Maryaan, a former anaesthetist from Iraq, talks about overcoming the barriers to finding work in Australia and the importance of mental health in workplace OH&S training.
Maryaan is a health educator at the Multicultural Women’s Health Organisation, a project officer at the Murdoch Institute researching antenatal care for new migrants, and a Migrant Workers Centre Multicultural Safety Ambassador. Across these roles, she spends her time educating and supporting newly arrived migrants – drawing on her own experience and challenges coming to Australia from Iraq.
Maryaan had lived in Iraq her whole life and worked as an obstetrics anaesthetist at a hospital. But because of war, she was suddenly forced to leave her home.
“It wasn’t my choice, I left the country within 3 days,” she recalls.
From Iraq, Maryaan – who was also pregnant at the time - went to Syria with her husband and two sons. From Syria, her family applied for visas to come to Australia where Maryaan had relatives.
She describes what it was like coming to Melbourne, “Once I arrived here I found Melbourne is a very beautiful city. I love everything here but life was hard.”
Despite her university qualifications and years of experience, there were barriers to employment. Small things she hadn’t considered, like the job application process was different. “After a few months I started looking for a job. I called a few hospitals and pharmacies to say I have this qualification … but someone told me you have to do a resume and cover letter … there is nothing like that [in Iraq]. So I had to start from zero here. I tried to find some people to help me with my resume and cover letter.”
Maryaan Essa, Source: Migrant Workers Centre
But she says language was the biggest challenge. “For me especially – English is my third language. I grew up in a town where we all talk Assyrian, and then when we go to school we start learning Arabic and then English.” Even though Maryaan had studied English, the different accent in Australia made things difficult.
Moreover, when Maryaan started looking for work and going to interviews, she was told her accent was a problem despite being able to speak English. “That was a shock for me because I didn’t think there was so much racism here. I faced so much racism as well - even at school with my kids - because once they notice you’re not Australian, some people will just hang up or not talk to us.”
Another common barrier for migrants is employers looking for local work experience. Reflecting both on her own experience and on stories she’s heard running community information sessions, Maryaan says, “We have so many qualified people - doctors, engineers… but because their degrees are not recognised here, some of them will start working with Uber or pizza delivery or small jobs.”
In the end, Maryaan went back to study for a while and also sought support from Foundation House – an organisation assisting new migrants. She did training at West Justice Community Legal Centre on employment law and employment rights for people coming to Australia and went on to lead information sessions for the community. This experience helped her get a job at the Multicultural Women’s Health Organisation running sessions for new migrants on women’s health as well as issues such as gambling and workers’ rights.
“I didn’t expect they would accept me but I still remember that day when the manager called me and she said we accepted you. And I said, you just made my day.”
Running these sessions gave Maryaan insight into the difficult experiences of new migrants in the workforce.
“I’ve heard so many people from my community or other communities that are facing a lot of problems at work but they don’t know their rights - like wage theft or no leave or [their employer] just said to them ‘stop working here you can’t come to work anymore’ … Some of them reported they never received wages. The boss will steal from them up to $2,000 to $3,000."
“The other thing is I know lots of people who are working but they’re not getting the right pay … they will do the same job as [other] people there but [their employer] will pay them less.”
Maryaan also says many people don’t realise they don’t have to continue working if there’s a safety issue. “It’s their right to say, ‘no I can’t work on this machine or this thing because it’s dangerous,’ - that’s the simplest thing they don’t know.”
Maryaan leading an OH&S info session as part of the multicultural safety ambassador's program. Source: Migrant Workers Centre
Beyond an immediate understanding of workplace law though, mental health is a common problem for migrant workers who are facing not only the pressures of finding work but also racism and unfair treatment. She says, “they will tell me about discrimination or violence at workplaces - it makes them feel bad. They don’t know what to do. Some of them stop working ... So I think it’s important to let people know about all those issues because those will affect their mental health as well - it’s not just their salary or their safety at work. Some people feel sad, lonely - they don’t talk about it. By that time they feel depression – which is a very common problem. That’s why we have to look after our mental health as well at work places.”
Even when community services exist, accessing them as a migrant can be difficult when there’s a language barrier or power imbalance between you and your employer.
“I’ve seen people who were paid $8 per hour and I’ve referred them to community legal centres but they were afraid to go there because they say ‘I can’t speak English’. Even if I say to them they’ve got interpreters, they will say ‘I’m afraid because if my boss knows I reported them, they will stop me from working.’”
"And I say to them, ‘look there’s this Migrant Workers Centre you can go to …' I tell them they have […] resources, they have people inside the Migrant Workers Centre who can speak Arabic and lots of people were surprised because they didn’t know that.”
But echoing the sentiments of the other Multicultural Safety Ambassadors, Maryaan agrees it’s hearing about your rights from someone who has similar lived experience that’s the most empowering thing.
“Every single session, when I start I say to them ‘I am Maryaan Essa, I was a doctor back home,’ so they start trusting me. Then I say to them, ‘I’m a migrant woman just like you. I came here, I faced those issues but now I’m okay. I know my rights. I have work experience I started with a few things and step by step I got this job.'"
“Through the sessions that I’m doing – some will come after the session or even in front of the other people they will say, 'I have this problem but I have no idea how to deal with it or I didn’t know that my pay should be this amount of money…' Especially women, they say to me, you really empowered us today.”