21st Century “Kunta Kinte”! Chapter 2 : The beginning!

21st Century “Kunta Kinte”! Chapter 2 : The beginning!

21st Century “Kunta Kinte”!
Introduction: Revealing the “untold”! | Chapter 1: The realisation!
Chapter 2 : The beginning!

As I have mentioned before, this story hasn’t got a start or an end. We are still inside this story!

It is not only us, migrants from other countries went through this phases of hope, love, dream and frustration. I just know, we have to come up with some ideas to challenge this ‘plot of slavery’. We have to be strategic or vocal to influence the Governments of the developed world to listen to us and our urge to pay back our country of origin for capitalising our ‘brain power’.

A lot of migrants from various parts of the world have influenced government like Australia to listen to their views! They have capitalised on the opportunity they had in Australia. But, how? That is the question. I will come to that point towards the end of my story.

This story will now travel through my personal experience in Australia, which I believe may not be very different to a lot of first generation migrants’ story!

1989, our Australian life begins in Melbourne.

We were staying with one of our friends, who came six months ago to settle in Australia. Babu, Shilpi and their nine months old son Nirjhar was very welcoming. We shared their two bed room rented unit in Brunswick. It was luxury for a migrant couple with a forty days old baby and US$400 in hand!

Why Melbourne? There was a very specific reason for that. We knew that as first generation migrant we had to struggle for survival. We did not want our family in Bangladesh to know about our struggle. As we had close relatives in Sydney and Canberra at that time, we decided to go to Melbourne to stay with our friends and struggle with them rather than living in the shadow of our very successful relatives in other states.

Melbourne was great!

I was very lucky to get a job as a design Architect with a private consulting firm in Melbourne within the first week of our arrival. I still remember, it was Sunday and I took the Saturday Age newspaper out from the garbage bin and went through the employment section.

I found few relevant job advertisements. But did not have any clue, how to develop my resume or to write an application. What a challenge!

Babu helped me with his limited Australian experience to finalise my resume and application, relevant to Australian context. It worked!

I used Babu’s manual type writer to type up my resume and applications, which he bought from a garage sale few months prior to our arrival. It was really challenging without a computer and a printer! If you make any mistake, you have to re-type the whole thing as he did not have the correction fluid (too expensive for an unemployed person).

The more challenging dialogues between the prospective employer and I was my previous and expected salary! As a fresh graduate I was getting around Tk3,000 per month in Bangladesh. So, I really did not know how much salary to ask for an Australian job offer. Converting Bangladeshi salary into Australian dollar was not very encouraging at that time. I left the salary bit empty and highlighted that I am happy to negotiate in relation to the employer’s proposed scale.

In 1988-89, Melbourne’s economy was very strong.

At the same time, I had another Government job offer on my plate but salary wise the Architect’s one was much ‘better’. Better in a sense that one was offering $26,000 per annum and the other one was $28,000 per annum. One can easily understand that I did not have any knowledge about the Australian income tax system! I accepted the Architect’s job with a salary of $28,000 per year without any superannuation. Basically, I had to live with a fortnightly payment of around $800 in cash. The electronic transfer facility was not here in Australia at that time.

With my first salary, in addition to the basic needs, I bought two memorable pieces of stuff toys for my daughter and my friend’s son as a souvenir. My daughter, in her 20’s now, still has the teddy bear in her room! I am very proud of that.

The first job is always a struggle to prove yourself and your ability to work in a developed country. It was a constant question and answer to reflect my knowledge of Architecture in relation to colour, building materials, plans, landscape etc. The boss had a preconceived idea about architectural knowledge of people from developing countries. It was hard for him to believe that we had the same training standards in Architecture (in some cases it was better, because of the English and American influence in our education system) as in Australia.

By the time I proved myself as competitive as any other mainstream Architects by going through the interview with the Architect’s Registration Board in Victoria, assessment through the Architect’s Accreditation Councils of Australia in Canberra, I gained more confidence. I was told by some of my fellow senior Bangladeshi-Australian Architects that our Bangladeshi degree was not recognised as equivalent degree in Australia.

I always believe in first hand information rather than depending on information from other sources. I went directly to the authority and probably I am one of the first Bangladeshi Architects in 1989 to go through the assessment process to gain a positive response from the Architect’s Accreditations Council of Australia.

The interesting part of this story starts now. By this time we have moved out from our friend’s house and rented our own one bedroom apartment in Brunswick. In a month time, we realised that the apartment was a threat to the health of our family as it had ‘damp’ walls around the bed room, covered with fresh paint before letting it to us. It was really risky particularly to our 6 months old baby.

