"I turned my childhood negative experiences into a strong sense of solidarity".
Country of Origin: Spain.
Occupation: Historian and Social Researcher. State of residency: Victoria. Favourite place in Australia: The Australian bush, it gives me a strong sense of belonging. Biggest surprise when arriving to Australia: the sense of endless space I found in this country.
By Cristy Abela
Rafaela is a generous and clever historian and social researcher. She started working as a volunteer in the late 1970s and has not stopped since then. She has also worked for the Boy Scouts, the first Women’s refugee in Victoria and the Spanish Latin American Welfare Centre. In 2011 she wrote the first book on the contributions and history of Spaniards and Latin Americans in Victoria (who arrived since 1901) titled “Origenes”. For her contributions to the local community, in 2017, she was inducted to the Victorian Honour Roll of Women; becoming the first woman of Spanish-speaking background to be inducted.
Contributions to Victoria
Helped establish the Foundation House, an organisation committed to supporting refugees who have experienced torture and trauma.
Advocate for an increase in support services for refugees beginning a new life in Australia.
Community support and welfare area (I guess you can call it social capital) in the Melbourne metropolitan area.
Tell us your story
I arrived in Australia with my parents and 5 siblings in March 1963. My father made the decision to come here given the economic and political situation in Spain at the time. My first few years in this country were very difficult. There were no special English classes for recently arrived migrants so I was simply placed in the classroom. It was very tough as the other children thought (and some of the teachers too) that if you did not speak English you were stupid. I decided to leave school at 16 after having encountered many bad personal experiences that would shock everyone if they hear them.
After working in a couple of odd jobs including for example, making the very Australian “pie”, sewing women’s and men’s underwear and in retail shops, I eventually returned to study and completed a B.A. with major in History and Anthropology. These studies opened up new areas of work and even helped me land roles in the honorary consulates of Venezuela and Spain.
From the mid 1970’s there was large scale immigration from Latin America, mainly refugees from Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and El Salvador. So the Executive Committee of the Spanish Latin American Welfare Centre (CELAS – now renamed UNITED) was established in 1977. I was aware of its creation, but at the time I was enjoying the birth of my first child. I joined CELAS in 1983 when my second child was 3 years old. At that time I was the president and we decided to set-up a community support group aimed at helping refugees who have had traumatic experiences settling in Australia. We got support and funds from the Immigration Department’s Community Refugee Settlement Scheme. The demand from clients with experiences of torture and trauma grew and there were no appropriate services for people with these experiences in Victoria. Our support group evolved into an organization then called The Foundation for Victims of Torture and Trauma. At the time the organization operated with the support of a number of psychologists and counsellors from mainly Spanish-speaking backgrounds who worked, in the early stages, in a voluntary capacity. Eventually the organization obtained funding from The Myer Foundation and later on from the Health Department. Today, this organization is known as Foundation House – The Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture and Trauma. It employs over 200 people and has a number of Centres in Melbourne and rural Victoria where they offer full services to people from all backgrounds, and not just refugees but also to Australians who have worked in work zones and suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
I have done a whole lot of other work. I have worked in International Education, in Allied Health, Aged Care Programs and social research in general. I also worked for the Boys Scouts and in the area of family violence in the first Women’s Refugee in Victoria – WLHH. I have had a number of publications on the Spanish-speaking community, including the first book (2002) about the history of Spaniards and Latin American in Victoria titled "ORIGENES – The Presence and Contribution of Victorians of Spanish and Latin American Origins 1901-2001". In 2001, I was awarded the Federation Medal for services to the community, and in 2017 I was inducted into the Victorian Honour roll of women.
Family photo in 1963 shortly after arrival.
The White Australian Policy - Australia was a very different world in the 1960s, there was a demand for assimilation, not just integration. This was a very difficult challenge for all migrants as your culture was not respected.
Migrating as a child - Even though it was not my decision to come to Australia, and despite my first 8 years in this country were very difficult, now I am very glad that I live here. I am glad I turned my childhood negative experiences into a strong sense of solidarity which has driven me to assist recent arrivals and refugees, to settle successfully in Melbourne.
Sense of community - I grew-up in Getafe, a small town 13 kms south of Madrid. It was a place where neighbors were like extended family and children were looked after by everyone but also where independence was not seen as a value (as it is in Australia). I believe that "sense of community" is a value that has also driven my sense of social connection and my responses to the community.
Political changes - The changes that were introduced in the 1970s in this country, such as the end of the White Australia Policy, the embracing of Multiculturalism and the Non-discrimination policies and legislation have created a society that ensures that these values are practiced and maintained.
Piece of adviCe
Call it out - There is no such a thing as a perfect society, so no matter in what country you find yourself, if you experience or see an injustice don’t look the other way.
Offer a hand or make a stand - Paraphrasing the poet John Donne “No human being is an Island”. There is so much you can contribute in whatever area you choose. Get out of your comfort zone and offer a hand to someone who needs it or make a stand. We all need each other.
In the NEXT few years...
Rafaela wants to continue contributing to the community she lives in (the Australian Spanish-speaking community and the Australian Community in general). She hopes to be able to contribute to the establishment of Residential Facilities for Older Victorians of Spanish-speaking background as she believes we are an ageing community and we need to respond to this growing need. She plans to continue travelling through Australia and enjoying her time with her grandchildren. If you wish to contact Rafaela email us at firstname.lastname@example.org