WE have just finished celebrating Australia Day for 2014. We greeted over 18,000 new citizens this year to live permanently in this country.
How enriching is that for Australia, to welcome these new Australians who will contribute so much to our way of life, as those who are already settled have done.
For me Australia Day always reminds me of my life as a child growing up in a small country town where there were very few migrants from other countries.
I grew up in Gippsland, Traralgon to be precise. It was such a safe childhood in so many ways as it was quite a small town, and kids could roam freely across town to play sport and swim in the dirty local swimming pool which Doctor “Cons” always said was three-quarters urine and one quarter water, but we all survived. Maybe that’s why our generation are still here... maybe a few germs helped our bodies to be relatively resilient.
We three young friends would pack our bicycle baskets on a Sunday with sandwiches (always German sausage with tomato sauce or egg and onion), and would ride the 10 miles across to Morwell, buy a lemonade and raspberry spider (our delicious treat) and then ride back. We always had a shilling in our basket “just in case”.
I never did find out what the “just in case” covered.
We would pass the camps of migrant workers who lived and worked in Morwell at the brown coal mines; we knew they travelled from “somewhere in Europe” and that meant nothing to three young girls.
The rapidly constructed Nissen huts they were allocated were perched away from the road and clumped together like a mass of lazy turtles sleeping in the sun. They were terrible, those Nissen huts, basic and primitive.
Many of those men came from small villages in their home country. They worked and saved incredibly hard, slowly putting aside sufficient money to bring out a young woman recommended by their families. She would arrive in Australia to marry a stranger and settle in a very new, very unsophisticated country.
Those young couples came to own their own homes and raise families, focusing very strongly on education as a way to future success.
I cannot begin to imagine the loneliness of these women. Was there anyone to help them settle into the ‘Australian way’? Shops were so anglicised that products like garlic and pasta, basil and oregano were unheard of. They had no English to speak of and no family support, and yet they survived and prospered.
No wonder we are such a resilient country when it comes to coping with adversity, including natural disasters such as fire and flood; we have very deep roots in resilience. It began in 1788 and has been carried on by the increasing waves of courageous migrants who have made their way to these shores in the years post World War II.
Some years ago I read The Sound of One Hand Clapping by Richard Flanagan and wept both for my ignorance and for the men who toiled on the Snowy Mountain project. So much heartbreak and loneliness and yet... and yet, out of it all emerged this extraordinary country with such a rich mixture of cultures, religions and beliefs.
As that little girl pedalling her way to Morwell on a Sunday afternoon I had no understanding of the loneliness, the aching yearning for family and country that those postwar migrants must have had as I passed those desolate Nissen huts.
We have embraced them all. We are the better people for that generous act. We could be the same again today.