We immediately reported to the health area of Brunswick City Council and noticed the real estate agent. We left the flat for a little bit better two bedroom apartment in another part of Brunswick. Because of our short stay and due to the breech of our lease agreement we never got our ‘bond money’ back from the agent. They told us to appeal through the rental tribunal but we did not have the courage to go through that process!

After working for one year for the architectural firm, I found another job with another consulting firm, in Croydon (still in Melbourne), with an increased salary of $2000 up to $30,000 per annum! I felt like a “hero”. What a great achievement!

Over the next one and half years we were already trapped financially by the banks, who offered us attractive “credit cards” with high interest rates as part of ‘Australian way of life’. We eventually started to increase our liabilities within the “vicious cycle” of commitments without thinking of the consequences.

Meanwhile, our baby daughter was receiving free checkups by the community nurses, subsidised day care facilities for being a baby from non-English speaking family and some extra money from the Government for mum to look after the child. This was the beginning of our journey as a “slave” without any realisation or understanding that it was the secret plan by the Government to ‘chain’ us within our own liabilities!

Nigar, my wife, was looking after our daughter without getting into the workforce. After one year, she decided to commence work. As part of the ‘conspiracy’ policy, the then Commonwealth Employment Services (CES) offered their helping hands to her. They found her a job with Melbourne Water, one of the big corporations, as a trainee.

Interestingly the officer, Mr Howard from the CES, who helped Nigar to get the job, strongly insisted to change her name from Nigar to Nadia for some strange reason that is still unknown to us as a prerequisite to commence the work! He wasn’t even interested to know the meaning of the name ‘Nigar’, which is a common name in the Indo-Pak sub-continent, because of its beautiful meaning, ‘fragrance’.
As a very vulnerable “knowledge slave” how could she refuse the job offer even if she needed to change her name! Nigar the ‘slave’ became Nadia, just like “Kunta Kinte” became “Tobie”!

After one year of trainee work without any positive future prospects, she decided to go back to the University to do another degree or diploma in a more demanding subject than architecture and planning. She got herself admitted to a postgraduate diploma in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) at the Melbourne University.

She falls into another “trap” here! Since the course fee was very high, the Government offered financial assistance (loan) through their Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS). By accepting HECS, Nigar was trapped for first few years of her working life to repay the Governments loan. This HECS is part of the ‘conspiracy’ policy to ensure that she will work for Australia after graduation. “Chained” again!

However, everything was working very well.

We were very much fulfilling the “conspiracy” by working and spending our total earnings in Australia. I applied for a driving licence and was very confident to get it, as I had 14 years of car driving experience under my belt from overseas. It is still hard for me to believe that I failed my driving test twice due to my lack of understanding of Australian way of driving cars! Surprise surprise!

But third time lucky, I got my licence after taking few driving lessons from a local driving instructor – very sensible.

We could not wait to save money for a car. As part of the overall conspiracy we were allowed to borrow money to buy a car. We bought our first car, again trapped by the car sales person and ended up buying a car with a loan of $14,000 with a very high interest rate for next five years. It certainly created extra pressure on our household budget.

After two years of residency in Australia we had to visit Bangladesh due to the death of my father. We travelled to Bangladesh, for the first time with our daughter as proud Australian citizens with our Australian passports. We left for Bangladesh in early December 1990 and came back in January 1991, in the middle of the first Middle-East War.

As anyone can understand our credit cards were exhausted, our bank balance was in the negatives. And sadly, Australia was also very much affected by the Middle East war. It had a very bad impact on the building industry and the overall employment market. One of the worst “recessions” – we had to have, hit Australia.

My office got broke, there was no job for Architects. I wasn’t even given any notice to look for another job. I lost my job, one day after we came back from Bangladesh!
I don’t think I can express my true feeling of that moment now. I came back home early and told Nigar the bad news and sat and looked at each other, I don’t remember for how long!

Probably we were going through millions of questions.

For the first time I have seen the ugly sight of an Australian employer who wasn’t concern at all about the effect ‘the unemployment’ would have on my family. Eventually, I realised I did not have any superannuation with the firm; I did not receive any lump-sum payments to continue our life.

We saw a new dimension of our Australian life in Melbourne. We felt the pressure every second, particularly, after going through my mental agony during the period of unemployment.

I remained unemployed for two months.

Only after two years in Australia we were feeling like a ‘defeated’ soldier, who has lost the war against their pride, their hope, their dream! We were thinking of the consequences of going back to Bangladesh and starting a new life there!

