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Punjabis dare to dream...in far away lands !!

Discussion in 'Hard Talk' started by Gyani Jarnail Singh, Apr 18, 2010.

  1. Gyani Jarnail Singh

    Gyani Jarnail Singh Malaysia
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    Sawa lakh se EK larraoan
    Mentor Writer SPNer Contributor

    Jul 4, 2004
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    Amandeep Singh sent out this Mail.... read and enjoy...


    Tough times for young Indians who dare to dream


    <cite>April 18, 2010</cite>

    SHE was lost in Melbourne. Slight and shy, she sat all day in the lounge room of the little house in Thomastown, watching movies or music videos.
    It wasn't meant to be this way. Eighteen months ago, Satveer Kaur Sidhu arrived in Melbourne with her husband, Dharam, to study to become a baker. To pay for it, her parents had taken out a mortgage on their farm in the rural Indian state of Punjab.
    Satveer, 22, brought with her more than a desire to cook pastries; she also carried the dreams of her family.
    Lured by the immigration system as it then stood, fanned by the promises of agents in India, Satveer hoped to win permanent residency in Australia. Indians call it PR and, for them, it means more than the right to live here - it tantalises with promises of wealth, success and a chance to help their parents escape a life of toil.
    But then came the reality. Satveer's husband, in Australia on a spouse visa, could not find work. After the murder of Indian student Nitin Garg in January, Satveer and Dharam assured their parents they would not go out at night.
    As months passed, the money their parents had given them ran out, consumed by college fees, food and rent. Sometimes, Satveer found she couldn't afford the train trip to the city. Increasingly, life was measured out by the walls of the little brick house the couple share with seven other Indian migrants in the flat, far-northern suburb of Thomastown.
    Satveer worried when she found Dharam crying in front of the television. Worst of all, she missed her baby son. Hardev Singh Sidhu was born in Melbourne in December, but when he was just three months old, Satveer's mother came and took him to live 10,000 kilometres away in Punjab. It was too hard for Satveer to care for him in the house with all the other residents, with her study and her husband's search for work.
    ''I just want to see my baby only,'' Satveer said, standing in the yellow light of the kitchen as her housemate Sim kneads the flour and water to make chapattis.
    ''I want to stay here. But I have a lot of pressure.
    ''It's very hard for me, I think for both of us, because I love my baby too much. And I want to see my baby.''
    A few days later, Satveer and Dharam suddenly flew back to India. Their housemates do not know if the couple will return. If they do not, they will have wasted tens of thousands of dollars of their parents' money and gained no qualification. If they come back, their parents will need to take out a new education loan to fund them.
    ''English countries,'' declares the hero in the Punjabi movie flickering on the TV in the corner, ''are such sweet prisons.''
    Indian students, and those finished studying and hoping to migrate permanently, drive taxis. They fill up the trains. They attend colleges, good and bad. They compete with other young people for low-wage work. They protest on the streets about violence and safety in taxis; their country's media cries ''racism''.
    They come to study - cookery, hairdressing, automotive maintenance, multimedia, accounting - but that's not why they are really here. Community leaders in Melbourne estimate that more than 80 per cent are in Australia for another prize - permanent residency.
    There are 91,440 Indian students in Australia. (About 20,000 more have finished studying and are on visas seeking permanent residency.) Almost half of these, about 45,000, live in Victoria, mostly in Melbourne.
    As Australia begins debating immigration and population, these students could be made scapegoats, accused of exploiting a loophole by entering via the ''back door''.
    Indian students desperate for permanent residency are not a popular cause, but most Australians know little about who they are and why they are here. In the Thomastown house where Satveer and Dharam have been living, the seven other Indians are getting on with their lives, hoping to build a future. They share the rent of $1600 a month for the four-bedroom house. It is cramped - there are two married couples (three, including Satveer and Dharam) and three singles - two of the men sleep in the lounge room on a double mattress, their possessions stowed in corners.
    They share food, power and phone bills. The women cook, often late, after each of them is home from work or study. They eat standing up or on their laps in the lounge room - there is no table.
    Some knew each other through friends or relatives in Punjab. Others, including Rita Babbar, the woman who brought the household together, met the rest of their housemates here.
    ''We are sharing like Indian people live together - so many people live together,'' Rita says.
    ''But it's great fun … It's very expensive [in Australia], it's a good way to manage our expenses and to enjoy our environment. We are cooking together and we make fun and we laugh; it's better to live together so you don't miss your culture … so you don't miss your families.''
    But miss them they do. ''Everyone misses India very much. Everyone. Our parents, house, friends, food,'' says Charanbir, a lawyer in his home state of Chandigarh, next to Punjab. In Australia he is studying multimedia. So painful is his homesickness that he has no photographs of his home and family with him.
    The pull of life in a foreign land is strong: ''Every boy in Punjab is crazy to go overseas,'' says Ravneet, a qualified accountant working as a taxi driver.
