Less than three weeks after the New Year's Eve bushfires razed their Mogo leather goods shop and home, Lorena Granados and Gasper Roman reopened for business at a roadside stall. With donated gazebos and trestle tables, the couple were back doing what they loved.
"It's one thing to lose your home, another to lose your employment," says Lorena. "I think that's been more damaging for me. The first day we opened we were just crying all day, but it's been really therapeutic for me. I feel really supported by our customers."
Lorena and Gasper's resilience epitomises small businesses in bushfire-ravaged communities across the nation, literally rising from the ashes. But theirs was born from living in countries where struggling just to survive became a way of life.
"Gasper comes from Chile, where he was tortured under the Pinochet regime," says Lorena matter-of-factly. "I come from a third-world country [El Salvador]. I come from war. We have developed resilience."
Even so, the events of New Year's Eve are now indelibly written in their memories. "A friend rang about 5.15am and warned us," says Lorena. "I took the dog and the cat and Dante [their 12-year-old son] to Long Beach and called a friend to go and look after him."
What followed was a nightmare. The couple returned to Mogo to hastily pack a few things but by 10.30am both their home and business, Roman Leathergoods, was gone.
"I thought I would come back to a burnt building, not this - it was just flattened. Our whole life had gone up in smoke."
Worse still, they were trapped south of Batemans Bay, not knowing whether their young son was safe. "I left him at 7am and I couldn't get back until 10.30pm," says Lorena. "We were on the Mossy Point Headland and all I could see was a wall of flames [to the north].”
With communications down, Lorena didn’t know if her friend had reached Dante or, even worse, if she’d left him to die alone. The horror of those hours was indescribable.
At the first opportunity, Lorena and Gasper headed to the evacuation centres, desperately searching for their youngest son. Staff couldn't find him but could remember seeing the boy and his dogs earlier in the day.
"I just started crying," says Lorena. "I ended up just getting in the car and driving through all the roadblocks until I found him."
The ordeal didn’t end there. The family was placed in temporary housing but had to be evacuated twice more before deciding to leave for Sydney. The four-hour trip took 17 hours, but even then they didn't take time to rest.
"We were one of the first ones back in – this time with two massive trucks filled with water, canned goods, camping gear, blankets, everything we could think of, donated by our friends in Sydney.
"We set ourselves up in Mogo and then Malua Bay and just gave it all out to the community until we were exhausted – we had nothing left in the tank. Then we handed it over to the people at the evacuation centre to continue."
Lorena believes her family, community and customers are what keeps her going.
"I think what has been holding us up is our family. They are our biggest assets and we haven't lost them. And a lot of our customers are just as passionate as us about what we do. It's nice to share that. It lifts the pain because you are not alone.”
Picking through the rubble of the business they started 17 years ago, the couple celebrated finding Lorena’s wedding ring and some ash-covered leather-stamping tools. “It’s a celebration every time we find something,” says Lorena.
“We have always fended for ourselves our whole life and asking for handouts is not in our nature. Every little bit of earnings is a win. If we weren't here [at the roadside stall] we would just be somewhere crying about what we have lost. This is our life.”
The market stall will sit on the side of the Princes Highway for the foreseeable future, while the couple works to establish an online retail outlet.