When the pandemic hit last year in Newcastle, it was one of the scariest moments in my life. I remember randomly calling my Mum in Kentucky while I was at work, pacing the floor and choking back sobs. I was afraid it would be hard, very hard, to come home.
This was before all flights were suspended and the mandatory quarantines were introduced. A feeling of uncertainty has plagued me ever since.
I know I'm not the only one. I interviewed four other people from overseas living in Newcastle to learn more about how the last year has been for them.
Sometimes the response of the Australian government, it surprises me. It's like you're having a big huge bat to kill a mozzie.Bhavna Chilaka
Bhavna Chilaka moved from Bangalore, India, to Australia five-and-a-half years ago to complete her master's degree. She chose to study at the University of Newcastle because her sister already lived here. Now, she works for the university.
This time two years ago was the last time she went home to see her family. Every year she typically spent at least six weeks with them. This is the longest she's ever gone without them.
Fortunately her parents never had COVID and are soon due for their second vaccine jab. They were there to look after her young niece and nephew (twins) when her brother and his wife caught COVID. When her brother caught it, he was quite ill. Chilaka and her sister felt helpless in Newcastle while it was happening.
"Not being able to be with the family or take care of them. These are the times you really want to stay with them and support them," she says.
"We also missed the twins' first birthday."
She thinks that, overall, India has done well managing the pandemic, particularly as it is a developing economy. People had a firm belief in the government and obeyed the laws. She said India did a hardcore, draconian lockdown, but the country was adaptable, particularly with their technical capital.
"Especially in cities like Bangalore, the shop would deal everything via Google Pay, so they're very tech savvy," Chilaka says. "It brought the pollution levels down."
She thinks, realistically, her home country will be back to normal in mid-2022 at least. But she doesn't know when she'll get there as going home also depends on Australia's border situation.
"Sometimes the response of the Australian government, it surprises me. It's like you're having a big huge bat to kill a mozzie. It was a bit extreme," she says of Australia's COVID policy.
She knows she, and most people in Australia, are fortunate. She can't imagine how Australians stranded overseas are making ends meet. She would go home sooner if she could, but she has to be patient - and have patience that her family in India will be sensible.
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"Friends help. You can be with each other and there is a sense of belonging, but you are still not getting to the core of the problem. It's a distraction. Everything that you try to do is a temporary distraction and you are hoping this is only for a short period," Chilaka says.
"I am always changing the definition of what a short period is."
Thirty-three-year-old Federico Barretto is an industrial designer from Argentina. He found, surprisingly, the pandemic made his life easier. He's originally from Iguaz, a small town by a waterfall which borders Paraguay and Brazil. He arrived in Australia two years ago on a working holiday visa. This time last year he was living out of the YHA in town.
"I remember the quarantine. It was the 29th of March, and I started work on the 16th. I got a professional job here," he says.
His company is involved in mining and he stayed busy.
"I have friends, even Australian friends, working in hospitality, they lost their jobs. Hospitality work was really bad," he says.
Because of the pandemic, he was unable to go home when his work visa expired, as there were no flights to South America. He applied for a special COVID visa. He wasn't eligible for JobKeeper or JobSeeker, but he was able to continue working with his employer.
"I was like 'I need to be focused now. I don't know when I will be able to go back'."
He knew if he went home he might never return to Australia.
Barretto's brother is in Brazil, and he talks to his parents in Argentina every week. At the time of this interview, his grandmother has COVID.
"She's in the house," he says. "The last time I talked to my Mum, they said 'There's not enough room in the hospital'."
The decision to go home would be a hard one to make.
"The only way I'd go back if something happened with my Mum," he says.
He's hoping he'll find a way to get sponsored when his COVID visa ends. His life here is very different to his life in Argentina where protests and riots are common and he went to university while also working two jobs.
"It's not society, it's the system. We got 45 per cent inflation last year. Here it was 1 per cent," Barretto says.
Newcastle is less stressful. In Argentina, he was 16 before he saw the ocean. Now he lives in front of it.
"Thank you, Newcastle, for the opportunity to live my dream," he says.
Katy Gray, 32, is from Pennsylvania in the United States. She's lived in Australia for six years and almost four in Newcastle. She loves this city and the beach. She works in mental health and she and her partner Jed are six months pregnant with their first child.
"This time a year ago we were planning our wedding. We were going to America in May and then we were going to travel the west coast of the US and go to Bali and maybe Japan," she says.
