My job at a suit shop helped me understand Australian life — and forget my worries as a refugee | Shadi Khan Saif

As a writer I could not have asked for a better place to get to know the people of my newly adopted country

I skipped the Australian summer’s club cricket this year for a weekend stint at a Melbourne shopping centre. It was meant for earning some money, but it opened the door to a whole new world that my curious heart is still exploring.

As a refugee living in Australia I have been separated from my loved ones for more than a year. I have come to realise that facing this reality is the only option for survival and a new beginning in this country. In a way I’m following the Stockdale paradox.

Cricket was my first escape from the harsh realities of life last season. It is my long-cherished love. I just have to shelve my bat and bowling shoes for the moment.

My days still begin with desperately checking my mails and messages in hope for a breakthrough on the family visa application – or a professional breakthrough. The new addition to that is the feedback I get from some of the nicest (and some not so nice) customers who I help to select suits for all sorts of occasions. And Australians have been spending a lot lately.

There has hardly been a dull day at this place where people of all ages and cultural backgrounds come in the hope of buying a bit of happiness in the form of clothes, shoes and all. As a writer I could not have asked for a better place to get to know the people of my newly adopted country.

At this shopping centre I enjoy the brief moments of feeling like a host to dozens of people every weekend. It revives my traditional hospitality manners on a new professional level. And the sight of satisfied customers opening up about their personal lives and sharing stories just makes my day – making me briefly forget my own worries.

“Oh, he has lost plenty of weight after the stomach cancer,” an Italian lady in her 70s told me as her husband went away to try on some suits. “Don’t tell him the prices for each item because he does not want expensive stuff for himself,” she said while choosing for him the top shelf items. The man, short and bald with sparkling green eyes and a lovely smile, had worked for decades in a brickworks before retiring.

A young man leading a group of five came in straight from some roadside construction work. “We all want the same suit and shoes in matching colours for a wedding,” he said. As we went through the options, they were sharing jokes in the exact same way as we used to back in Afghanistan ahead of the big day of any of our friends . “Cheers, mate! Much appreciated your help,” said the satisfied customer leaving with five bags of suits and shoes.

Sometimes I see men desperately wanting to buy a slim-fit blazer – squeezing and pulling but eventually giving up and glaring at their belly with disgust.

Often I get women buying clothes for men and boys who don’t bother to come to try the sizes themselves. “What size shirt do you wear?” asked a lady with her daughter looking to buy some new shirts for her husband who was starting a new job.

“Oh, this wallet is too expensive,” said a gentleman from Macedonia. “I like it, but I can either have no money and this wallet, or the money with no wallet,” he laughed.

These little encounters are enriching for someone like me to get a sense of peoples’ lifestyle and values.

There are quite a lot of customers who trust and buy certain brands without asking for the price or scrutinising the quality or style. But there are also the other lot of customers who wear neat and clean basics with no brand logos.

And then there are the shopping addicts: customers I see every single weekend coming to buy something or return an earlier purchase – and let’s not mention the regular shoplifters we get.

But do not be misled by this rosy presentation – people working in the retail sector work extremely hard to achieve sales targets and customer satisfaction while balancing their personal lives. Long hours, short breaks and a lack of job security loom over workers. They often have to cope with customer abuse as well.

For me, I might not stay long here as I still check my mails and messages with desperation, waiting for a visa confirmation for my family or a suitable job matching my skills and experience. But the enriching experience will stay with me.

• Shadi Khan Saif is an Afghan journalist based in Melbourne


Shadi Khan Saif

The GuardianTramp

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