“Previously, I think before Covid, I would have said only 30 percent. Now I think that that percentage is higher, because we realised how far we are from our family.” Esther Mirjam muses on the likelihood of returning to her homeland of Switzerland. Covid has changed so much. “Before we came here we would joke, ‘we are going to live on the other side of the planet. How fun is that?!’” But since international borders have been closed, she and her husband David, realise that the simple case of a 24-hour plane trip that would reunite them with family is not so simple. “Now, we realise it really is on the other side of the planet.”
An ending in Lausanne
Esther Mirjam’s story started as she was nearing the end of her contract at a University in Lausanne. Having finished her PHD, she was working as a post-doctoral researcher. “I knew it was a two-year contract and after one and a half years, they extended it by another two years. That was as much as I could hope for there.” She applied for academic positions in many places: US, Canada, Spain and the UK were among the international posts she applied for.
“I sent out 160 applications in total.” She explains that this is not so unusual in her field of research. “Economics is a very big market. So many people are applying on different platforms for thousands of jobs around the world.’
Among the countries she considered, Australia also came up. “At the time I applied, I had never been to Australia. I had met Australians at the University and I thought, ‘oh, these are nice people’. We also knew people who had been to Australia who would encourage us. I concluded it wouldn’t cost me anything to send my application. One Australian university got back to me, they interviewed me in the US. So, one Sunday I remember talking about it with David. We were sitting on the sofa and praying about it and David sensed that if this door to Sydney would open, then we should go through it.”
Esther Mirjam explained that she and David had lived in other parts of the world previously, having moved across language regions to French-speaking Switzerland, Italy and a short stay in Africa. But Australia was a totally different consideration. There was also the impact it would have on their two small children.
With David’s encouragement she decided to take the adventure if she was offered the role. If not, they would stay in Switzerland and she would leave academia if no other role was forthcoming.
I asked her whether it would be tough leaving an academic career. “I fluctuate between passion for academia, love for the research and frustration with how long it takes, how demotivating and competitive it can be. So, if the job market wasn’t going to open up for me, teaching in High School was my plan B. I thought I could be a good High School teacher and eventually a Principal. I love kids.” The other advantage was that they would not have to leave family in Switzerland.
As it turned out, she did not have to leave academia. An offer was extended to her by an Australian University. “In the end, the decision was not that much in my hands. It wasn’t so much me choosing Australia. It was Australia choosing me.”
With a decision as big as this, they put in some parameters in case things didn’t work out. “David took a year of unpaid leave so he could return to his job.” Yet Esther Mirjam admits to their optimism, perhaps even naivety, in seeking a new life where they might enjoy “Sydney Harbour, bush walks and fantastic hiking opportunities.”
Endings and beginnings
I asked how they managed their transition to a new culture. Esther Mirjam talks about how they handled their ending and their beginning with some purposeful events. “We went through a ritual of farewells with different groups of people. In total we had three or four goodbye parties.” One was particularly significant for family members and close friends, where they rented a Chalet for a weekend together. “We were going into something new and didn’t know what it would look like. But we wanted to have something special because we knew we wouldn’t have this again for a long time.”
When they arrived in Australia, they decided to rent an Air BNB in Bondi for a month and treat this time as a holiday, knowing that they would not be able to afford living there once they settled. The first month included celebrating David’s birthday, enjoying the beach and discovering the sights of Sydney such as Taronga Zoo.
Once the excitement abated a little, David also realised how much stress he had experienced in his work as a teacher. “He worked with a lot of challenging kids and had little support from the leadership structure. Once he was out of that situation he could see this better. One day he said, ‘Wow, I don’t hate Sunday evenings anymore.’ So, I think we were both ready to make the leap to a new life.”
A new community
It was a welcoming community that made the most significant impact in helping them transition to life in Australia though. They looked for a church in Bondi shortly after arriving and were greeted warmly from their first visit. The minister, Blake and his wife opened their home, along with another visiting family.
One of the things Esther Mirjam was concerned about was finding a permanent home, particularly as another family member would be arriving. “When I was pregnant with our youngest, I didn’t want the uncertainty of living in a rental home.” With the financial help of her parents, they started house hunting. Again, Blake’s help proved invaluable. He advised Esther Mirjam and David about locations in Sydney, confessing that his favourite suburb was Five Dock. Very soon, a few circumstances came together and they were able to secure a home… in Five Dock. “This was the most significant sign that this is where we belong. This was our home. Now we could feel that we truly arrived.”
They now enjoy the support of a new church community, which has been an important factor in providing stability in the shifting context of a Covid-19 world. The threat of job cuts in the University sector was a stress for some time. This was significant for Esther Mirjam and David because of their dependence on her position, even though David found part-time work. “One thing that changed when we moved to Australia is that we had a very egalitarian parenting model. Both of us contributed about the same with our care, while we were both working or studying four days per week. So previously, the impact of one of us losing our job was not so dramatic.”
Covid, work and labour markets
Eventually Esther Mirjam learned her role would be safe for 2021. Yet, the personal assurance did not totally counterbalance a general work culture that had altered. “The social dynamics are different. When someone resigned from the team there seemed to be a sense of relief rather than sadness. I hate that.” The work also changed. Less resources were provided with increasing demands to teach a broader program. “You realise with less income from students the setting is very different, which is now survival mode.”
Esther Mirjam has accepted this new context, smiling, sometimes laughing as she speaks. She doesn’t seem too stressed yet knows that potentially more change may be ahead.
I ask about her area of research, which focuses on the study of labour markets. She talks enthusiastically about trying to understand the movement of people in West African countries. Why do people move? Why do they not get an education, even if there are schools?
Another area of study is looking at the maternity scheme in Switzerland: Does the impact of seeing more women returning to work provide them with better incomes? Even though the data doesn’t show this, Esther Mirjam posits, “Overall this is still an important policy, otherwise these women would not have been covered. So, I ask other questions, such as looking at the number of children these women have. Maybe there is something going on there?” She explains that there is in fact an increase in subsequent children, three out of every 100. “That was an interesting finding. Seeing policies having an impact on women beyond what we expected at first sight. Here is a labour market policy having an impact on changing family composition and social dynamics.”
There are many other questions Esther Mirjam articulates as we talk: Looking at the impact of vocational schools compared with traditional high schools. Is the trade-off between higher job security and lower wages? Why are there still relatively high rates of well-educated women dropping out of labour markets? It is clear to me that she loves her research.
Covid, family and future
I ask Esther Mirjam about the future. “Covid has highlighted how attached I am to family. I haven’t seen my parents for more than one and a half years and we haven’t seen David’s in three years. Our youngest hasn’t seen one set of her grandparents. I think that is the hardest part, not seeing family and not being a part of their lives.” This new dynamic means that the future is less clear than it was when they thought they were only a 24-hour flight away from home.
She confesses to feeling torn between her two homes and whether it means that their Australian adventure may come to an end sooner than they thought in a pre-Covid world. “I have two hearts in my breast – one for my family in Switzerland and one here in Australia. Not having these two together, having to make a choice for one and not the other – that is the problem that I have.”
Before we finish, Esther Mirjam laughs. “If we do go back, one thing we want to do is to gain our citizenship. We want to become Aussie citizens so that we can come back, whatever happens. This is such an amazing country.” There may be some tough decisions for them, but as I write these words, I learn that they are returning home for four weeks before Christmas. Maybe those tough decisions can be postponed for just a little bit longer?