For the first time I went to the then Department of Social Security (DSS) to seek financial help as we were trapped with our own financial liabilities over last couple of years.

As part of the “conspiracy” and to minimise the risk of loosing two ongoing, active and potential “knowledge slaves”, the DSS discouraged us to go back to our home country instead helped us with a reasonable financial support to run our life in Melbourne. We were ‘hooked’ again with the ‘bait’ called the ‘unemployment benefit’ along with rental assistance provided by the Government including some additional money for our two years old daughter.

I think this was one of the most confusing times of our whole life so far. I did not know what to do, where to go, who to ask for help. Sadly, most of our highly educated Bangladeshi-Australian migrant ‘friends’ have left us by this time, as we belong to a lower socio-economic status then. It had a terrible impact on our ‘ego’ as a very bright student and all rounder from Bangladesh who lost his job in a country that promised to employ us! Promised to improve our quality of life!

With a misleading advice from one of our ‘friends’, we moved back from our two bed room apartment to an affordable one bed room apartment again! They did not tell us that DSS provides rental support in this sort of case to retain the current tenancy. They were in similar situation and took the advantage of DSS rental payments but did not share that information with us. Instead, they influenced us to compromise our quality of life.

It was very late for us, when we discovered this information on rental assistance! So, here we are, in a very small one bed room apartment.
However, from our one bed room apartment on the fourth floor, we could see the skyline with the Great Diving Range at a distance. By looking at those mountains, I knew one day we will cross the ‘ranges’ and come out of this hurdle! The best thing about time, it is not static and flows on to wash out the time of sadness, the time of toughness. We talked, discussed and seek advice from our limited ‘good’ friends including Dr Hemayet Hossain and Dr Zubaida Begum.

Nigar was a full time student at this time, so the family income was zero. It was rather ‘minus’ with all our ongoing commitments, loans and liabilities.

Dr Zubaida was heading up the Migrant Resource Centre in Richmond at that time. She supported me by giving a small consultancy work to develop a software for the Vietnamese community to learn English. With the help of few IT friends, I delivered the work with high pride and earned some money for the first time as a consultant in Australia. But that was the first and the last, as there weren’t any other consultancy job for an unknown consultant.

We were still struggling to run our household!

With my overseas experience with media and Impress video in Bangladesh, I got a casual job with one of the wedding photographers in Melbourne in response to his advertisement in the local news paper. He offered me the job of his assistant to help him as the cable boy for $50 per wedding per day.

It was certainly not the best offer or the job I wanted to do in Australia but I accepted it. My ‘trapped’ condition forced me to accept the position. I did three weddings with this Italian-Australian cameraman but could not survive long enough due to his attitude and misbehaviour. He was treating me like a ‘true slave’ as if he bought me to serve him. After three weddings, I was still waiting for my payment of $150.

I realised, I am not getting the money from him very easily and he told me to go to the court if necessary as his clients were delaying payments. I never went back for the fourth wedding and never heard from him again. I left the job without getting any money! I started to understand the risky field of ‘migrant labour exploitation’ scenario in Australia.

Since there were no job advertisements for architects in the news papers, I decided to apply for a scholarship at Melbourne University to do my PhD in Architecture and Planning by capitalising on my excellent academic results, as advised by Dr Hemayet Hossain, who was a professor at the University at that time. With the academic results and an appropriate thesis proposal I was selected to get the Australian Post-graduate Research Award (APRA) of $14,000 pa tax-free. I was over the moon!

I commenced my ‘first attempt’ to complete a PhD. At the same time, I was also looking for full time work opportunities.

After two months of unemployment, I was placed with a Government agency, the then Victorian Ministry for the Arts, as a Regional Planner through the CES and again by the same officer who helped Nigar few months back. But this time he did not ask me to change my name as I was much more ‘vocal’ than my wife.

I commenced the work in a part-time capacity with a full-time equivalent salary of $32,000 per year. The Australian boss Ms Sue Clark was really very kind and considerate to me. It was still a non-ongoing contract position without any proper superannuation or leave loading. But for an unemployed person this was the best thing happened to us during that disastrous period.

Meanwhile Nigar completed her degree in GIS in 1992. She was part of the first batch of graduates in this highly demanding subject and got a job offer instantly from Melbourne Water but in a different section with a very good remuneration as a contractor. The only problem, it was a non-ongoing contract as well.

For the first time we had some savings!

