A win for former Miss Wagga Wagga ... sort of

Her battle to stay in Australia continues

The last time Eternity caught up with former Miss Wagga Wagga – Christian social worker Stina Constantine – she was waiting to hear if she could stay in Australia.

31-year-old Stina – who was born in Norway but has lived in Australia for 20 years – is the victim of an administrative error that has turned her life upside down for almost three years.

In 2018, the institution where Stina studied social work supplied the wrong date for the completion of her course on her visa application. As a result, the Department of Immigration declined her a graduate visa. The educational institution later corrected the date in a letter that Stina forwarded to the Department of Immigration.

But after a lengthy appeal process, at the end of 2020, Stina’s appeal was rejected. She was told by the Department of Immigration she had to leave the country within 30 days.

“The whole experience has been quite dramatic and quite intense,” Stina tells Eternity. “Parts of it came in waves and then there’s also been periods where it’s been consistent.

“I’ve just had to come to terms with the fact that this thing is here to stay and I’m probably not going to be able to see it go just yet. So I need to get used to the uncomfortable.”

“I crashed pretty hard after that – the [disappointment] really took its toll.’ – Stina Constantine

Stina is a much-loved member of her local community. She works for Country Hope, which supports children from country areas who are diagnosed with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses. She also works for Relationships Australia to assist families in crisis. And she is founder of Virtue Ministry, a Christian organisation that helps teenagers to develop their character and healthy relationships through workshops, a blog and a podcast. Stina is also an active member of St Michael’s Cathedral in Wagga Wagga.

So when she made a last-ditch appeal, asking the Minister of Immigration, Alex Hawke, to intervene, Stina had a groundswell of support. Her intervention application was backed by then Deputy Prime Minister and Member for Riverina, Michael McCormack. It was also backed by almost 14,000 people who signed a change.org petition.

Stina was expecting the Immigration Minister to hear her case in the Federal Circuit Court of Australia on June 9, 2021. However, in a pattern now familiar to Stina, this hearing was delayed.

“It didn’t happen. A couple of days before, the Immigration Minister’s legal team got in touch and said, ‘We’ve just heard that you’ve made a ministerial intervention application, and the minister would like some more time,'” she explains.

“That was very disappointing and alarming and distressing all at once. It was alarming to hear that this was the first time his legal team were made aware that there was an intervention application, despite me having informed his office that this was the case.”

The intervention hearing was moved to August 3.

“I crashed pretty hard after that – the [disappointment] really took its toll. But I needed to regroup and then gear back up for August,” says Stina.

Stina was asked to provide more documentation and undergo medical tests.

“I complied with all of that. And then the court date was moved again … It didn’t leave me in a very good position mentally to process this when I wasn’t offered much information about it.”

“It’s not the best-case scenario and it certainly isn’t what the community wanted.” – Stina Constantine

The next court date was set for September 14. But then in mid-August, Stina received a phone call from her local MP.

“He said, ‘I can confirm that the minister has intervened on your case,'” she recalls. “So I went, ‘OK, what does that mean?’ And he said, ‘Well … he’s given you a visa.’

“But I still didn’t know what type of visa – was it a bridging visa for another 30 more days? Was I to get permanency?”

On August 18, Stina finally received an email from the minister’s office offering her a two-year graduate temporary visa. But the original mistake of the incorrect date of Stina’s course completion was not addressed.

“The mistake was never acknowledged, so there was no justice in that sense,” says Stina.

The two-year visa is also not what Stina was hoping for. The visa she applied for would have given her four more years in Australia in total, however, this visa no longer exists.

“It’s not the best-case scenario and it certainly isn’t what the community wanted. I had hoped that at the very least, the Department [of Immigration] would have acknowledged that this two-year detour I’ve been on has messed my pathway around and offered me a visa somewhat equivalent to the one I was hoping for.”

“But,” Stina continues pragmatically, “two years is better than being deported. It’s much better than being kicked out. So I’ll take that.”

