Andres Mejia still remembers the day when he arrived in Sydney in 2005, with just AUS $1200 and a lot of uncertainly about his future.
“Now those days seem like a dream,” he said. Although Andres did not have money to spend on luxuries, he did have the skills needed by Australian employers and with the rising of the sun came the first big opportunity in his life: a job in sales.
Now, Andres is an Australian citizen managing his own business in Colombian imports. And he has a one-year-old lovely daughter.
The stories of Mejia and the hundreds of other Colombians who shape this particular community in Sydney are very different from those who travelled closer to home looking to find a similar culture, easy money or were running from violence and persecution.
Colombia has been characterised as a migratory country. According to a confidential source in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, almost 5 million people have left the country for economic and political reasons since 1997.
“Life in Europe and the United States has not been easy for Colombians who have formed big communities but still suffer from discrimination and lack of opportunities,” said the source.
The situation for Colombians in Australia is very different. Most of those who migrated to Australia are English-speaking professionals who came to this country looking for better job opportunities.
Export manager Lynn Rua, who came to Sydney 11 years ago, said it was the best decision she ever made.
“I was only 18 years old when I arrived in Sydney, but in a couple of months I had already adapted to the Australian style of life. As I was bilingual, I could get into uni immediately and I found a job as soon as I finished my studies,” said Rua.
“Although being away from my family was hard at the beginning, I made Colombian friends very easily and now I have a group of more than 60 friends.”
Inside Rua’s group you can find economists, engineers, publicists, lawyers and business professionals who when together only speak Spanish but surf and eat fish and chips as if they were Australian.
Simon Pitkin, Rua’s husband, said the best thing about being married to a Colombian was her passionate personality.
“I know that with her I will never get bored. She is very protective and our home is a real home. We cook together every night. Sancocho and Arepa with Carne Desmechada are our specialties and on weekends the Colombian parties are very common; all of them crowded, with lots of Colombian food and loud music.”
The parties are one of the things that distinguish a Colombian from other nationalities.
“Our parties in Australia are small replicas of what we have in Colombia,” says Luisa Lopez, a Colombian engineer who has lived in Australia for seven years.
“Most of our parties start in the afternoon with a late lunch with meat, pork and shouts of Aguardiente. After five hot shots you are ready to start dancing Cumbia, Salsa and Merengue and sing songs like nobody else was there.”
Pitkin says it is not difficult to be surrounded by people with such a different culture, as Colombians are very friendly and welcome everybody.
“At most of the gatherings you can see Colombians talking to Australians, Europeans and other Latin Americans. The most distinctive thing you will see is a Colombian offering Colombian food and drinks, and saying positive things about their country.”
This tendency to praise their native land, a good custom in itself, started for the wrong reasons.
“Colombia has a bad reputation and that is why I feel the need to defend my country all the time,” says Angela Sandoval, a masters student in International Relations.
“I love Australia, but it makes me uncomfortable that every time I say my nationality, somebody will say the word ‘cocaine’, ‘Pablo Escobar’ or ‘guerrilla’.
Nobody can be blamed for this as Colombia’s bloody history is the perfect recipe for it to be considered one the most dangerous countries in the world.
Colombian news all over the world has been dominated by drug cartels, guerrillas, paramilitaries and “emergent groups”, and there is much talk of poverty, corruption and lack of job opportunities.
“But what bothers me the most,” says Sandoval,” is that most of the foreigners who think Colombia is only war, drugs and poverty have never been there.”
For this reason the government of Colombia has been running a campaign since 2005.
“Colombia is Passion” is the new national brand that makes all Colombians proud, both inside and outside the country. The aptly-named campaign has changed the negative perception of Colombia around the world.
“The first thing that impressed me about Colombia was the smile of the taxi drivers welcoming everybody outside the airport,” says Australian David Basile who has been dating a Colombian for three years.
“From that moment until the end of my trip, I was amazed at the kindness of Colombians, the delicious food and drink, and the variety of landscapes that are difficult to find in just one place.”
And like Basile, the 6,797,594 tourists who have travelled to Colombia since 2007 have contributed to Colombia’s growing positive image offshore.
Most tourists found a paradise instead of the hell they may have expected. David Basile confirms this positive impression and says the biggest risk in going to Colombia “is wanting to stay”.