Life in translation

I DON'T USUALLY like cheery people – those full of gratitude for life's little miracles and small blessings. I have crossed streets to avoid getting fried in the eternal sunshine of their minds. Not Anya though. Her optimism does not grate. Anya is the kind of person who loves things – life, kids of all ages and, remarkably for a girl from big, bad, bountiful Moscow, Australia. Not just the shiny and yummy parts of Australia, but the whole thing, including the small towns and regional centres. And it is from Bendigo that she comes to see me carrying a folder stuffed with documents.

There is not much work in Australia for a certified Russian-English translator. The supply has long since outstripped demand. I pick up a birth certificate here, a degree certificate there. Peanuts. Maybe an appeal, doomed to fail, to the Refugee Review Tribunal or some occasional adoption papers. Russians, even once the highly sought-after Romanian orphans, are definitely out of fashion these days.

Anya, it must be said, is a client with the mostest. She needs her whole life translated. After two years in Australia as a youth worker on a work visa, she is trying to get her Russian teacher's qualifications recognised so she can apply for permanent residence as a skilled migrant. Youth worker does not give you enough points for skilled migration. It is a lowly forty-point occupation, alongside a host of other caring professions – ambulance officer, disabilities worker, massage therapist – twenty precious points behind teaching. Anya needs sixty points to get in, which is quite alright, because the girl is all qualified. She is in her twenties, born to teach and you should hear her English – virtually accentless. I have been in Australia for over fifteen years and next to Anya I sound – well, like a migrant.

Here is a sped-up version of Anya's Australian story prior to our meeting. Sped up because details matter and do not matter, because there are countless stories like this one and much bigger stories – Mohamed Haneef, Cornelia Rau, refugees sent back home. Stories that are revelations, throwing open the flood-gates of public emotion. This is not one of these stories. It is low-key – unless, of course, you are Anya or someone who cares about her or someone who is seriously fed up with the system that does not think twice about turning doctors into childcare assistants and nuclear physicists into taxi drivers.

So here it goes. Anya comes to Australia as a visitor, loves it to bits, comes back again on a student visa, does nine months of study, loves Australia all over again, has a Queensland holiday before going back, breaks her neck in a car accident in Brisbane, is deemed non-transportable and allowed to stay for six additional months until her neck-brace is removed. Anya uses that time to see whether she is employable as a youth worker. The day before she is due to leave, a welfare organisation in Bendigo expresses interest in sponsoring her, and Anya departs triumphant with a sense that the job is hers and that the country is hers too. This is May 2002, the end of Act One.

That interview, by the way, was a good one. The interviewer and interviewee ate pizza and discussed regional Victoria and Eurovision, not necessarily in that order. Anya did not feel the least bit scrutinised. On the contrary, she felt (and here is that word again) at home.

She may have been delusional on her return to Moscow, but Anya knew she was going back to that job in Australia; she was not going to be frightened or dissuaded by any bureaucratic hurdles she needed to jump to get a work visa. In Moscow, she took the first job she could find: Russian-English translations of technical documents for the plastics industry. She did not care, because she was saving money for the airfare to Australia.

Act Two is dominated by the bureaucratic overtures, which is to be expected. Immigration departments across the world are not known for a high standard of customer satisfaction. In relative terms, the Australian system is by no means bad. Fast-forward through countless phone-calls, emails, delays, conflicting advice, more delays and finally Anya is getting on the plane with the two-year work visa, which can be extended by a year. By now it is August 2003. End of Act Two.


TWO YEARS LATER, when Anya walks into my crammed little flat, she already has an Australian fiancé and her sense of home has deepened. In no small measure, this is because she has spent the last two years working with teenage kids who adore her. Not just working, but pouring everything she has into it, coming up with crazy ideas and carrying them off, like the holiday camps she puts together.

At Easter and Christmas there are huge holiday camps around Bendigo, but the kids have to be over fifteen, so twelve– and thirteen-year-olds miss out. These are the kids Anya works with, ‘It did not seem fair. At the time everyone was watching Survivor. Streets would clear out every time the show would be on TV, so I came up with an idea for the "Teen Survivor" camp. We had voting too, of course, only we would vote not to humiliate or ostracise, but to give out extra prizes.'

