It was a particularly poignant moment when Jose Pires delivered his Acknowledgement of Country during recent diversity training.

In his mind’s eye, he could still see himself as a fearful eight-year-old East Timorese boy stepping off a Norwegian cargo ship in Darwin with the rest of his family with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. After arriving, Jose and his family were relocated to a refugee centre in Maribyrnong where they were supported for a few years and helped to resettle.

The Acknowledgment of Country is something that has resonated with the Uniting AgeWell Health Safety and Wellbeing Business Partner. “It speaks to my own indigenous culture where it is important to remember those who have done good to and for you.”

Jose adds: “I wanted to convey my thanks and my gratitude to the Traditional Owners of the Land for giving myself and my family refuge. Also for providing a safe place to not only find peace but to also prosper.”

And Jose could not be more proud to work for an organisation that is as inclusive as he is. Which not only welcomes but celebrates those of different cultures, backgrounds and beliefs. In fact a snapshot of Uniting AgeWell’s staff shows that 42 per cent were born overseas representing 363 countries and speaking 38 different languages.

“I started at Uniting AgeWell nearly five years ago,” Jose says. “It’s great to work for an organisation that truly champions and empowers us all to be the best version of ourselves.”

Jose was born in East Timor, and he and his parents, his four sisters and his identical twin brother fled when civil war broke out and Indonesia invaded in 1975. His older brother, who was with family elsewhere in East Timor at the time, did not manage to escape with the rest of the family.

“My Mum was devastated, she didn’t want to leave her oldest son behind, but my Dad told her, ‘Do you want to lose all seven kids or just the one?” Jose’s older brother was later found by the Red Cross and reunited with the family in Melbourne.

Jose, who speaks Portuguese and Tetum, the native language of East Timor, did his schooling in Coburg where he also learned how to speak English. “It was hard to adjust at first,” Jose says. “In one week I went from living in East Timor to a new country, language, traditions and customs. Australia to me was the place where green apples and cornflakes came from, a reference to the ships that would deliver these scarce items from Darwin.”

Jose started work at the Ford Motor Company moving to a quality control role after finishing high school. He studied quality management part time and got a job in the quality team at the Red Cross Blood Service. He continued to study part time and completed several Occupational Health and Safety qualifications, including the diploma and graduate certificate at Latrobe University.

He and his Australian-born wife Nerissa, lived in East Timor for a year where Jose worked at a training and development centre delivering safety-related training in Tetum to young East Timorese who were preparing to come to Australia as part of the guest workers program. Some of his family had returned to Timor, others were still in Australia, but he wanted to give back to his war-torn homeland.

And Jose continues to give back through volunteering too. For the last twelve years he’s been coordinating the Richmond-based Melbourne East Timorese Activity Centre helping East Timorese students connect and share their experiences with the wider Australian community. He also teaches a group of Australian-born Timorese youngsters cultural dances, rhythms and songs to enable them to connect to their heritage.

Throughout it all, Jose maintained a huge affinity for older people. “They have given so much to the community, I wanted to contribute meaningfully to their lives too,” he explains.

Jose joined Uniting AgeWell where his remit is now the safety of all of the organisation’s residential sites in north west Victoria including the AgeWell Centres and independent retirement living communities..

Jose does sometimes find it hard to switch off from work.

“I’ll go home, and I’ll sometimes see Nerissa sitting on the couch, laptop balanced on her knees and the cord running across the carpet. That’s a trip/falls hazard! She’ll see the look of horror on my face, and she’ll say to me ‘Jose, don’t even think of bringing your work home with you!”

But there is balance in his approach. “I may be risk adverse when it comes to safety but in life sometimes we need to take chances, to explore beyond our boundaries and see how different people live,” Jose says. “The rewards can bring about a diversity of experiences and connections.”

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