Former Miss Wagga Wagga's battle to stay in Australia
And what God has taught her through it
Two weeks after Stina Constantine was named ambassador for the NSW City of Wagga Wagga (as Miss Wagga Wagga 2019), she was told to leave Australia.
Stina says she hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact, she was – and still is – a much loved and respected part of the Wagga Wagga community.
As a social worker, she works for Country Hope, providing support to children from country areas who are diagnosed with cancer or other life-threatening illnesses. On the weekends, she supports families in crisis through Relationships Australia.
Thirty-year-old Stina is also founder and director of the Christian-based Virtue Ministry. This organisation aims to help teenagers develop their character and healthy relationships through workshops, a blog and a podcast.
She’s an active member of St Michael’s Cathedral in Wagga Wagga, and lives as a boarder in the home of another church member, an older lady who counts Stina as her 16th child (yes, she has 15 biological children!).
So loved is Stina by her community that, ironically, she was invited to host the local Australia Day Citizenship Ceremony in 2020 and 2021.
However, Stina herself is not an Australian citizen – and that is the cause of the problem she has been battling for two-and-a-half years.
Norway to Australia and back again
Stine was born in Norway, where her parents had moved when civil war broke out in their home country of Sri Lanka. When she was 10 years of age, Stine moved to Wagga Wagga in Australia with her parents and two sisters.
After finishing high school, Stina returned to Norway with her family. But she felt a strong desire to move back to Australia. So at age 18, Stina applied for a student visa and returned to Australia.
“I felt called back to Australia and I just couldn’t shake it,” Stina explains to Eternity. She has now lived in Australia, in total, for 20 years.
“There’s just so much of Australia that I grew up with that I took on as my own – mannerisms, the way we go about our lives and attitudes that we have to our world in Australia. Those things really formed me as a young person.
“But also, I actually think that there is still unfinished business for me here in Australia on a more spiritual level. I’m not a hundred percent sure what God is calling me to do, but I feel like he’s telling me ‘We’re not done, just be patient.’”
At the end of 2018, having finishined her social work study on a student visa, Stina was in the process of applying for a graduate visa with the hope of one day becoming an Australian citizen.
This handful of days could determine whether or not she can stay in Australia.
But then she received a letter from the Department of Immigration declining her graduate visa application.
“That was the first time I heard that there was something that had gone wrong with the application,” Stina recalls.
“The letter said the reason why it’s declined is because you didn’t make an application within six months of having completed your course.”
Stina says that it turned out the educational institution she studied through had put down the wrong date for the completion of her studies. Their records said she had completed her course on January 11, 2018. But according to Stina, she finished on February 28.
The difference was only a matter of weeks, but for Stina this handful of days could determine whether or not she can stay in Australia.
Stina applied for an appeal with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. After a long wait (partly due to COVID), the Appeals Tribunal heard Stina’s case in mid 2020.
Her appeal was rejected.
Soon afterwards, the educational institution finally provided her with an amended letter showing the correct date of the completion of her course – February 28. Stina forwarded this on to Department of Immigration, but it seems it was too late.
“Surely I can’t be the first person this has happened to. But I want to make sure that I’m the last.” – Stina Constantine
At the end of 2020, Stina was issued a Department of Immigration letter telling her she would need to leave the country within 30 days.
“It was a really unfortunate series of events,” she remarks.
“This left me with three avenues: One, I could pack my bags and go – if it wasn’t for COVID and the fact that there are no flights out. The other two options were ministerial intervention and, thirdly, an application for the matter to be heard by the Federal Circuit Court of Australia.”
Stina has taken both of the last two options – applying for an intervention to the Minister for Immigration, Alex Hawke. Her application has been backed by Wagga local, Deputy Prime Minister and MP Member for Riverina Michael McCormack. It has also been backed by 13,000 people who signed a change.org petition calling for intervention to stop her deportation. And her plight has captured the attention of major media outlets, including the ABC and 7 News
“If the Minister intervenes, it’s not just for my sake,” says Stina. “He’ll also set up some system that protects future students as well, because surely I can’t be the first person this has happened to. But I want to make sure that I’m the last person this happens to. I don’t want to see someone else going through this.”
If there is no intervention, Stina’s case will be heard in the Federal Circuit Court next month, on June 9. Her friends have set up a Go Fund Me page to help with the hefty legal costs she is incurring, which has so far raised $15,000. Half of that money has already been spent on fees for Stina’s legal team.
“Unfortunately the court’s job isn’t to determine if I get a visa or not,” Stina explains. “Their job is to determine if the Appeals Tribunal followed due process in making their decision … So it’s very difficult to tell which way the court will go on June 9,” says Stina.
Stina’s unshakable hope
After years of uncertainty and hours of administrative legwork, you might think Stina would be feeling angry and despondent. In fact, she is neither.
“Emotionally, it’s not been too bad,” says Stina. “That’s really because of my faith. People keep being surprised and shocked by how I’ve not crumbled …
“I can only explain that as faith. I know the trials we go through are not at the end. They’re not what God wants for us ultimately. They’re not our end goal. All this is temporary. It’s not permanent. And anything that God allows us to go through, is going to make us better anyway.”
She adds: “This is just that cross that I have to carry, everybody has one.”
Alongside the practical support of her community – through fundraising and the petition – Stina has been bouyed by the support from her church.
“It’s that emotional and spiritual support that I know I’m getting from my parish community that grounds me … I found that so powerful. It cuts a lot deeper than some of the other things – not to minimise any of the other efforts. It’s just a lot more personal.”
She gives an example: “Every day that I go to church, I’ll just be sitting there praying alone and someone will come along and tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, how you going? I’m praying for you’ …
“I recently had someone drop an envelope off to my home with a letter that said ‘I’m praying for you and I’ve decided to pray nine consecutive days of prayers for you on these particular days.’ Those particular nine days were horrid for me, in terms of communication with legal team and with the minister’s office. There was just hurdle after hurdle. That person [praying] had no idea what went on that week, but I’m so thankful for those prayers.”
“It reminds me of the need to fix my eyes on Christ at every point and not take my eyes off him.” – Stina Constantine
Stina has also been seeking comfort in the words of the Bible.
“[The Bible story where] Peter’s attempting to walk on water and he’s losing sight of Christ has been my go-to [passage] for about a year – particularly because of what’s going on. I’m forever associating that turbluence with the stormy sea. It reminds me of the need to fix my eyes on Christ at every point and not take my eyes off him. Because if I take my eyes off him, then everything’s going to crumble.
“When I say everything, I don’t mean things like the court and the ministerial intervention – those things are temporary. I mean my heart and my soul, that will crumble if I lose sight of God.”
While Stina is, of course, waiting with baited breath to see if she can continue to live and work in Australia, she is also viewing her predicament – and the witness she gives through her reponse to it – from an eternal perspective.
“On a personal level, I just so desperately want people to see Christ through my situation,” she says. “I don’t want them to see me, I want them to see him.”