Anya had no idea where to take them. She knew nothing of Victoria. Camping near a river seemed a good idea, but the logistics were overwhelming, so she settled on a nearby national park. When she was with the kids, she was all confidence and mad excitement. Then she would go home and think, ‘Oh My God, what am I doing? Why can't I be like normal people? Why on earth am I taking this on?'

The next year Teen Survivor rules got more sophisticated and many more kids came; they had heard wild stories about the first camp. Teams competed against each other, until they were swapped around in a suspense-producing twist, which went down spectacularly well. Again, Anya would pray she would bring home as many kids as she took. ‘I was the instigator and the boss, so if something were to go awry, forced deportation would be my best option.'

And so it went, non-stop from the moment Anya landed in Australia. She was fervent about her job, even fanatical, she wanted desperately to get it right. The kids were very different. Some were bright and confident, others were used to being blamed for everything and seen as hopeless. ‘But I cannot accept it. Of course, these kids are as capable. Don't tell me they cannot do anything. I can see that they can. I can see it with my eyes.' She was never didactic, never preachy. She believed in fun and adventure, and she had an unbreakable rule of, no matter what, always feeding her kids first.

With time, Anya made friends with some teachers in Bendigo who showed her the school curriculum. As they compared teacher training in Russia and Australia, Anya grew in confidence. Australian teachers may have studied for four years, but they had only a few subjects each semester, no university on Saturdays and really long breaks. ‘My God,' says Anya, ‘and they call it a university degree!'

When the rejection comes, we are all in shock. Anya, her Australian boyfriend, her migrant agent, Clare, a woman of remarkable intelligence and compassion, and me.

The Immigration Department, it must be said, does not actually assess overseas qualifications. It entrusts this task to various assessing bodies – Vocational Education and Training Assessment Services (VETASSESS), and others. At the time of Anya's application, teachers were assessed by NOOSR – the National Office of Overseas Skills Recognition.

Each assessing body has its own rules. There is no centralised system ensuring consistency and fairness. It's a Wild West out there. NOOSR and VETASSESS, for instance, make their assessment based purely on qualifications. They do not factor in experience. To add insult to injury, VETASSESS and NOOSR are guided exclusively by country education profiles, often out of date and dangerously incomplete. Yet, as Anya was to discover, you cannot argue with the country education profiles. You can try of course, but you are sure to lose.

NOOSR says Anya does not meet the minimum requirements for teaching because she does not hold a qualification comparable to an Australian degree and has not undertaken study comparable to four years' full-time tertiary studies here. In other words, her three-year degree in primary education from Moscow's Pedagogical College is no match for, say, a four-year full-time Bachelor of Education at the University of Melbourne. Yet Anya has completed more than three thousand contact hours – three times more than the Australian requirement. She has done 120 days of supervised school placement, forty days more than an Australian student. She has met and exceeded course requirements for all key learning areas, including educational theory and practice, language and literacy, maths, health and physical education, science and technology, arts and IT, but not English. Her final-year assignment exceeded the requirements of a fourth-year honours research project.

ENRAGED, I WRITE an offical-sounding letter to NOOSR with complex tables, calculations and stats to show that we are not pushovers. Anya is amazed when she sees the comparison. Her optimism is visibly restored. Three times the contact hours – she cannot believe it. We are saved. The truth is on our side.

Remember that quote about optimists and pessimists? ‘The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and the pessimist fears this is true.' The second rejection knocks Anya flat. It is a much bigger shock than the first. ‘The first time I was not sure how I measured up, but this time I knew I was good enough.' Yet, in the face of specific and totally substantiated arguments that at least call for some serious consideration, the response is simply a regurgitation of its initial rejection. Has anyone actually read our appeal?

Getting the same rejection twice is no fun, especially when you wait for months, paralysed, checking the mail obsessively, unable to make any serious decisions or plans. Paying the same fee twice hurts. What hurts most, however, is that until you encounter the system in action, you do not realise just how inflexible and defensive it is, how indifferent to discovering the value of people's real skills and qualifications. Four years are four years, regardless of content and contact hours. No one is interested in analysis or evidence. If you do not fit the template, you are to blame. ‘Why then,' asks Anya, ‘do they use the word comparable? Why can't they just say it has to be a four-year course and that's it?'

