Refugee to Manager — Aleksandra Malbasa’s Story
Among the guest speakers at Bowman Hall on International Women’s Day last week was our very own Aleksandra Malbasa. She told a crowded room about coming to Macquarie Community College as a refugee for English language classes.
Now, fourteen years on, she holds several business and management qualifications and works for the College as coordinator of the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP).
Aleks’s story is not without heartbreak. In 1991, she and her husband fled their homeland when war broke out in the former Yugoslavia. Fearing for their month-old daughter’s safety, they crossed the border to Serbia. Six months later they returned home, hoping that things had settled down. However, continuing turmoil over the next few years saw Aleks flee again, this time alone with her young child.
Making a life in Serbia was not easy. The country did not welcome or encourage refugees. When her husband rejoined her, they applied for refugee status to Australia and in 2001 they were finally successful.
At 31 years of age, Aleks spoke no English and understood very little. “I did English lessons at school, but was never good at languages and dreaded going to class. I just never imagined I would go somewhere that English was the first language!”
Soon after moving to Blacktown, she enrolled in the AMEP at Macquarie Community College. “I knew I had to learn English straight away—while we were settling in… We’re fighters. Survivors. We wanted to be independent and self-reliant, not dependant on people for their charity, for their time and their mercy.”
Entitled to 510 hours of English tuition under the federal government’s settlement and preparation for work scheme, Aleks was determined to use every single hour. Making study a priority, she progressed from a Level 1 to Level 3 English proficiency and graduated with her first Certificate qualification within six months.
“It changed my whole outlook in the best possible way. The staff at Macquarie Community College had so much empathy for me and other students from war torn countries.”
During the course of her Certificate III in Computing Skills for the Office, Aleks applied for work experience in the offices of Macquarie Community College. “That first week was a steep learning curve for me in overcoming my fears of interacting with other people, and of using English to express myself to staff and students there.”
Following graduation, Aleks recalls how difficult it was to find employment. Local employers wanted people with local experience, and with much more experience than she had.
“So when Macquarie Community College called me and gave me the opportunity to do more voluntary work experience, I was more than happy to accept. Every day, I felt my confidence and knowledge increasing. I was like a sponge, absorbing and acquiring new skills.”
In March 2003, she was called again and offered a permanent position as receptionist. By 2005, she was offered a second role as personal assistant to the manager and juggled the two roles for more than six years.
“I remember taking my first work phone call. I repeated the greeting I was expected to say but had trouble understanding the person on the other end of the phone. I said, ‘I’m really sorry, but could I just put you on hold for a second? I’ll pass you on to someone who will be able to help you.’ My colleague took the call and I could hear her saying: ‘Oh, hi! How are you?’ After she hung up, she told me that it was our CEO!”
Aleks says that the key to succeeding in a new country is to never give up and to learn from your experiences. She went on to complete Certificates III and IV in Business Administration, won ‘Best Team Employee’ in 2011. In 2013, she was offered the role of AMEP Operations Coordinator that included a role on the Blacktown MCC management team, and just last year she completed a Diploma of Management.
“So many things have happened—good and bad—since I arrived here. But you learn from the bad days. I always say to my staff, teachers and the rest of the managers, when I make mistakes, please let me know what that mistake is because that’s how I learn.”