No permit for dignity

by Lee Kofman

EARLY IN MY life in Australia, during the year I spent on a bridging visa that included no work permit, and with the little savings I had running out, I rejoiced when a new job offer finally came my way. My prospective employer, Boris, knew about my financial hardships. He was also my co-worker at the only cash-in-hand job I’d managed to find until that point and which earned me five dollars per hour – a Russian video library in St Kilda. My family left Russia for Israel when I was twelve, but now, at twenty-six, I still spoke fairly decent Russian. And I loved that place, which was really a cross between a neighbourhood house and a crazy supermarket that sold everything from smoked salmon to dubbed South American soap operas. Yet I couldn’t survive on those wages. And Boris said he had something for me.

Boris, who barely reached my chin and had small, button-like facial features – plus small, button-like grandchildren – summoned me to discuss his work proposition just before his morning shift began. We sat at the table in the middle of the library where customers usually lounged with shopping bags at their feet, reading newspapers or discussing the rising caviar prices. ‘Oh Mama, Mama, Mama! I love a gypsy man!’ a red-mulletted singer of indeterminate gender was screaming from the television hanging above us. I hoped Boris’s offer of an additional job would help me to delay moving in with a man from Moscow whom I’d recently met. I liked the Russian way the man courted me, with red roses and recitations of Pushkin. But while his claims that he’d done business with the Russian mafia added to his sexual appeal in my eyes, they didn’t make me trust him. I could smell his dubious past in the overflowing ashtrays strewn all over his apartment. I didn’t want to move in with him so quickly, but I couldn’t manage any rent on my current pay and the owner of the place I was housesitting was about to return to Melbourne. Meanwhile, the man-in-question had already bought me a pillow. As a prelude to our conversation, Boris sliced up some cake his wife had baked. My work in the library taught me that even the minutest of Russian social interactions involved food. ‘I’m unwell,’ Boris told me. I felt concerned about both Boris’s health and my own future. If he was ill, he wouldn’t be thinking about my work prospects. ‘My doctor said I lack protein. And one of the best protein sources I know of…’ Boris paused to wipe cake crumbs off his tiny mouth. ‘Dear Lee, I’ll pay you well. If I can go down on you once a week… Don’t misunderstand me, please. It’s only for medical purposes…’

A few days later I moved in with my Russian suitor.

A BRIDGING VISA is a visa typically held while people who come to Australia wait for their permanent visa applications to be processed. Usually it has no fixed expiry date, and it doesn’t allow travel outside of Australia. Some sub-categories include a permit to work, but mine didn’t – as is the case for so many other holders of this type of visa.

I wondered a lot about my situation at the time. Perhaps immigration officials had access to some tacit knowledge about why it was a good idea to prevent an able-bodied adult with excesses of time and energy from contributing to the Australian economy and to one’s independence. From my narrow point of view, I really couldn’t fathom how that policy served the common good of Australia. I already lived here and there was a good chance I’d get to remain here permanently, plus every second shop or café I passed had job advertisements in their windows.

Was Australia meant only for people who already had substantial reserves of money and who were willing to spend them on months of waiting? It wasn’t clear how long it’d be before I’d be legally allowed to earn my living. Now that the little money I’d brought from Israel was almost gone, mostly spent on the complex and costly processes of applying for residency here, my choice was between two evils: become utterly dependent on a man I hardly knew, or risk a large fine and deportation if I got caught doing cash-in-hand work. I went for the latter option. I kept my job in the library, just not the shared shifts with Boris.

