not want to cause trouble – she got lost a number of times, particularly in the Brisbane CBD. Fairly different to the refugee camp environment, but at times equally daunting.
The simple, everyday things can be the most challenging. It is not until we hear the details of the triumphs and obstacles in the mundane that we can clearly begin to understand someone’s life.
EVERYONE EXPERIENCES MIGRATION and settlement differently, but it is difficult for anyone to leave behind family, friends and homeland. It is the beginning of an exciting and difficult journey of belonging ‘neither here nor there’ and of loving and sometimes loathing several places to which there are strong attachments. The migrant ‘status’ yields an entangled and fluid identity, a mixture of our own sense of self and the way we are perceived as migrants (which I call the POS, Perpetual Outsiders Syndrome). Being a migrant involves appreciating that we are offered opportunities we may never have dreamt of, while also relinquishing a feeling of belonging – which some may never find again. The rollercoaster of emotions migrants go through as circumstances change fosters an ability to overcome major crises as well as an ongoing struggle with the mere fact that our core values are shifting without us even noticing. Sounds complex, and it is. Throughout those multifaceted experiences over the years, change is the only constant.
Patience and I are thrilled that we will be part of the same citizenship ceremony. This is a moment no one forgets and we are glad that we will be part of each other’s stories.
Patience is proud of how her life has turned out to be in Australia. It wasn’t always easy, as a single woman who chose not to remarry, to raise four children alone. Her second eldest daughter is now applying to go to university. According to the norms of her local community, this is a clear sign that Patience has been ‘successful’ in her role as mother. She remains actively engaged in community-based activities, helping newly arrived families to navigate the maze of systems in this unfamiliar environment. She knows what they are going through. She is respected in the community because of her ability to manage multiple responsibilities without the presence of a man in her house.
I am also proud of my life in Australia thus far. My husband and I work hard, and constantly seek new challenges to learn even more. We bought a house as soon as we could afford one, because being the proud owners of a mortgage created a vital sense of feeling ‘at home’. I have started my PhD and I am excited about the prospect of making a ‘contribution to knowledge’ and work in close collaboration with refugee women. We have plans to travel to Europe and visit our families in Mauritius very soon. We are slowly extending our network of friends and acquaintances in Brisbane. These things take time.
RECEIVING A LETTER from the Australian Government that says I am now an Australian citizen is a strange experience. I have only had two years to build a solid relationship with Australia. It doesn’t seem quite long enough for such a big commitment. At the same time it feels like I have always been here, as so many significant events have taken place since our arrival in July 2005. When I see ‘Love it or P*** off’ stickers at the back of a car, with a picture of an Australian flag conveniently plastered in the background, I feel like screaming out the window, ‘Unlike you Sir/Madam, I can love it and loathe it and stay!’
During the citizenship ceremony, I can barely hear myself utter the words to Advance Australia Fair. Part of me feels I am singing someone else’s national anthem. Am I betraying my own which I have sung since I was a little girl? I wonder if Patience feels the same way? Is it any different for her and her family who didn’t have any formal documentation for many years? Is she already thinking about applying for her Australian passport so that she can travel back to Africa and find long lost relatives and sponsor them to migrate here?
As we stand to say our pledge to our new country Australia, I can see Patience and her children a few rows away from me. I can sense pride and emotion, and it makes me realise the real significance of the moment. I am fighting back tears. There is a collective understanding in the room even though we don’t know one another. Although our journeys thus far may have been quite different, we have all gone through difficulties in our own ways, and have overcome them in our own ways. We are all resilient. We are extremely lucky to be living in Australia and we all stay because we love what this country has to offer. By taking this pledge, we show our eagerness to contribute to this country.
A federal election is called on the same day as our citizenship ceremony. Australians will exercise their civic duties in a few weeks’ time. Now that our electoral enrolment forms have been signed and collected, we will also be participating in this significant event, not as passive bystanders, but as active citizens.
Patience and I look towards the future with a new outlook, acknowledging the achievements and ready for further opportunities to come our way.