Betelhem’s Story

Betelhem’s acceptance into Australia has been a lengthy and traumatic process, but despite the hardships she’s faced – including the circumstances that forced her to leave Ethiopia by boat suddenly in 2013 – she says, “resilience and determination have helped me survive in my new life here”.
Before leaving Ethiopia, Betelhem was about to graduate from her three-year accounting degree. She had seen, first-hand, the financial struggles many local farmers there faced and her plan to be an accountant included working with farmers like her father, to help them manage their own farming livelihoods.
Instead, after an explosion at her university, Betelhem spent six days on a boat heading for Australia. Her dreams of what she believed would be a new life in a safe country came crashing down in the grim reality of detention – and the professional career she had worked so hard for seemed even further away.

Living in a tent outdoors as the sole Ethiopian in the offshore detention community on Nauru was, Betelhem says, “the worst experience of my life”.

Without any knowledge of English, Betelhem could not understand where she was, how long she might be there, or when she would ever live a ‘normal’ life again. She spent two years there until she was brought onshore to Brisbane, where she remained detained. Another two years passed before she was finally freed into the community. Betelhem says, “I was happy, but I was so sad as well, I had no friends, no family, and I had been through so much”.

She stayed in Brisbane for twelve months, working in a factory while studying her way through six different certificate qualifications, as well as obtaining her driving license. But Betelhem craved connections to her Ethiopian heritage and wanted to get as far away from her detention centre memories as possible.
That new life she’d hoped for, she decided, would be lived in Melbourne.

Discovering the ASRC was a defining moment. The team at the ASRC helped her create a polished CV she could present to Australian employers, and also helped her access networks that could help her deal with her past. She also started to work with the Advocacy & Campaigns team to build a presence as a human rights activist and become a speaker sharing her experience and knowledge about the refugee plight in Australia.

Accounting, Betelhem says, “is still in my heart”. For now, though, in her role as a ticket collector at a public transport company in Melbourne, she loves the multicultural environment the workplace offers her, as well as the support she has enjoyed from the management she describes as “kind and understanding”.

“When you have a job, you are a human being. In detention, people called me by my number. Now they use my name,” Betelhem says.
There is still so much she wants to do and is frustrated that the limitations of her visa make it a struggle.

“Every five months, when it’s time to apply for my visa again, I panic and wonder if I will get approved and will be able to keep my job – but my hope carries me through,” she says. “I work hard, pay my taxes and I have dreams. Refugees don’t want to be refugees. They want a home and a chance to succeed. For so long, I was like a little bird, with my wings beating and beating, looking for a branch to land on and feel safe. Work is such an important part of that security but more employers need to understand our situation, to really make positive change for people like me.”

Betelhem is the perfect example of a phoenix reborn from its ashes. Her determination to become a leader fighting for her rights and for others seeking asylum, despite the difficulties, has become an inspiration for many of her followers. She is hopeful that she’ll find an opportunity to rebuild her life with the certain a permanent visa could bring, and hopefully with future job opportunities that reflect her growth as a human rights activist and a professional.

If you empathise with Betelhem’s story and you want to find out tips and ways to make the workforce more welcoming for refugees, fill out the form and download the resource.

You can also get in touch through the form by leaving a message of welcome for Betelhem.

Pledge Your Name to Welcome Refugees
Into the Workforce

The ASRC would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people of the Kulin Nation as traditional owners and custodians of the land on which the ASRC stands. We acknowledge that the land was never ceded and we pay our respect to them, their customs, their culture, to elders past and present and to their emerging leaders.

This landing page is part of the campaign ‘Welcome Refugees into the Workforce’; an awareness campaign created as part of a partnership between ASRC and Yarra Trams which provides free tram wraps to community organisations making a positive impact on diversity and inclusion in Melbourne. The ASRC’s WELCOME tram wrap will feature on a wrapped tram that will travel on tram routes 48 and 109 in Melbourne from June to September 2023.