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From Kerala to Queanbeyan: a migrant experience

My new home

“I love to call myself a person of Queanbeyan”, said Sethuparvathy ‘Sethu’ Kiran with a beaming smile that instantly breaks the ice, and keeps on warming the conversation. “I’m so proud to call Queanbeyan my second home.” Her enthusiasm is infectious. But it was a typical hard start for this new settler, one of some 900 migrants and refugees who have moved to Queanbeyan in the past three years.

They come mainly from the Indian sub-continent, the Middle East and Asian countries, looking for a better life or fleeing conflict, joining Queanbeyan’s traditional large ethnic mix of post-war European migrants.

Now the settlement support officer for the Queanbeyan Multicultural Centre, Sethu came to Australia to be with her Indian husband, Kiran, after an arranged marriage.   This middle-class young woman from Kerala state in India, with a master’s credential in English Literature, couldn’t be happier with her domestic arrangements and tells me a bit about modern arranged marriages.

In customary style, Kiran’s parents called her parents after perusing a matrimonial website. They were looking for “an educated girl”. The two young people found each other agreeable and the rest became history.

Getting a job

Kiran who came to study and then applied to stay, found work on a ‘regional’ visa as a motor mechanic.  Now a citizen, he works for Lennox Motors in Queanbeyan. Sethu is now a permanent resident. After arriving in Australia in June 2013, followed by a brief return to India and months of anxiety about visas, she calls the resident status the proudest moment of her life.

The work visa that has brought many of the migrants to Queanbeyan, involves at least one year of work in a regional area, (cutting out Fyshwick for example). The flaw is that there is not much work in many regional centres, including Queanbeyan, and many of the migrants and refugees are well educated.

So, you find trained engineers collecting trolleys or stocking shelves at the local supermarkets, and others doing housekeeping work. This has led to disappointment. But it cuts both ways. For many and particularly the dependent family members that Sethu works with (“It’s easy for me, I’ve been there”), the English language is a major initial barrier.  The multicultural centre is there to help overcome that hurdle with classes and activities.

Sethu’s own path to this job of settling people into Australia, which saw her helping some 200 family members of workers in the past year, was not a straight shot – even for someone as charming and well-educated in English as she is. Melbourne, where they started, was hard “everyone was so busy, no-one said hi”, she said comparing it to India in that way.

Queanbeyan didn’t start out easy either. She spent months pounding the pavement dropping resumes with local businesses and organisations and no-one got back to her, causing the usual dip in confidence.

She barely left their flat otherwise, cooking and watching daytime TV.  Kiran urged her to get out and about, so she started to go to the park on the theory that it’s a place you might meet a dog, and she loves dogs. It was a good strategy we agreed, as she showed me a photo of her first dog friend Fred.

The park also yielded “people in red jackets” which turned into a friendship with the heart health walking group. They invited her to join the walks and then dispensed good advice about the multicultural centre.  Walking with the group, she marvels that she even met then Mayor Tim Overall, unheard of in India.

Sethu started at the Multicultural Centre as a volunteer with conversations groups and events. Soon she got the chance to fill-in running the office for a month and started working with clients. After that she was offered the settlement support officer job.  She notes that volunteering can get a person around that barrier of being asked for experience.

Feeling both grateful and relieved, Sethu notes her obligation to continue helping her mother now, in return for the sacrifices the parents made for her education.

With a Bachelor’s degree in education and a Master’s in English Literature, which she taught at tertiary level in India, Sethu thinks she might be able to teach here once formalities are dealt with. Not one to sit still, she’s improved her swimming skills and will teach swimming she says.

The next dream for this immigrant couple?  Another big smile as she tells me: buying a house and staying in her second home Queanbeyan.

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