Can Migrants Have Their New Home and Their Wellness Too?

woman sitting

What does wellness, balance and wellbeing look and feel like for those how have uprooted?

Words by Maria Rebeca Ortiz



To many migrants and refugees, wellness, rest, and self-care are merely novel ideas. A type of lifestyle indulged in by those who possess extra resources and the cushion of familiarity to lean on. Those of us who have started over in new lands are usually too busy living in constant “brace mode” (the fight or flight mentality we switched to when we left our homeland) to take time out for wellbeing. We must succeed on all fronts in our new home first. Everything else, including our feelings and the state of our mental health, can wait.

When migrants and refugees arrive in a new country, they can often become stuck in the prove-your-worth-until-it-kills-you trap – be it self-imposed or motivated by feelings of pressure from their adopted home, new workplace, or during the taxing job search. They must also contend with the language barrier, culture shock, discrimination, isolation, code-switching, and of course, COVID-19. Migrants and refugees, in particular, can experience a sort of pressure cooker of anxiety, while simultaneously working hard to give the impression to recruiters, employers and new friends that they have it all together, that everything’s fine, and that they will place no strain on the Australian social system– they must be malleable, successful, not complain, and not show it when they’re struggling.

These stressors are heavy burdens for any person to lug around. They weigh us down and impact our ability to function at our best. Excess stress in the body, like trauma, is also not benign. There are consequences to storing and not acknowledging and releasing what affects us negatively. As we’ve come to understand more and more, when our mind suffers, our body cries out.

As a refugee and a migrant, I, too, fell into the trap of trying to prove to others that I was deserving and worthy. I coated every opportunity that came my way with a thick layer of imposter syndrome and shied away from praise. The problem was, none of the extra energy I devoted to that behaviour actually helped me. On the contrary, it contributed to my lack of self-confidence, sleep, and inability to trust my judgement. After burning out (for the second time), I decided to redirect the energy I was pouring into self-deprecating behaviour. I began to implement, and still practice, the following actions to improve my wellbeing:

Self-care checklist – Be as proactive about your wellness as you are about growing your professional career. Write a list of activities you enjoy that relax and ground you, and appoint a day/time to do them. Walking, journaling, reading, cooking and sharing stories with friends are activities I engage in regularly.
Retain cultural and diverse kinships – At times when we feel isolated and misunderstood, having a community around us that can speak to the part of ourselves that was left back home can be soothing and nurturing. Having friendships with a diverse group of people from different cultural backgrounds offers us further knowledge of the world and an understanding of the similarities within different cultures.
Boundaries & the word NO – I cannot stress this one enough. We should ALL have boundaries – not everyone has the right to a piece of you, simply because you feel you need to prove your professional “worth.” There is power in saying “no,” and remembering all the great things you already contribute to your new workplace, city, and community.
Charge for your work – Advocate for yourself and your worth. As migrants, there’s often pressure to constantly prove just how skilled you are to potential employers/clients. While it’s fair for people to ask for samples of your work, such as articles, a portfolio, etc., it’s not OK for them to expect free consults or large bodies of work. There are ways to push back softly in situations like these. For example, you can positively respond to their interest in you/your skills and ask for confirmation about a budget for the intended work, along with your flat/hourly rate. You may kindly respond that you usually charge a fee for any consult/written work and provide a link to your list of services/website, offering to set up an initial meeting to discuss the project further.
Food – What nourishes the body, nourishes the mind. And while I’m an advocate for indulging in food that feeds your soul, nostalgia, or cravings, I made a conscious choice to fuel my body with what helps me get the most energy during the week and slightly altered my eating habits. I must stress that changing any food habit is a very personal journey, one that everyone should decide for themselves, based on their individual needs and circumstances.

While writing this piece, I discovered that this year, the Migration and Inclusion Centre at Monash University and Harmony Alliance, a migrant and refugee women’s coalition, had released a report focussing on migrant and refugee women in Australia. The report focussed on their experiences relating to employment, domestic and family violence, victimisation, help-seeking, and trust in institutions. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that despite movement/migration to Australia from non-English speaking nations occurring since roughly the late 1800s, this report is the first of its kind. With a migrant population of 7.54 million (not including Australia’s refugee population, which totalled nearly 77,000 in 2019), I was surprised that it’d taken us so long to dive deeper into their experiences in Australia. I am glad, though, that we’re starting to gather qualitative data about what many of us have been saying and feeling for some time, as these types of reports, while sobering at times, show us that this community is being heard and seen.

Moving to a new country means taking a massive leap of faith. Some may have had more choice around this than others, but regardless, there is nothing easy about picking up one’s whole life and moving it elsewhere. Migrating or fleeing to a new country means dealing with stress, anxiety, incredible highs and lonely and heavy lows. I have chosen to not only ask for the comprehension and grace of others but, more importantly, more kindness and compassion of myself- because no one will advocate more strongly for me to be well than me. I needed to start somewhere, so I decided to start from within, and I invite everyone to do the same.