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Saturday 11 April 2015

A safer place to call home

Posted in: True Stories
By Jacqui Stanford - 20th November 2014

Now settled in Auckland, Colombian refugee Eliana Rubashkyn says after everything she has been through it’s wonderful to be somewhere where she no longer has to be afraid to be herself.

Rubashkyn has, groundbreakingly, been officially recognised as a woman by New Zealand. She looked into being resettled in France, Norway and Finland, but all three countries said she had to have gender reassignment surgery to be legally recognised as female.

Her path to the relative safety of New Zealand was a hellish one. She escaped the dangers of Colombia, where she’d faced rape and murder attempts, and was studying for an MBA in Health Administration in Taiwan on a government scholarship. In 2013 she had to travel to Hong Kong to renew her passport, because of her gender identity.

She says she was met with “confusion and hostility” at Hong Kong’s airport, because she arrived as a woman and her passport said she was male. She was detained, told she could only use a male toilet, and that she’d be deported.

Rubashkyn was terrified of being sent back to Colombia and reached out to friends and lgbti rights groups in Hong Kong, and was ultimately allowed to enter the city, from where she began to apply to become a refugee.

Nine months later, she came to New Zealand and spent time at the Refugee Resettlement Centre in Mangere, something which was another challenging experience. She was living alongside people from all over the world, many from the Middle East, and a number of Colombians – who dished out the same kind of discrimination she’d faced at home.

“There is no perfect country,” she tells “New Zealand has accepted me as Eliana, and as female gender. It’s set a precedent in the world. It hasn’t happened before. I am the first, I know that. Now here in New Zealand, even though I have been accepted to live my life happily, there was a big problem.”

That was the fact her pharmacy degree was not under her current name. “I don’t exist in my country … it was like I’d never studied before in my life.”

However after a long assessment process, NZQA has accepted her qualification, and done so under her gender and her legal name. However she is still having issues with it being recognised by the Pharmacy Council.

She’s also discovered what many other transgender New Zealanders can attest to – a struggle to find a job she wants to be in, despite her ability, experience and qualifications.

“After transitioning my gender, my brain is the same. I am still a pharmacist,” she says. “But it’s really hard to find a job under these conditions … for everyone right now, it’s hard to find a job, but being transgender makes me a little bit more vulnerable to being rejected, because there is always someone who has something a little bit better than me, and it’s much more likely they are going to hire this person.”

Rubashkyn says it’s not so much that someone blatantly discriminates and denies her a job because she is transgender, but it’s still a problem.

While she has no regrets at all about speaking out about what happened to her, she points out it means anyone who Googles her privacy is gone. “My life doesn’t belong to me … if anyone wants to know if I’m trans they just need to put my name into Google and they will immediately know everything about me. My background, my life, my privacy doesn’t belong to me.”

She says while speaking out helped her survive the horrible conditions she was in in Hong Kong, it’s hindering her now. “I needed to speak out. There were a lot of things I needed to share with people. But I have called a lot of attention.”

Now she just wants to get on with life and just be Eliana, without all the labels.

When we spoke, she’d applied for 42 jobs. She filled the requirements for all of them, in fact, sometimes she was overqualified.

“I am a trained interpreter. I am a pharmacist and have almost finished my Master’s in Business Administration. I have a lot of things to help, to provide, I have a lot of skills.”

But she hasn’t been offered a single interview.


In the meantime she is working in malls around Auckland selling moisturising creams, a job which can be tough as she is at the frontline with the public. Some people are kind, others make nasty comment, but she feels she has won the respect of those working at the mall pharmacies with her clear wider knowledge and experience.

However she is very clear she doesn’t want to make it sound like she is complaining. Obviously it’s a long way from being detained in Hong Kong, or in constant danger in Colombia.

“But it’s frustrating, because I know I have things to offer New Zealand. I have a lot of things I can do for New Zealand and I am really willing to do that because I’m so happy New Zealand has let me be here. I want to contribute. I don’t want to be a burden to the social system of New Zealand. There are plenty of things I can do. I could be an interpreter. I have three years’ experience managing a pharmacy in a big hospital and dealing with regulatory affairs.”

She knows she isn’t the only transgender person facing barriers to finding work.

“When I was in Colombia the conditions were quite horrible. Discrimination was on another level. Here discrimination is hidden. There are a lot of laws protecting against discrimination but it’s still there behind people’s opinions.”

Since we spoke, Auckland University has accepted Rubashkyn to finish her Master’s of Business Enterprise. She says the university has been great to deal with and has accepted her as she is – and she is delighted to be moving forward.

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Jacqui Stanford - 20th November 2014