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Educated, able - and homeless

Red Cross Caseworker Lisa Shearer supported Anna while she was awaiting her immigration outcome.

Anna* was living a comfortable life with her partner in an apartment in Melbourne when an issue with her visa and the loss of her work rights saw her descend into homelessness and severe depression.

Originally from Bangladesh, Anna was living in Australia on a student visa. Having completed her degree, she was working as a sales executive with a publisher. Anna decided to apply for Permanent Residency in Australia through a migration agent, as she felt unable to return to Bangladesh. Anna is openly gay and was estranged from all in her family except her mother.

During this time, Anna's mother in Bangladesh was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Her father was unwilling to pay for the surgery required so Anna used her life savings to pay for her mother's operation in Bangkok. Anna's mother's brain was injured during the surgery and she no longer recognised her daughter. This spelled the end of any relationship Anna had with her family in Bangladesh.

Anna returned from this heartbreaking episode with no savings and legal fees piling up from numerous Permanent Residency application attempts. "All the money, whatever I had, was gone," says Anna. "[I was] living pay cheque to pay cheque."

Shortly after her return to Australia, Anna's final Permanent Residency application was denied. During a meeting with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), Anna was informed that her student visa had expired, along with her right to work in Australia. Without the right to work she had no income and no way to support herself.

Anna's partner Cathy*, a PhD student on a fellowship, said she would support Anna but the extra pressure saw Cathy's marks drop and her fellowship funding withdrawn. Cathy was forced to return to the United States and move in with her parents leaving Anna in Australia with no income, no savings and an apartment she couldn't afford. Thankfully, friends Anna had supported when they had first arrived in Australia were able to offer her a bed on a short-term basis saving her from a shelter or worse. "It was almost like being homeless, I mean that's the situation I was in," says Anna. She sold all her possessions to survive, including a ring given to her by Cathy. She relied on the generosity of her friends but as students they were unable to support her indefinitely.

No options left

At this stage Anna hit the lowest point in her life. As a gay couple, Cathy was unable to sponsor her to come to the US and it was not safe for her to return to Bangladesh. "My dad and my brother they threatened me to my face. They said they're going to ruin my life, they're going to kill me," says Anna. She couldn't ask the police for protection from her family as it is illegal to be openly gay in Bangladesh. With seemingly no option, Anna became extremely depressed and was close to suicidal.

Although their relationship had been strained by the terrible situation, Cathy still cared for Anna and encouraged her to look into applying for a protection visa. "She said, in our country, in the US we have a protection visa. In Australia, it's a developed country - they should have this."

It was when she began applying for her protection visa that DIAC referred Anna to Red Cross. Red Cross provides support for vulnerable people living in the community while they are awaiting an immigration outcome. Anna began receiving living allowance payments, and health and welfare support via the Community Assistance Support program and says it saved her. "Whatever help I got, it just saved my life," she says.

Australian Red Cross believes that people who are made vulnerable through the process of migration, whose survival, dignity, physical or mental health is under threat, should receive the humanitarian support they need while their immigration status is being resolved. In no circumstances should vulnerable people be left destitute. With the payments she was receiving through Red Cross Anna was able to pay rent and gain access to a psychologist to begin recovering from her traumatic experiences. Tears well in Anna's eyes as she describes the help she received from Red Cross. "Seriously, I cannot thank Red Cross enough, after the amount of torture and pressure I went through…"

A way to move forward

Red Cross Caseworker Lisa Shearer says the issues confronted by Anna are sadly too common for many of the vulnerable clients referred to the Community Assistance Support program. "For those on bridging visas, lack of income or work rights makes homelessness an all too real prospect and often leads to a rapid decline in mental and physical health," she says.

Anna has just been granted her visa and has immediately begun looking for work, saying she felt ashamed taking money. "I have two hands, two legs, I have my brain - I should be able to work," she says. "That's why I'm trying to find a job as quickly as possible."

Cathy has been back in Australia visiting Anna and plans to return again to complete her studies. "This has been the most terrible year for me," says Anna. "It's been like a dream for me to actually be in a place where I can move forward with my life."

*Clients' names have been changed.


Photo: Louise M Cooper (Australian Red Cross)

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