Alejandra’s story: long road to belonging
As this year’s Harmony Week celebrates the theme ‘Everyone belongs’, The Perth Mint wanted to recognise our multicultural workplace. We have employees from more than 50 countries who call Australia their adopted home.
Many people arrive looking for a better future, but sometimes it’s not even their own decision that makes them board the flight to Australia.
And that was the case of Alejandra, our colleague and now part of the executive administration team.
Former English teacher, wife, and mother of two children, Alejandra left her beloved Venezuela five years ago and found herself having to start again.
“It's like you go to the 10th floor and then you fall, free fall. Just like that, it's a free fall. We left Venezuela on the 29th of July 2016. I would never forget that, not because I wanted to, but because we were forced by the government. We were forced to leave the country,” she said.
The family is among more than six million people who have left Venezuela because of the political, human rights and socio-economic crises ongoing since 2014.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR), Venezuelans have been forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries and beyond, escaping from the increased violence, inflation, gang-warfare, soaring crime rates as well as shortages of food, medicine, and essential services. It is considered the largest exodus in Latin America’s recent history and one of the largest displacement crises in the world.
Around 850,000 people have asylum claims pending, about 2.5 million are living under other types of legal visas in the Americas, and just over 170,000 spread all over the world are recognised as refugees from Venezuela.
For Alejandra and her family, the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago was the chosen first stop, as it offered them, initially, some sense of security. They knew the country and had friends there, as they used to go on holidays and had done some business in the past.
“But being a tourist is so different than being a refugee. When you were a tourist or an investor, everything was open for you. Everybody welcomed you. But when your situation changes, everything changes.”
And things changed a lot. Initially, they stayed in Trinidad and Tobago for three months as it is the allowed visa term for tourists. But when the time was about to expire, their last resort was to claim asylum and stay there as refugees under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention to which Trinidad and Tobago is a signatory.
As refugees, the family found themselves stripped of freedoms they’d previously known, such as access to public education, health care and the ability to work legally. It was a catch-22 situation - unable to work legally and forced to pay private health and education costs, but with no certificates awarded for study. A policy in 2019 granted rights for Venezuelans to work legally but without any access to leave for holidays, illness, etc.
“So, your children have been educated but you have nothing to prove that… All this was what we lived in the almost five years we were in Trinidad and Tobago. We left just two months before the five years,” she says.
Time to pack… again
When asking Alejandra how she and her family ended up coming to Australia, she explained that it was a two-year process (further hindered by COVID-19).
Initially, she had to get in touch with the UNCHR, explain her visa situation and life condition in the host country.
“As mentioned before, our basic human rights were not provided for me and my family in Trinidad. So, I put a request for resettlement.”
The second step is the waiting period where the UNCHR studies your case. Until they decide, you are an ‘asylum seeker’. Once they approve your request, you become a refugee.
“I didn't know which country was going to accept us. Then I was told Australia accepted our profile and we came.”
Once her Refugee Visa - Subclass 200 was approved and she found out the new destination was going to be Adelaide, Alejandra was able to start planning the next steps for her new life.
She started contacting friends there, learned about the city, looked for a place to live: “And literally two days before flying over, they told us we were no longer going to Adelaide but to Perth.”
With no reasons or further explanations, once again she had to reset her mind and adapt to what was offered.
“I don't believe in coincidences. I believe that everything happened for a reason… and now I love Perth. I really like this city! There is a lot of green, you can find a park every two blocks,” she says.
“I feel welcome here, I don't feel discriminated (against) ... like a fish out of the bowl."
“I feel part of it, and this is something I was longing to get for almost five years since I left my country. I wanted to belong to somewhere. I have been here like eight months already, and I feel part of it. This is my home now!”
First steps at the Mint
Once settled in her new home, Alejandra’s next step was to get a job.
She found that the Red Cross was hosting a Job Fair for The Perth Mint, so she thought it was her opportunity to get back on track. She spoke to one of the People and Culture team and expressed her desire to work at the Mint.
After a few weeks including interviews, inductions, and the usual paperwork, Alejandra started her role as Executive Administrator.
“I was shivering and nervous because I wasn't exposed to Australian English so much, and I still struggle with the accent. I’ve been exposed to American English, Caribbean English… but never the Australian version of the language.”
While adapting to the ‘Aussie lingo’, Alejandra says that she really likes the peace she finds at the Mint.
“The office where I work it is usually quiet. Also, my peers… everyone has been nice to me since day one. The working environment is enjoyable.”
Alejandra’s story is a real example of empowerment and determination to face adversity and strive for what you want: “To be seen as a ‘refugee’ is like a stigma for me. I just want to be seen as ‘Alejandra’.”
Staying true to your roots
Being an immigrant, regardless of the circumstances, doesn’t mean you forget your roots and your story. It means that you decide to face your present and your future with new eyes, while keeping the lessons learned along the way.
Alejandra mentions there are many things she misses from Trinidad and Tobago and from Venezuela.
“But all what I miss unfortunately doesn't exist anymore. Everything has changed since I left and now it is worse. I believe if I go back, I won't find all those things I used to love, that made me feel I was at home. And I wouldn't feel comfortable because there is nothing for me there. This is my new home.”
Looking beyond the chair
Then I had a bike accident where I broke my spine. After around eight surgeries and a long time at the hospital, I found myself having to start a new life in a wheelchair.