    The housemates are all Sikhs, as are 80 per cent of Indian students in Melbourne. They gather on Wednesdays or Sundays at the temple in Craigieburn, praying on the words of their 10 holy gurus to work hard, be honest and to honour their family.
    All but one come from Punjab, the fertile northern state that borders Pakistan, known as the ''breadbasket of India''. Their parents own farms growing wheat, vegetables, potatoes and sugar cane. In Indian terms, they are middle or upper middle class.
    Most grew up in relative luxury, in large family houses on blocks of land. They had servants to keep the house in order and to work the farm. Traditionally, one family member, usually the father, worked to keep the women, parents and other relatives at leisure.
    But in Punjab now, living costs are growing and farm incomes are not. Some Indians in Australia could return to comfort if they chose, but others come from smaller farms no longer able to support the number of people living there.
    In a state with 28 million people crowding in to just over 50,000 square kilometres (an area smaller than Tasmania) jobs are hard to find, no matter how well qualified the applicant.
    The Punjabi government's response has been to build more educational institutions, turning out ever better-qualified unemployed people.
    ''In Punjab, every time a job is advertised, 100 people try for it,'' says Phulvander Jit Singh Grewal, the president of the Craigieburn Gurdwara, or Sikh temple, where today in the Sikh calendar's most significant celebration, 16,000 will gather to worship.
    The Punjabi land shortage pushed up property prices. So, to give their families a chance, parents take a risk: they borrow against their farm to send their children to countries such as Australia, Canada, Britain and the US. The poorer ones sell the farm entirely.
    Parents entrust their children to agents, and overwhelmingly to Melbourne's vocational colleges, which charge fees of $12,000 to $15,000 a year for two-year diplomas.
    An Australian qualification has always been highly regarded in India - it demonstrates initiative and experience. Some take their certificates back home, hoping it will put them on a merit list for an elusive job.
    The trend of Indian students travelling abroad to study is decades old, but it really took off in Australia in 2001. The Howard government decided to allow foreign graduates to win permanent residency as skilled migrants without first returning home. There was no skills test required and only a minimal English test.
    ''Punjabis and potatoes,'' says one student, ''are in every country in the world.'' Punjabis have done well in England, Canada and the US. But Australia's rush to bring in labour to feed an economic boom meant the door to Down Under was suddenly wide open. Then in 2005, students arrived in unprecedented numbers and an entire industry sprang up, fed by education agents in Punjab.
    The agents, paid by Australian colleges for every student recruited, spin stories of luxury and success. They talk up the ease of migration and tell prospective students their living costs will be covered by working.
    Rarely is this true. Under immigration laws, international students can work only 20 hours a week. Jobs are often hard to find and employers can pay as little as $3 or $4 an hour, sometimes nothing.
    Usually, the students' parents end up paying the living expenses as well as the college fees. Over the typical two-year duration of a course, this amounts to about $45,000.
    Only affluent parents can afford to send their children and, for those from smaller farms, it is big money.
    Many students arrive with barely adequate funds, are shocked at the cost of living, and find themselves in trouble. The Craigieburn temple serves students in Melbourne's northern and western suburbs, and Grewal hears many stories of hardship. The temple helps students financially, feeds whoever comes, and even gives people a bed if they need one.
    But despite these difficulties, students keep coming.
    Compared with India, unemployment in Australia is low and services are good. Unlike India, corruption is minimal. Hard work can bring success, even riches. Charanbir chose Australia rather than Canada or Britain because he already had relatives living here.
    In the Thomastown house, it is clear another incentive has brought the students to Australia - a cultural obligation for children to support their parents. In Punjab, that is increasingly hard to do. There is something elemental too - the desire for adventure, to be one of the chosen who get to see the world, to conquer new territory.
    ''It's a genetic disorder,'' says Charanbir.
    "They are proud being here. In India, the population is 1 billion … We are only 100,000 people here. I feel I am lucky here because I can get a good education.''
    They have seen older migrants from Punjab go to Western countries and come back to India for holidays, trailing ostentatious riches. Ravneet tells of a relative who has lived in Australia for seven or eight years, who started driving taxis, but ''now he have a taxi on a lease, earning good money''.
    Too often, though, the dream turns to sand. ''[I had a] different picture in mind,'' says Dharam, through Ravneet. ''We think very good country. Big country, job there … but this is tough thing. We can't find a job anywhere.''
    Melbourne's far northern and western suburbs are dotted with households like this one - full to overflowing with struggling people.
    Until February 8, they at least had their dream. It was shattered when Immigration Minister Chris Evans changed the rules. In what amounted to retrospective legislation for those who had paid to study in Australia with hopes for a permanent visa, Evans said skills such as cookery and hairdressing would no longer qualify students for permanent residency. He said he would announce a new skills list, although it has not yet been released. The gossip swirling around the Indian community is that April 30 will be the day.