I made a good worker there, as I’d done in my previous jobs. I owe my work ethic to my parents, who had always worked long hours just to make ends meet while raising us, their four children. I was the oldest, and the last thing I wanted was to burden my parents. I took pride in my early financial independence, having moved out into my first rental apartment at nineteen. Since then I’d always provided for myself. During my army service and university years, when I’d studied social work, I’d bartended in Tel Aviv’s nightclubs then moved on to organising my own dance parties. That might sound like a glamorous life, and sometimes it felt like it, but really I never felt financially secure in a country that depended on the volatile value of the American dollar. Although we earned shekels, our rent had to be paid in dollars. Still, as a student living on my own, I was comparatively well off. I always paid the rent on time. I owned a Volkswagen Beetle car – albeit one older than I was – and I could buy a new dress once in a while. I even regularly went to the theatre, which isn’t that expensive in Israel, perhaps because of its ubiquity. This was how it was until I moved to Australia, alone. The new millennium and I arrived in Australia almost in tandem. By then I had already grown tired of the daily life in Israel. Some say a change of geography doesn’t solve anyone’s problems, but they’ve probably never lived in a place where the six degrees of separation diminish into one or two; where cars are parked on every sidewalk, and stray animals and drunk Romanian workers lie in the gutters; where buildings climb on top of each other and people don’t speak if they can shout instead. The time came when I lost the stamina for trying daily to beat the infamous Tel Aviv traffic, pay bills and university fees, avoid the news that was often hopeless and always full of danger, yet still follow security alerts about possible terror attacks.

Several months before I left, a terrorist blew himself up near my apartment, shattering my bedroom window. Shortly after, hope made a brief appearance when Labour’s Ehud Barak beat Netanyahu in elections. But this elation lasted barely until the next morning, when our new prime minister invited Shas, the ultra-orthodox party, to form a coalition. This move meant more years of compromises with God’s earthly representatives and more scarce money flowing towards men who refused to work and serve in the army. I could no longer see any future for myself in that climate. I longed for a more serene life elsewhere. Australia seemed like the most likely destination, as my father’s sister and her family were based in Sydney. I barely knew them, but decided to go over and see how I felt. My relatives and I soon proved to be too foreign to each other to stick together, and I moved to Melbourne. But Australia felt familiar, even familial, and my immigration process had begun.

IN MELBOURNE, I’D become the kind of video-library worker the Russian customers expected. I chose their films for them, remembered the names of their children, played gypsy music strewn with violins and melancholy in the shop. I was the ear for their woes and, for the older ones, a depository for their memories. The Russians in Melbourne were small in numbers (about five thousand, out of fifteen thousand or so Russian Australians in total, lived locally), yet they were incredibly proactive when it came to watching videos and so I was busy all the time.

Whenever Felix, a customer I particularly liked, came in, we’d step outside for a cigarette. A plumber from Georgia who had reached near starvation in his country, Felix, like me, worked for cash in Australia. The difference between us was that, as a plumber, he made good money. And that his application to extend his bridging visa had been refused some months before. Now he had enough money for a good lawyer, which he hadn’t had earlier when he’d needed to extend the visa. Yet each day Felix stayed here illegally, his case became more hopeless. He lived as a non-person now, driving a car without a number plate. At least he had the video library. He’d come here every second day, borrowing five or six films each time and always asked me for comedy, saying he needed to laugh. Perhaps this was why I liked Felix so much: he was the only person I knew in Melbourne who seemed worse off than me.

When you live in continuous uncertainty, not knowing how long you need to survive with no work permit or Medicare, it is easy to envy everyone. At least, that’s what happened to me. I watched the library customers come in wearing their tracksuits and sneakers, speaking to their spouses and children in temperate, lazy voices, overusing the we: Clara, have we seen this already? They’d wink at me, making small, yet nasty, alliances with me against each other. But they always left together, trudging side-by-side with their family members in their comfortable clothes to their probably comfortable houses, to their permanent lives. I, too, wanted a tracksuit. Instead, I’d put on my best dresses and turn up to work ten minutes early. I was always available for extra shifts and I knew how to bump up the day’s earnings. Eventually my salary was increased – to seven dollars per hour. Yet even this wasn’t enough to afford a shared rent and basic groceries to leave the ex-mafia man, who was proving to be more and more of a mistake by the day.

