At 17, Paz Roman was nominated as Young Australian of the Year, mostly for her volunteer work. Ironically, she wasn’t an Australian. She came here from Chile as a refugee with her family when she was just a baby, and despite living in Australia since then, she struggled with the idea of becoming a citizen.
Paz Roman now gets to assist asylum seekers through her work
“When you’re a child of refugees, you have a strong sense of wanting to make your parents proud; you want to make their struggle worth it. I didn’t want to turn my back on my heritage,” said Paz, who is now 26.
“But my mother suggested I become a citizen. She said, ‘Chile didn’t do anything for you. Australia gave you a home, an education, health care. That is a privilege’.”
Before Paz was born, in the 1980s, her parents were being persecuted for opposing the coup d'état which occurred in 1973.
“My father was put in a camp, one of my uncles had been murdered and another had gone missing. My mother was followed around by people with audio tapes of people screaming. She was led to believe they were the screams of her brother, who was missing and then killed.”
The family was granted humanitarian visas, but before they got out of Chile, her father was imprisoned again. Her mother was also detained, for 72 hours, and beaten while she was pregnant with Paz.
“After I was born, one of the last threats was aimed at my brother [age 4] and me [9 months]. So my mother knew we had to get out. She always says, ‘I understand why people come on boats with their children – they have no other choice’.”
By the time her father was released, they had to apply for protection again, and thankfully baby Paz, her brother and their parents were given protection by Australia in the late ’80s. “We came by plane with about $50, one suitcase and no English.”
Paz’s parents had separated by the time they were moved to Villawood, which was a ‘community living’ hostel rather than a detention centre at the time. After living there for a year, they settled in Sydney’s south west, and Paz’s mother struggled with being away from her mum and sister.
Then Paz’s brother would come home from school crying because he had no English and couldn’t understand what anyone was saying. Her mother decided she absolutely had to learn English, so they moved away from the Latin community.
After school and university, Paz went into counselling and disability work. She had a friend assisting asylum seekers at Settlement Services International (SSI), but despite being fascinated by that field, she was hesitant to go into it. “I was concerned it might be too close to home. But when I was offered a job as a case manager, I thought I’d just give it a go, and I love it.
“The stories I hear are different to my family’s, but similar too. Sometimes I worry I’m not making enough difference in these people’s lives, but my mother tells me, ‘My social worker changed my life, even though I only saw her once a month. You don’t realise the impact you’re having on them’.”
Having an impact is important to Paz – her parents came from a place where they didn’t have a say. And that’s the other thing that spurred Paz to become officially Australian six years ago, knowing it’d give her the right to vote. “My parents were tortured and exiled because they wanted to vote. So when I became a citizen, I felt proud that I could have a say and make a difference.”