    People who have already spent money on courses under the old rules are in limbo. Demographer Bob Birrell estimates that up to 45,000 Indian people in Victoria are stuck.
    Ravneet, 24, comes from the wealthy upper echelons of Punjabi society: his father is a senior manager in a bank; his brother runs the family farm. He studied accountancy, and wants to open his own accountancy business, but he must wait for a visa. Like many accounting students, he has been unable to find a job - his English is fine for conversation, but is heavily accented.
    To ''pass time'', he has joined the ranks of Punjabi taxi drivers. He works seven-day weeks. ''It's not a good job,'' he says, miserably. ''No status.''
    ''He loves money too much,'' jokes housemate Rita.
    Rita is the lucky one, and doubly unusual. She is a single woman in a community dominated by men and married women. She is here because she has no father or brother and, as the eldest girl, she must provide for her mother and sister in India.
    She already has permanent residency and has applied to become a citizen. She came three years ago under a visa that no longer exists, as a skilled migrant, to practise hairdressing.
    It took just days after her arrival to reveal the absurdity of the system. Even though she had come as a ''skilled'' migrant to cater for a supposed shortage of hairdressers, no Australian salon would give her a job because she only had Indian qualifications. So she started working in factories.
    Now she works up to 20 hours a week at Target, and is able to send a small amount of money back to her mother. She is saving up for an Australian hairdressing course.
    ''Many people come on a permanent visa, and they have very good qualifications, but they are doing very small jobs, like cleaning and car wash and dishwashing and all that things,'' Rita says. ''Some are saying like, if we have a skill then why we do this sort of jobs?''
    She knows that her prospects in Australia are still better than at home: ''In India was not very financially strong. I was knowing that if I go to any foreign country, I can work where the ladies are having more work opportunities … here the ladies can work anywhere.''
    In the house, her status as a single woman means she has a room of her own, and she is protective of her space, her house and her housemates.
    Charanbir, 27, is the eldest son of a farming family. He is now studying multimedia at the private Cambridge International College. Until the government axed the program, he and a group of mates also worked as insulation installers.
    In India, Swaranjeet Kaur is also from a good family, with a father in the army. She graduated in commerce and has postgraduate qualifications in computer applications. The 30-year-old came here a year ago to study cookery and hospitality management but lost about $4000, and precious time, when her college, the Australian Institute of Career Education, shut down in March - one of 14 to have gone bust over the past six months. She too has a child living with parents in India. He is 8½ years old and it is 18 months since she previously saw him. Asked if it is worth being away from her son, Swaranjeet says, ''sometimes''.
    The defunct college, like others, failed to keep proper records, including records of the exams Swaranjeet had paid for and passed. When she finds a new college, she will have to pay again.
    ''It's really bad. Me and my friends are angry,'' Swaranjeet says.
    Her husband, Tarlochan, 34, speaks no English and, like the other husbands in the house, struggles to find work. He sometimes sits around for a month waiting for a factory job to come up.
    Swaranjeet had a job in India, and Tarlochan had a small business, so it is possible for them to return their old life.
    But the lure of Australia is strong.
    ''India is best: my country. But I would prefer to stay [in Australia]. It's a good country … Lifestyle, it's good over here. The system is very good. You go to office, work, transport system really very good here,'' Swaranjeet says.
    Manpreet Singh, 27, and his wife Sim, 26, are newly-weds. Their bliss is palpable as they show their wedding DVD full of bearded men in turbans, and women carrying candles on their heads.
    In the Punjabi style, they met for the first time on their wedding day, the marriage arranged by a matchmaker and approved by their parents. It was mid-2009, and Sim was already studying multimedia in Australia. She flew back to India for the wedding. Just 20 days later, she left her new husband to return to Australia. Manpreet followed six months later on a spouse visa.
    She has now been awarded her certificate in multimedia and ''now, if all goes well, I can go for PR''.
    Manpreet finds work where he can, most recently as a cleaner. But competition is tough, and employers sometimes unscrupulous. Early on, he worked for two weeks delivering Yellow Pages, and was to be paid for each book delivered. He says he never received the $150 promised.
    Sim's deft hand at cooking fills the surprisingly large kitchen with the aromas of home.
    ''Most of the house looked after by the ladies,'' says Swaranjeet. ''We don't hand over the kitchen. We love to cook.''
    This is the daily conversation at Thomastown. Missing home, day-to-day struggles, the quality of colleges, the behaviour of employers, the lack of government help in finding jobs, and the lack of public transport concessions. The big one, though, is immigration, not racial violence.
    The January 2 stabbing death of Nitin Garg in Cruickshank Park reserve brought world attention to attacks on Indian students, even though it was the 12th assault against Indians in Melbourne since January 2008.