AT THE EX-MAFIA man’s one-bedroom apartment in the heart of St Kilda, I never fully unpacked my gigantic suitcase, which contained things dear to me yet useless for daily life: evening frocks I once wore to my parties, books and an unfinished manuscript of a novel. Still, at first I tried to make some semblance of home for myself, and for the us we were trying to create. I scrubbed the bathroom floor that was covered in hair. I cooked dishes of eggs and chicken, which the Russian man deemed ‘too Israeli’. I pretended I liked watching The Matrix and the other fantasy films he collected. I taught him to drink tequila gold while sucking on salt and lemons, as we’d do in Tel Aviv. But no effort on my part could overcome the fact that we were no good for each other, that in other circumstances, if I had a job and a place of my own, we’d not have lasted so long.

After a month of living together, I moved to sleep on the leather couch in the ex-mafia man’s tiny living room overtaken by an elaborate home theatre system. At night I’d hear him in the bedroom cough over his unfiltered Marlboros. It was clear I’d be leaving, just not so clear how I’d manage this on my wages. The most valuable item at my disposal was my return air ticket I hoped to never use. Now I considered redeeming it.

But really, I was desperate to stay. My infatuation with Australia was far more powerful than the one with the ex-mafia man. I’d first arrived in the country in summer, when the streets were all jasmine and birds and sunglasses and fire jugglers fooling around on public lawns. Overtaken by wonder, like a young horse I clacked my platform shoes vigorously along the local wide, friendly sidewalks. I was taken with Australians, who, I thought, had an angelic, soft look about them. I marvelled at how strangers would often smile at me and how even police cars drove by quietly. After a while, whenever their sirens did sound, I no longer thought about bombs. Australia felt like a cushion on which I could rest my head and I began to dream about having a different life here. In those first months, I thought I’d found my home. And in the long run, it turned out I had. But then, in the autumn that followed my first summer here, in the ex-mafia man’s claustrophobic apartment, the feeling of comfort faded.

The chill in the air was growing more pervasive. When I’d packed my suitcase, I’d expected the Australia I’d watched in films in Israel – The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Windrider – a summer country. I’d brought mostly light clothes. Now that I couldn’t afford to buy a warm coat, I began reconsidering my Australian dream. Could I really tough it out here? Then I made another bad move.

I called J, an Israeli migrant whom I’d met only twice and knew little about, mostly just the following facts: he was handsome in that dark, brooding, ultra-masculine way, and a decade older than me; he’d already spent six years in this country, proving to possess a talent for making enemies and money; and he had some romantic interest in me. I called J because, outside of the video library, I knew very few people in Melbourne, and because J had suggested that I should call him if I needed help, and because he knew what it’s like to be new and alone in this country. And because he had mesmerising Picasso-blue eyes.

I told J I didn’t know what to do next. That I’d overestimated my talent for survival. That I was going back to our country. I told him all this secretly in the hope he’d offer me a fresh perspective, some sensible advice about how I could remain in this place I so wanted to possess.

‘Don’t worry,’ J told me. ‘I live in a big house. Too big for one person. You can stay here, think things over. I have three spare bedrooms. When should I come and get you?’

THREE DOLLARS. IN retrospect, it seems there were only three dollars (per hour, though) that stood between the next, far more disastrous relationship I was about to enter and the hypothetically poorer yet more dignified existence I could have while waiting for my application process to conclude. On ten dollars, which was more-or-less the minimum hourly wage in Australia then, I could afford a room in one of St Kilda’s rundown houses, with their ancient fireplaces and musty carpets. But when you depend on cash-in-hand jobs, your bargaining power is non-existent. The library owner wouldn’t hear of another pay rise, so I kept looking for other jobs to complement my income. I worked in a small, crammed factory gluing slippers together, only to discover at the end of my first shift that my hourly pay would once again be five dollars. I worked as a kitchen hand in a deli, but its owner never paid me my wages. I thought perhaps J, who had a business in property, might help me get a job so I wouldn’t have to occupy his spare bedroom for long. Although I fancied myself as worldly then, in my mid-twenties, I could also be utterly naive. In truth, J never intended his spare bed for me, but rather his own. As for my intentions, the icy edge of autumn, the darkness and blueness of J and the loneliness and exhilarated disorientation that had become my lot in Melbourne were all combining into a potent cocktail of feeling that I mistook for love. It took us two days of living together before I moved to J’s bedroom. It took me two years to completely disentangle myself from J.

