The value of being employed

I first met Selam* at Mu’ooz Eritrean restaurant two years ago (before I rejoined SVA). Through difficulties of the language and cultural barriers, she had managed to serve me water, offered me coffee and mopped the floor around me before we both realised that she was the person I’d come to meet.

She was applying for an interest free loan through my St. Vincent de Paul contact to bring her three nieces and nephew to Australia. The airfare was $7538 with fortnightly repayments to be $145. We went to the Commonwealth bank next door to organise the repayments from her bank account – and it was then that I realised that Selam could not read, which is something we have never discussed to this day.

Selam was sending money back every month to the four orphaned children and somehow she had arranged care, accommodation and living money for them in Ethiopia. Selam, a single lady, was working three jobs to make ends meet. Her favourite job was at Mu’ooz** where she worked on Friday and Saturday nights and the highlight was, and still is, the Eritrean coffee ceremony for restaurant guests. Selam received her first training and certificate in hospitality at Mu’ooz. She had been personally supported by Saba Abraham, the founder of Mu’ooz and the Eritrean Woman and Family Support Network.

Selam was trained in kitchen duties, cleaning, clearing tables, setting tables and best of all, coffee.

The ceremonial coffee ritual includes the actual roasting of the green beans over charcoal, grinding, filtering, wafting incense and aromas over guests and the pouring of syrupy coffee into a teeny cup. It is a feature of the restaurant.

Back then, Selam was also doing a cleaning job “most days” between 11 and 3pm. Her employer called her while we were meeting and verbally abused her for not being there on time. Her other cleaning job was one that started at 5pm to 12am. She was exhausted. She has a bad knee which gives her pain and causes limping, goitre problems and severe asthma acquired, she thinks, from contact with cleaning products.

Last week, I visited Salem at her home and she smilingly served me ceremonial coffee to celebrate that she has paid the $7538 loan off without a hitch. There has been no Centrelink support for the children. The house is spotless. The children have been schooled. They are happy, settled and actively involved in Brisbane, doing dancing, soccer and part-time jobs. Now they are telling their aunt, “Auntie, we want to look after you. We will work instead of you”.

“No,” she laughs. “I want to work. I love it. I love meeting people. I want to be helpful. I want to be able to look after my children. I want them to be educated properly.”

Selam has a new job now. She gets paid $25.30 per hour to clean at the hospital. She gets there at 4.30am in the morning to start at 6am because she can get the free car park at that time and can’t get to the hospital otherwise. She sleeps in her car. They can’t give her definite days. Sometimes it’s two days a week. Sometimes it’s five days a week. She was hospitalised for three days and off work for a while after she fell down the stairs at the last employer’s workplace. Her face was smashed. The employer gave her three weeks extra pay and lots of forms to fill out. “It was too complicated,” she said and she didn’t get any compensation. “The hospital is a good place to work but I have liked working at Mu’ooz the best.”

Many people in Australia face similar challenges to Selam but few have her resilience or get the support of a place like Mu’ooz. It affects me deeply to be considered a friend of Selam and to see how she deals with the adversity she has been dealt. I leave her house feeling inspired, happy and thankful for the lucky life I have and my current SVA job which supports and finances social enterprises that help others like Selam.

* Not her real name
** Mu’ooz is one of 16 social enterprises currently supported by SVA.