‘Let's forget teaching,' Clare, her migration agent suggests. I look at Anya, who seems so uncharacteristically deflated and lost, and begin to feel frustrated at our collective powerlessness. But what choice do we have? If Anya is to stay in the country, something else needs to be tried. Clare suggests that we get Anya's qualifications assessed for a childcare coordinator. For that you only need qualifications comparable to a three-year degree. Here is that ominous word ‘comparable' again. The assessing body this time is VETASSESS. We wait. Anya's mood picks up somewhat. This should be a piece of cake. Three years versus three years. Degree versus degree. She is clearly over-qualified but, whether we like it or not, beggars cannot be choosers.

‘Come on,' says Clare, ‘you must be kidding.'

The letter from VETASSESS has arrived. It says that Anya's degree is an equivalent to an advanced diploma. At this point I start fantasising about hand grenades. It was not that long ago that I completed a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne, three years in two years, and was still bored. I do not mean to sound arrogant, but compared to the Russian system, an Australian BA is a glorified picnic.

In response to Clare's letter demanding an explanation, VETASSESS phones. The woman on the other line says Anya has not done twelve years of schooling, her overall educational background does not add up. In Russia at the time, school was a ten-year system, starting at seven. Surely Russia's country education profile would note that. Yet in the world of skills assessment, rules are rules and numbers are non-negotiable. Another letter contesting the assessment is written, but why do we bother? Anya can only get forty points.

Clare and I are ashamed. We feel like we have let her down, this country that made Anya feel like home and trusted her with its kids, rejected her, did not give a damn. Clare, who waived her fees because she believed a great injustice had been committed, is incensed by the unfairness of the assessment process and the vast discrepancies between assessing bodies. Engineers, for instance, have to demonstrate their experience, but teachers do not. How does that make sense?

‘The skill assessment in this country,' says Clare, ‘is not equal, not even and in many instances not logical.' The guidelines used by NOOSR and VETASSESS are ridiculously inflexibile.


MEANWHILE, ANYA IS in Bendigo incapable of slowing down, coming up with all kinds of crazy stuff, like her ten-week program for teenagers that looks beyond the physiology and ideology (sex and drugs) to deal with the psychology of being a teenager. She takes real-life scenarios that teenagers encounter every day and gets kids to pull them apart. You talk about dates, kissing, personality and temperament. Why one person takes ages to make a decision and another acts first and thinks second. Boys and girls talk about what they like in the opposite sex. You eat all kinds of nice, unhealthy stuff and laugh like a bunch of jackals. And – wait for it – Anya does it in her flat. It is cosier, more intimate that way. When the kids leave, the cleaning up begins and she tries not to think about her expiring visa. With forty points as a youth worker, she qualifies only for skilled independent regional – a temporary visa, up to three years. Yet she is totally employable. She has work offers. She knows the system. She is even registered with Victorian Institute of Teaching as a relief teacher.

In September 2006, Anya flies to Moscow to visit family and friends. Her temporary visa is to come through shortly, the wedding is set for March 2007, her fiancé says, ‘See you in a month, say hello to your family sweetheart'. It takes eleven months before she comes back to Australia, Russian applicants are subject to character checks by external agencies – which can take up to a year. If Anya knew, she would never have left. To be apart from the man she loves for so long is an agony. Finally, she is back, July 2007, the end of Act Three.


THERE ARE SO many stories of highly skilled migrants remaining unemployed or being forced to accept positions that make a mockery of their skills and experience. Doctors, surgeons, scientists, educators. Anya's story is pretty simple. A young woman with qualifications, brilliant English and Australian experience, a woman who loves children and is good with them. She wants to work in a regional area, where the shortage of teachers is most acute and damaging. She is young, pretty and smells good. But we don't want her teaching here because our standards, it turns out, are so relentlessly high they cannot be diluted by inferior foreign training and qualifications.

‘If we could go through the whole thing again,' says Clare, ‘I would advise Anya to put her pride in the pocket and marry the guy – I mean, they are getting married anyway – and apply for a spouse visa. Forget the skills assessment. Forget the whole nightmare. It is simply not worth it.'

Yet Anya is adamant that she did not want to apply for a spouse visa. She didn't want anyone to ever say to her future husband, ‘Hey man, she married you to stay in Australia.' She would die at the thought. Their Australian friends are totally taken aback. We had no idea it was so tough, they say; in your place we would have given up a long time ago. Some confess they feel ashamed. I don't know that I feel ashamed, but my anger refuses to dissipate. God help us with this impenetrable stupidity, this arrogant small-mindedness, slavish obedience to rules and regulations that keep kids away from teachers like Anya. They need her just as much she needs them.

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