J lived in a suburb where foreign accents weren’t common. To get to the video library from his place I had to walk twenty minutes to the train station then take two trains: to Flinders Street station and to St Kilda. During the day I managed all that on my own, but after my evening shifts J would pick me up from the city. ‘All this commuting is ridiculous,’ he said after some weeks. ‘More importantly, you’re risking your chances to stay here in that library. And for what? Seven dollars? Quit your job and I’ll take care of you. You can finish your novel.’

I liked the Russian customers and also liked having a place to go to. I liked St Kilda and the free access to the films I remembered from my childhood. But J was right, I thought, and he was generous. I resigned the next day.

J kept his promise and he didn’t. After I quit my job, over the next year we lived in a succession of pleasant homes (although they were always for sale), we frequented restaurants and travelled the country. However, what J meant by ‘caring’ for me was that he’d spend money on us, never on me. I now had virtually no cash of my own, apart from some meagre money I’d managed to save during the video-library days. If I wanted so much as to buy a hairband, I had to ask J, so I hardly ever did and he hardly ever offered. I did get a coat though. J gave me a bag of warm clothes that had once belonged to his now-dead girlfriend. But that is another story.

The more my dependence on J increased, the more he relished discussing the fact that he had money and I didn’t, particularly when I disappointed him, which was often. The longer we lived together, the less J noticed the boundary between us. Now when he looked at me, he must have seen his own soul. This could make him either delight or cringe. Mostly cringe. J was skilled at finding faults in himself and consequently in me. He wasn’t spiritual enough; he was too focused, or not focused enough, on making money; he was misplaced in this country of fools who wouldn’t listen to his wisdom. I, too, wouldn’t give him what he deserved. I didn’t wash the dishes enough, or not properly. I ate dinner without waiting for him. I was a dreamer. ‘Life isn’t all about books, princess,’ J took to saying every time he came home to find me reading or writing. But in those days the written word was all I had.

MY DAYS WITH J grew darker and my illusions about my so-called ‘love’ for him – more a mix of lust and desperation – thinner. After eight months or so of us living together, I was keen to find a job again, even if it would endanger my chances of eventually getting permanent residency. I’d applied for a work permit some time ago and hoped to be granted one in a few months, but I could no longer cope with being so dependent on J. The problem was, now we lived even further away from public transport and the shopping strips where the work was. I still got around somehow, but could only leave our home phone number to prospective employers. I had no mobile phone, because I had no credit card, because I had no money, because I had no job, because I wasn’t allowed to work. Since J wasn’t happy with my new plans, even if someone called I wasn’t sure he would pass on the message. My life was turning circular, like a scrap of a melody trapped within a scratched record. And nobody called. Or maybe someone did, because from then J took to telling me I’d never manage without him in this country.

A part of me, despite my best intentions, believed him. I resumed contemplating a return to Israel, even if it felt like defeat. But now, in 2001, the Second Intifada had been raging there for some months with no signs of easing, and I no longer believed in even a tentative peace in the future. While here, all around me, Australia kept unfolding its green, horizon-less splendour steeped in sunshine and oceanic tides. Besides, I still felt some confused attachment to J, perhaps of the Stockholm syndrome variety. I stayed where I was. Two more months passed before I finally found a way to leave J without leaving the country. I moved to my Russian friend Natasha’s one-bedroom apartment in Elwood, sleeping in her living room on a folding cot. Natasha was a dancer. Her mind, too, moved constantly, as if attempting to catch up with the rest of her body. Like J, she was at war with her thoughts. To deprive her mind of stimulation, she painted her apartment plain white, furnished it sparsely and avoided spicy food. Around 10 pm, Natasha would bind her curls into a tight plait, as if to ambush her brain, and all the lights would go off. I had to be quiet and keep my nightly toilet trips to a minimum.

