Kalapriya Selvaraj, 27

I am a Tamil speaker, from Hindu background. I love my culture’s traditional dance, and spices and food but most the culture that respects my family and elders.

I’ve been in Australia since the beginning of 2016, waiting for my visa to be processed. First Victoria, then New South Wales, then South Australia, then Bendigo. I was in South Australia and got an appointment with the Immigration Department in Melbourne, early morning. I had been sleeping in the car since 2016. I thought, I can’t sleep in the car in Melbourne because need to pay parking, it’s a big city, so I picked somewhere near in the map – two hours’ distance. Bendigo’s pictures showed lovely area, I thought ‘Why don’t I park there, sleep overnight, go to next day appointment’.

Then my appointment was cancelled. I had just arrived in Bendigo and panic, I don’t have any idea what to do. I looked for a place to park the car and picked Lake Weerona; it was so beautiful and I thought ok, this is where I will stay in Bendigo. I didn’t know anyone, I have no idea what to do, no money, how am I going to stay? It was so challenging. But I faced it. I parked at Lake Weerona for two weeks; used a tap to wash clothes and the disabled washroom to clean up. The council came and said you have to go in a free camp. I had stayed in free camps, but when I came the panic was too big – I totally lost the knowledge, I didn’t think about anything. I went to Huntly free camp and Gillian and John from Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR) and told me about Haven: Home, Safe. I went there but they said we can’t help you because you don’t have any income. They were so sorry and kind and helped with the petrol voucher. They fix an appointment with Multicultural Services for the next day. And Gillian and John from RAR took me to meet Ian who is happy to receive homeless people to stay for two weeks. But then he let me stay until February 2019. Then I met moved to a different spot.

First at Multicultural Services I was involved in Feast of Stories, then certificates in Food Safety, then gardening at Gravel Hill, then soccer and BBQ, then swimming lessons. The teacher said I’m eligible for the swimming course. Now I’m doing my practical hours to become a swim teacher. No way I thought about becoming a swim teacher before. Multicultural Services is always welcoming; it encourages me. Just parking is the issue. When I am in town I go there for a cup of coffee, say ‘hi, hello!’ They helped me with lots of information with full details. For my visa appointments they told me what kind of supporting documents I need to carry. And whenever I’m enter to office they are so warm welcoming staffs. They are like my parents or siblings, “Oh sister you need this? Make sure you do that.” It is that feeling of home. Most people who coming to the Multicultural Service would came from many different trauma ­– could be difficulties, violence etc. But this office staffs make them forget about everything and feel comfort. Now I am a full-time volunteer at Multicultural Services, The Old Church and Food Bank. I don’t have work rights, so no income, no Centrelink, but I am willing; those places help me, and I give back.

I feel I can share my culture in Bendigo. I share at Multicultural Services, Bendigo Library, the Old Church. At Gravel Hill Garden they ask which vegetable you want to plant? But I think one hundred percent we need a place for us to share our culture with other people – we can feel that I am safe, I am free.

Bendigo is home. When I was moving I didn’t realise why I was moving, but when I settled in Bendigo I found the reason: no feeling of family. At Multicultural Services everyone is my family. Colour doesn’t make me feel different. White, black, brown – they are my mother, my sister, my father. I lost my father when I was five years old. I missed him a lot. When I came here they give me all the comfy feeling like family.

Home means I can settle here; get a visa and I can contribute myself to this country in the future. I’ve got a lot of dreams but without work rights… But I am respecting Australian government rules and laws and I am using this opportunity to volunteer and learn more. This home can bright my future. I feel I belong to Australia.