    Within a fortnight of arriving in Australia last year, Dharam was working at a car wash when a group of ''Aussie'' boys and girls mocked his turban, chased him and pushed him, shouting at him in a language he couldn't understand. He was forced to flee, to seek help from someone at the nearby train station.
    Rita says violence does not worry her, but she has heard the bad language and seen the threatening behaviour of teenagers at train stations.
    Gill, a Punjabi immigrant resident in Australia since 1983, employs some of the household and rattles off stories about violent incidents against Indians. ''Everyone kicking us like a football, just about everywhere,'' he says.
    For Rita, the real impact has been on her mother and sister in India: ''They always tell 'Don't go at night; I've heard the news. Don't go outside at night.' They are worried,'' she says. ''Every parent is very sensitive.''
    Though it is not their top issue, violence has narrowed their lives. Their parents' insistence that they stay safe hems them in to the house at night.
    The housemates carefully manage the information they give their parents, so as not to worry them. But the violence has failed to dim their desire to stay. It's just ''drunk teenagers'', says Charanbir. Every country has a racist element, ''just 10 per cent, 5 per cent''.
    Punjabis are proud and tough. They have a long history of success at contact sports such as wrestling and the indigenous team-wrestling game kabaddi. They served at the front line in the British and Indian armies. Their religion tells them not to strike back at first - but they will not be punching bags. They resent being told by police to ''act poor'', or that they are ''soft targets''. But they rarely complain. They fear that a complaint to police or other authorities, even a court case, will ruin their chances of a permanent visa.
    ''If I talk in a bad manner to any person, he give a call to the police,'' says Ravneet, his housemates nodding in agreement, ''and I can't get PR [permanent residency] in future if have a police call.''
    Immigration Minister Chris Evans's February announcement of new restrictions to the system has left thousands in limbo. Many already here will be granted another two years' grace to find an employer sponsor. If they can't find one, they will have to go home.
    Most politicians and commentators hailed the changes as long overdue, but for students they were devastating.
    Tim Singh Laurence, a Darebin councillor, says that the combined effect of violence and visa changes has created the impression in India that, ''Australia is anti-Indian, that we are drifting back to the White Australia policy''.
    The migration agents who only six months ago were recruiting young people to study in Australia are now channelling people to Canada, which has 1.2 million Indians, including four Punjab-born members of parliament. ''Go on study visa and get PR of [sic] Canada," shouts one advertisement in the Australian-published Punjabi paper, Indo Times. ''Direct PR of Canada from Australia.''
    Meanwhile, the students in the house are preoccupied with finding and keeping jobs to ease the burden on their parents. Some employers have noticed.
    At car washes around Melbourne's suburbs, students are paid $10 an hour - but these days, that's only paid for time actually spent washing cars. Workers are told to log on when a car drives up, log off when it leaves.
    Dharam worked all day when he first arrived. He was paid just $10. Others work in kitchens, pizza shops, or deliver pamphlets for pitiful sums. Still they will take these jobs, says Laurence, because ''they are in survival mode''. ''Everyone is getting the chance to rip off these students,'' says Grewal. ''I have heard if you need work experience, for a cookery course the employer is charging $3000 to $4000.
    ''These days if you apply for temporary residency, you have to show a certificate that you have worked at one place for the last year. I have heard that people are charging money for that certificate.''
    The Thomastown housemates know these scams well. ''Everyone is taking advantage,'' says Charanbir. Ravneet says the answer lies in permanent residency - then they will have full rights and protections.
    ''Everybody goes to the Gurdwara on Sunday, and they all pray: please God help us to settle here.''
    In the days before Satveer and Dharam returned to India, Satveer was in turmoil. Should she return permanently to her baby, and the poor prospects in India? Or stick it out in Australia, hoping Dharam would find a job, and she would gain permanent residency.
    ''My mind is changing all the time, every day,'' she said. ''Very confused. I want to stay here and I want a job here. Do another course. But also I want to go to India and see my baby.''
    Staying felt like torture. Going home felt like failure: ''He feels like he wasted two years in his life. And she too, wasted,'' says Ravneet.
    Different versions of this predicament are being experienced by thousands of Indian students. Some people may say that no one forced them to come, but the facts are that Australia actively encouraged them to pay exorbitant fees to study at local vocational colleges, then failed to ensure they weren't exploited or provided with substandard education. Now, after enduring years of hardship and homesickness so as not to disappoint their families who have sacrificed everything for them, Australia has changed the rules, withdrawn the prize and is sending most of them home. Dreams dashed, futures uncertain.
    ''Recent changes are bad for us,'' says Ravneet the accountant, sitting in his down-at-heel lounge room on the mattress that doubles as a sofa. ''The student scheme from overseas is very, very hard.''
    - Some names have been changed at the request of individuals.

    Amandeep Singh
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