It was autumn again, my second in Melbourne. I walked the main streets lush with rain puddles, wearing a dead woman’s clothes, looking for work. Most places, though, required a work permit. Eventually, a restaurant owner on Lygon Street took pity on me and offered me a job   as a hostess. For an hourly rate of eight dollars, I tried smiling at people rushing past me through the thick sheets of water. ‘Would you like to see the menu?’ I mumbled, blushing. I wasn’t any good at it. Luckily, J, who kept shepherding me from afar, soon found me a job in a burger shop that belonged to an acquaintance of his. I was paid ten dollars an hour now.

J was a persistent man; this was how he’d made his way into Australia, and into money. After I left, he took to calling Natasha’s number and waiting for me by her building. He wanted to talk, he said, but refused to listen to what I had to say. Natasha wanted to talk too. I was spineless, she said, for taking J’s calls. The folding cot kept sinking under my spineless back. During one work shift, I placed a dish wrapped in foil in the microwave and killed it. There were a few hundred dollars to pay to the owner. There were utility bills to share with Natasha. My newly found freedom by now felt like a prison. The uncertainty of my situation was gnawing at me. The next time J called, he said he’d painted the walls of his new house yellow and purple according to my wishes. I packed my suitcase, left whatever money I had for Natasha and went downstairs to meet J…

SOON AFTER I moved in that second time with J, my work permit arrived. I’d been waiting for this moment for a year and now, within a week, I found my first legal job in Australia – managing a fundraising campaign for environmental work – which afforded me some dignity. The salary was scant, but at the time it struck me as a fortune. I could finally get a credit card and a mobile phone, and resume existing in my own right. Soon I accumulated enough money for a bond and a month’s rent, and found a room in a shared art deco apartment overlooking a marvellous park. It took me longer than that to completely end my story with J, whose rage at my abandoning him coloured another year of my life, and even sent me into six months of hiding. But at least I was finally set on some pathway, even if it was crooked, towards my Australian dream. Still, no matter how much I relished, and still do, my new country, from then on a certain darkness had settled within our love story. Some innocence had been lost. I know that, since my first years here, some laws have changed for the better. In 2014, for a recent example, the Australian parliament reintroduced temporary visas for refugees, but this time including permission to work. And yet, I still know of many people (particularly after having taught international students for some years) who live in the kind of limbo I once experienced, where susceptibility to exploitation is at its highest and desperate decisions are often made.

While it is clear the possibility for psychological, and sometimes physical, damage is rife among people who live here but aren’t permitted to work, I also wonder whether Australia gains anything from treating its potential future citizens in this way. Take me, again. Since getting that work permit, I’ve always worked and paid taxes, and have even contributed somewhat to the public life of this country as a social worker, a university educator, a writer. But without doing my time with J, I wouldn’t have managed to remain here until my work permit was finally issued.

Not that I wish to blame my past misadventures solely on the Australian Immigration Department and its mysterious (at least to me) laws. Things are never that simple. I know those romantic entanglements in my early days here didn’t happen just on the account of my lack of means. It was my nature too. I’d always been prone to risk-taking, and to handsome, somewhat dangerous men – and the ex-mafia man and J fitted with my tastes. Most likely, even if I’d been allowed to work at the time and had led a more independent existence, I’d have still had affairs with those men. But we wouldn’t have lived together. And J wouldn’t have had the same hold on me for as long. I know this, because I know how things turned out after I received my work permit – that small, dull-looking piece of paper that did more for me than I once assumed Boris, then the ex-mafia man, and then J would ever do.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 51: Fixing the System © Copyright Griffith University & the author.