But there was a change in politics in Victoria which had an unexpected impact on me. Due to the change of Government from Labour to Liberal all contractors had a two weeks notice to leave their current position as part of the new Government’s restructures process. I was again in the verge of loosing my job!

I had two weeks in my hand and I did not want to discuss this situation with Nigar as she was just enjoying the pleasure of a more settled life through her job. It was again a desperate time for me, another hurdle to cross, another ‘test’ to pass! I was very desperate and very ‘aggressively’ started to approach all my contacts in Melbourne for a job.

Fortunately, I was successful with Melbourne City Council and got another contract job within those two weeks and commenced as soon as possible.

Nigar still doesn’t know the real story; to her it was another career progression for me as I was offered a salary of $36,000 per year but the only condition was to work full-time. There goes my PhD attempt number one!

To save the family, I sacrificed my PhD. I took the job. Things were getting better since then. I was getting proper respect and appreciation for my contribution for the first time in Australia. For the first time, I worked with people like Sally Vivian, Jim Gifford and George Konstantanidus, who were very sympathetic for the ‘first generation migrants’ and tried to eliminate the feeling of ‘slavery’ from me. However, I was still a result of the international conspiracy of exploiting migrant labour!

Meanwhile, we were planning to have a second baby.

Nigar became pregnant for the second time and she had to leave the contract job as the pregnancy was giving her tough time! We started to feel the ‘fantastic’ health services provided by the local hospitals. Our doctor was very nice and the hospital nurses were really helpful. But the happiness was very short lived.

We lost the baby before even sharing the news with family and friends. Unfortunately, Nigar had a miscarriage!

This was the first genuine shock of loosing ‘something’ or ‘someone’ in our Australian life!

I still remember that ‘horror’ winter night.

Nigar was in her two months of pregnancy. One night, around 10pm, she was feeling pain in her stomach. We called the hospital ‘help line’. The response was to wait a bit longer and if the pain persists contact them again. By 2am, it was severe; I called the hospital, same response. By 2.30am, I could see blood and for the first time in my life, I probably felt really helpless like a ‘trapped mouse’. I didn’t know who to call; I did not know what to do!

Nigar was losing her sense gradually! I woke up my five years old daughter, packed her into a blanket, and brought the car out of the garage when the outside temperature was negative. I put her into the back seat of the car. I still remember those dark black blank sleepy eyes, looking towards dad and trying to understand the situation. Trying to find the meaning of such emergency!

I carried Nigar somehow into the car. I still don’t remember whether I have locked the house or not! I straight drove to the St.James hospital which was about 15 minutes drive from our home.

After an hour of testing and consultation, we were confirmed that we lost the baby and Nigar needs to stay at the hospital for observation. We just hold our hands and looked at each other, I can’t remember for how long!

For the first time in Australia, I felt tears coming out of my eyes.

I thought I was strong but when reality hits you with that magnitude, I believe the strongest person would cry too. I controlled myself to calm-down Nigar with greater hopes for the future. Reminded her, what ever happens must happen for a reason, if this was God’s wish, let us accept it.

I still wish I had the magic wand to turn everything around and design our fate the way we wanted things to happen for us. But this was reality!!

I came back home with our daughter, leaving Nigar to recover by herself. By the time it was morning. Morning always brings hope into people’s heart. My daughter was sleeping; I put her into her bed. I stood in front of the kitchen table and discovered myself within an ‘ocean’ of sorrowness coming out of my sad eyes. I was conscious of not making any noise as Kishoree was still a sleep. I wish I could cry louder! I wish I could share my sadness with the whole world including my family in Bangladesh.

Probably that was the first and last time I sheared tears in Australia!

But I thanked god, we still had our first child! That was the magic theme, which gave us enough strength to move on!

I asked myself, “who am I trying to impress in Australia?” “what am I doing in Australia without any family?” “why am I here?”

However, time is the greatest healer of pains and allows us to continue our adventure with new spirit.

As part of the natural progression of life in Australia, we started to see the ‘Great Australian Dream’ of a house with big backyard with a hills hoist cloth rail. Our own house!

I would love to run my own lawn mower every alternate Sunday morning, our child would have her own swing and slides in the backyard, we will have our own vegetable garden!

We didn’t have any idea that this was also a part of the ‘implanted conspiracy’ and may become a ‘nightmare’ rather than a dream!

(to be continued in March 2012)

Farhadur Reza Probal

Farhadur Reza Probal

Architect Farhadur Reza FIAB MPIA


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21st Century “Kunta Kinte”Kunta Kinte

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