Lessons learned through fire

Stina is still unsure what will happen when her two-year visa expires.

“I’m waiting for some answers to come back on what my pathway looks like moving forward. Nothing is concrete at this point, but I’m still looking for permanency,” she says.

In the meantime, she shares some of the lessons she has learnt from this long, unsettling experience.

1. Let people help you – and revel in it

“[Covid] lockdowns certainly have made this experience much more challenging,” Stina admits, “But at the same time, I’ve also learnt that I can rely on people.

“People really have been generous. And it’s been a great learning curve – just allowing people to serve me in whatever way they feel might be helpful at the time, even if I feel like that really isn’t going to solve my problem or save the day.

“But just allowing them to give me what they are offering is a moment for me to appreciate something true, good and beautiful.

“I didn’t see that the first couple of times it happened. But once I started seeing it, I thought, wow – every one of these encounters is such a beautiful moment. It’s one not to be missed. So I started just revelling in those moments instead. I think that in itself is probably a very helpful and healing part of the journey.”

2. Let God heal you

“I honestly don’t know how you would get through something like this if you don’t have faith. I don’t know how you would anchor yourself,” Stina comments.

The last time Stina spoke to Eternity she was holding on to the Bible story in Matthew 14 where Peter, by faith, attempts to walk on water.

“That continues to be the case for me. That’s still the season that I’m in … But I’m now still coming down from the battle. So there are moments where joy isn’t really present because I’m still wounded and I’m still healing.

“There’s a lot of wounds that need to heal, and that will take grace and it will take time. It won’t happen overnight. At the moment, the Bible passage that has captured me the most is Mary Magdalene at Jesus’ empty tomb, when she speaks to this man who thinks she thinks is the gardener.

“That particular passage resonates with me because it’s like my heart knows what Mary Magdalene knew at the time: that the gardener is here to tend to my heart. He’s here, he’s present, but I don’t yet recognise what he’s doing. I haven’t yet learnt what he’s been trying to teach me through this.

“But my heart knows he has been here throughout this entire thing. He has not left me for one second. And he will continue to be here. He’ll continue to heal me.”

3. Have a heart for the homeless

“I’ve felt a deep sense of injustice throughout this whole situation,” admits Stina. “I’m in a privileged position where I have connections in the community … But there are people out there who have gone through the same processes, who didn’t have the financial means or who didn’t have the strength of the community to support them, to help them get a just outcome.

“And so sitting in this position now where I know that, although I have two more years and I get to stay and that’s wonderful, the error that was made still hasn’t been rectified. It’s almost been sort of swept under the rug.

“That may not impact me right now, but there may be other people who come after me who get caught up in the system in a similar way. So that’s put a sense of fight in me, but I don’t know if I’m meant to do anything with that yet. That’s an ongoing conversation I’m having with God.”

Stina continues: “I have felt a very strong connection with people who feel like they don’t have a home for whatever reason, whether that might be physical homelessness or not having a country they belong to, or not feeling safe in their home because of family violence or national violence.

“So I would love people to pray for those who feel like they don’t have a home at the moment.”

The road ahead

Despite the many trials, Stina is still convinced that God wants her in Australia – at least for the time being.

“When this all started happening, I thought, OK, I understand that there’s a bit of a challenge. But then it was just one thing after another, after another. And I’m like, ‘God, if you don’t want me here, just say the word and I’ll leave. Tell me where you want me to go, and I will go,'” she says

“… But all I kept hearing from God was ‘Just be patient with me. I’ll be here with you.’ So I don’t know what he’s unfolding, but I know certainly, for now, this is still where he wants me. I don’t know why. I don’t know what the plans are yet, but I know that he hasn’t left me …

“I also know that I have a desire to dream again. Dreaming has been lost on me in the last couple of years. But, after my wounds are healed, I want to be able to dream again about whatever God puts on my heart.”