In May 2011, I attended a fundraising dinner, in Melbourne, for Maiti Nepal, at which Anuradha Koirala inspired us with the work she does with survivors of human trafficking in Nepal. Although Anuradha was the highlight of this evening, another vivacious woman I had a brief conversation with also stood out in the crowd. Her name was Pooja. She attracted my attention because of her openness to talk about Nepalese culture, but also because she was young – and I was curious to know her migration story. Two years later, I was given an opportunity to ask.
Let’s begin this story in Nepal. Born in Pokhara, Pooja is from the Magar ethnic group. Her father is Magar, but her mother is Limbu. During her childhood, her parents were always supportive of her, which gave her the freedom to explore her personal potential. Growing up in her family home – with two elder sisters, an elder and younger brother, and sometimes maternal and paternal grandparents – was a happy experience. In fact, she describes being treated by her family as a “spoilt kid…a bit of a princess”. Although Pooja’s father spoke Magar and Nepali, her mother spoke only Nepali and Limbu. Therefore, the common language spoken in the family home was Nepali.
As Pooja’s father owned a business – a shop in Pokhara beside the family home – she was afforded a good education. Her primary and secondary schooling were undertaken at a private English boarding school, where she learned to speak English. As Pooja was considered a bright child, she skipped some grades. By 18, she was undertaking tertiary studies – a chartered accountancy course – in Kathmandu. However, after three months, she transferred to a Bachelor of Business Studies, majoring in marketing, which was more stimulating. In Kathmandu, Pooja lived in a hostel for girls. Although night curfews were strict – if you were not home by six o’clock, the doors were closed for the evening – the community was supportive for young women.
Following her degree, Pooja held several different jobs before becoming an education counsellor. In February 2008, she was organising a visa application for a young gentleman who aspired to do a Diploma of Hospitality outside Nepal. (This young man, from the Gurung ethnic group – and an only son – was being funded by his parents for a two-year journey to, potentially, Australia.) As things transpired, this was a “meeting of hearts” and, on 14 July 2008, Pooja married him in a traditional Hindu wedding ceremony. The marriage occurred two days before his departure to Melbourne as his visa to Australia had been granted. In February 2009, with her visa processed, Pooja flew to join him on a journey that was about to change the course of her life.
For the first few months in Melbourne, Pooja felt a complete sense of “culture shock”. Being on a student visa gave her a temporary sense of belonging in Australia. To add to her unsettledness, the only work she could get initially – from April 2009 to June 2009 – was manual labour in a food factory in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. Due to working conditions, there was also little opportunity to communicate with others. This situation was devastating, and hard to accept, for a woman who had worked as an education consultant, to Australia, in Nepal. Suffice to say, the lack of stimulation, and too much time to think, almost drove her into a state of depression.
However, her husband encouraged her to leave the job and search for a position that inspired her. With newfound determination, she went “cold-calling” on the doors of organisations that might be able to offer her work where she could use her professional skills. After many knockbacks, which made her even more resolute, Pooja “hooked” a position with a migration agent as front desk officer. After some time, she was then promoted to the role of education consultant and attained an Australian qualification: Qualified Education Agent Counsellor (QEAC).
From her new work, Pooja and her husband also became more closely connected to the Nepalese Community in Melbourne, and along with sharing a house with Nepalese people, she developed a “feeling of always being around someone you know from the culture”. This enabled her to acclimatise to life in Australia, particularly when her husband was studying or working different shifts to her. After three years as an education consultant, Pooja decided to seek new challenges. With her confidence boosted on being offered eight jobs on resignation, she took on a position as a marketing officer to get firsthand experience in the education industry. Now she is doing a course that complements her role.
Although Pooja and her husband were initially planning to return to Nepal – and may still do so in the future – both of them have just been granted permanent residency in Australia. Her reason for taking this step was to open up career opportunities: Pooja hopes to undertake a degree in International Development at a mainstream university. With her husband having completed his hospitality studies and a further Bachelor of Business, majoring in accounting, and her new work, she describes this period in her life as a “transformational stage”. She has set some positive goals for the future, knows she has the world at her feet – and can do anything she sets her mind to.
In making the decision to come to Australia, Pooja experienced a lot of reservedness about moving away from family and the culture – and there are many things she still misses about Nepal: food “cooked by my Mum”, the lights and experience of the Tihar Festival, the comfort of home, and being surrounded by family and friends in Pokhara. Her family also misses her greatly. Talking about home takes her back to the rooftop of her house where she used to sit, drink Nepalese tea, and watch the sun rise over the Himalayas. It is a poignant memory – and one I can relate to because I have seen the morning sun hit the Annapurna Range. It is breathtakingly beautiful.
However, Pooja says that “Australia has groomed me professionally”. Clearly, it has given her opportunities to grow, adapt to change, and discover herself. In my mind, this young woman, now 26, took enormous personal risk to come here in 2009, but is destined to stay. With permanent residency in hand, she is halfway there. However, going home to her family for the first time in four and half years, in October 2013, is going – I think – to challenge how she feels about her move to Australia. The sights, sounds, taste and touch of “home” will tug on her heartstrings. These are things Australia can never replace. But, in my heart of hearts, I hope she comes back so I can continue her story.
First, foremost, this is Pooja Ale’s story. Thank you for sharing your migration experience. Second, it is dedicated to many Nepalese friends whose stories of migration (or planned migration) to other countries has not been easy. This is because language and the culture has been a barrier to employment, being accepted, and finding a place to “belong”, especially when Nepalese Communities have not been close by. Some of these friends have stayed in these countries and faced extreme hardship, putting aside personal happiness, and that of their families, to try and make peace with their decisions. However, others – being courageous enough to say it has not worked out – have returned to Nepal and made successes of their lives, and, subsequently, found happiness.
My greatest point of learning from writing Pooja’s story, and my friendships with Nepalese people, is that they – because of a tacit link to their communities, culture and society – need each other to survive. Without this, they are simply lost.
This article was first published in Pipalbot, Melbourne, Australia: www.pipalbot.com.au