"It was definitely a conflicting time because it was still so uncertain what the future might look like."
Their plane tickets were booked, but they called it off in March. They skipped the marriage to save money and are now looking to buy a house.
She said the decision to have a baby in the middle of COVID was partly because they couldn't travel and they didn't have a lot else to do.
"For the longest time I kept on saying 'two more years, two more years'. It was never going to be the right time," she says.
"I don't think I thought long term. I didn't think COVID would last this long; I didn't think I'd fall pregnant so quickly either."
All of her family in the States are healthy, at least physically. A few family members caught COVID, with no serious complications. Gray worries about their mental health though.
"It's quite stressful on the family. My Grandmother is still alive, in her early 90s and she lives with my Aunt. She comes to my parents' house three times a week. It's been conflicting on how to go about COVID precautions," Gray says.
"Then when it coincided with the election, it was explosive."
Politics isn't something her family usually talks about, but last year they couldn't avoid it because it determined so much about life. Her father and her brother had a falling out, and Gray thinks it's been emotionally and financially hard on her mum; she lost one of her jobs.
Gray is the first sibling in the family to have children.
"I didn't tell them for a while. It wasn't something I looked forward to doing because I knew it would bring about convoluted emotions," Gray says. "It was a bit awkward telling them."
Her family would prefer her to live in the States, but she thinks the pandemic has opened their eyes to why Australia has a better lifestyle. Sometimes she's out and about when she FaceTimes them, and they can't believe people don't have to wear masks.
"They can't argue that America is better. Before when I tried to advocate for a life in Australia, I think it came across quite personally. They thought I was choosing Australia over them," Gray says.
She loves, respects and admires her mother.
"I want her and I need her here. I don't really think I have a strong maternal instinct, so there is some self-doubt. I feel like with her guidance I would feel way more confident," Gray says.
She's gone through several breakdowns during the pandemic not knowing when she'll be able to hug her parents again. Her grandmother has deteriorated due to lockdowns and she's coming to terms with the fact that she might not get to see her again.
"You realise how precious life is," Gray says.
Once she can leave, she'll be on the first plane back to the US to see her family.
"The goal is to go back before the kid turns two; I think that's a realistic goal," Gray says.
"I spoke to my Mum this morning and she said they are planning on trying to come in January. I am still hopeful."
Thirty-one-year-old Taye Falodun of Lagos, Nigeria, arrived in Newcastle in June 2019 to work for a global accountancy firm. He's wanted to live in Australia since he watched the 2000 Olympics. This is his first time living overseas.
"It's been a bit tough, but not too tough. My first plan to travel was actually in June 2020, but I got my ticket in December 2019," Falodun says.
He purchased tickets early last year to go home in June but at that point everyone was in lockdown.
"I thought, 'Oh well, by December 2020 I should be able to travel'. It's not looking lucky any time soon," he says.
Falodun has family in Nigeria, the US and the UK, and for over a year he hasn't been able to see any of them. But he talks with them regularly. Fortunately he doesn't know anyone who has had the virus.
He had a bit of culture shock when he first arrived in Newcastle but it's been a good experience. He likes his colleagues. For most of the pandemic he's worked from home. Before, he attended Hillsong Church, but during lockdowns he attended an online church in Lagos. Eventually he will go back to Hillsong, he says, as it's nice to have the physical connection.
"The virus has affected the global economy and in Nigeria too. At the start there was a lockdown, some people had to stay back home, some people couldn't go to work," Falodun says.
"Some people depend on working daily."
When the virus first hit he was worried about it spreading in Lagos with its large population. He found Nigeria wasn't as badly affected as other parts of the world. It did creep in though, and people have died.
He knows people want to go out.
"Thankfully there's a vaccine; people are taking the vaccine," he says.
He's had two flights cancelled but he's not giving up. His Emirates voucher expires in 2022, so he'll try to go home again in December.
"I think it all depends on how fast or how effective vaccines are. If most populations get it and the efficacy is established, that would be good," Falodun says.
"If that happens, I guess I'll be on the first flight home just to see them for two or three weeks, and then come back."
In different ways, I can relate to all the stories. Like Falodun, I have spent lots of time working from home. Like Chilaka, I completely understand the continuous search for distractions, while never being able to address the real problem. Like Barretto, I often can't believe how lucky I am to continue to work in this country. Like Gray, I worry extensively about my family in the US; they went through a lot this year. We're all so lucky to live and work here, but this is not our home.
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