One particularly warm sunny day in May 1958, a stunning, blonde, blue eyed Dutch teenager jumped gleefully off the immigrant boat ‘The Johan van Oldenbarneveldt’ into the indigo blue waters of the Suez Canal. Because she was bored. And she thought that a dip into the cool water would ease the itch of frustration she felt as she waited impatiently on that Australia-bound ship to start her exhilarating new life. That crazy lady later became my mum. Bless her.
The voyage, while slow, was comfortable and they were very well cared for. On arrival at Fremantle she was loaded onto a train to Brisbane via Melbourne. They went the loooooong way. But at least she didn’t jump this time. She was too captivated by the strange looking trees and strived to understand the Australian obsession with sunshine. She missed the rain in Holland. Not many people know that about her.
Wacol was her next port of call where she remembers being well cared for in an immigrants camp with her family… until a couple of loutish blokes went into a brutish brawl over her… prompting a recently settled family from New Zealand to take her into their home and under their wing. Her new life was all very, very different – the food, the language and the culture – but the compassion, care and unconditional support of the people who rallied around her made up for what was otherwise lost in translation. They helped compensate for the deep sense of loss she felt for the family and friends she had left behind. The New Zealand family she was living with found her a job as a live in nanny with another kind family, who helped her acclimatize further. And this family in turn encouraged and supported her as she pursued tertiary education. They continued to hold her hand until she was finally ready to be fully independent in the new land she had embraced. I wanted you t o know the details of her journey because I found them interesting, but she tells me particulars are not important. It’s not what she needs you to know.
As her daughter, I want you to know that she has repaid her debt to Australia for accepting her into this country … and then some. In fact, her achievements both alone and within the family that she has lovingly created are worthy of a book in their own right. But this is not the place for all of that because, again, that’s not the message that she wants me to impart by telling her story.
Now before you rush off to make popcorn in anticipation of a fiery showdown about current immigration policies and the handling of illegal refugees, you need to know that I hardly ever read the newspapers nowadays. I spend far too much time on Facebook to have time for such patter. And frankly, I think it’s a far more effective use of my time and resources to work within my sphere of influence. My family, my friends… and the internet. Lets face it; these are the forces that influence our behaviour the most. If we hang around people (in person or online) who are relentlessly positive, respectful and compassionate, then some of that rubs off and we start to feel and act the same way to others around us. Anyone who has experienced one of those toxic workplaces where powerfully persuasive people perpetually permeate poison will – despite being alarmed by my sudden overuse of alliteration – appreciate the influence of values on any decision-making process. There is a difference between saying “I don’t want you in my house because mine is better than yours and I don’t want you to ruin it” and “I need space to sort out my household so that later, we can work together to make our street a better place for everyone”. You’d better have a “plan b” if you ever need to run to the neighbour’s house to borrow a cup of sugar if you take “option a”.
When my mum immigrated to Australia, the over-riding political and social culture at the time was one of acceptance, compassion and the desire to support and emergence of a global village mindset. Without that all encompassing support, I wonder if she would have survived the initial culture shock and thrived to the point where she could give back to Australia every ounce of goodwill, support and grit that she could muster. How differently would the Australian community regard her application for immigration today, I wonder? I appreciate that the political landscape has changed beyond recognition over the last 40 years and that expecting unlimited access for the majority of applicant immigrants today as was enjoyed in the post war period is unrealistic. But then, that’s not what my mum is trying to suggest either.
I know that I am not the only one that feels a deep sense of unease about many events that have transpired over the last few years pertaining to refugees and immigration. I also know that there are people who feel the only way to effect political change is to lobby government sources directly…. and I agree that this is an integral key to inciting political change in Australia. We are lucky to have the opportunity to have our say and there are people suited to that political advocacy role perfectly. But for those of us who aren’t, there are less overt, but still effective ways to influence political culture. And you can start today within your own sphere of influence. When you are out with friends, family or chatting online, make a stand about speaking respectfully about all people from all walks of life. Try to expand your lunchtime/forum discussions to embrace the context of a global community rather than just looking out for our own backyard. And always, always err on the side of compassion. Those around you will be influenced by your stance and in time, many will feel the same. The ripple effect will gain momentum … your friends will start to make a stand for humanity within their sphere of influence. And maybe the ripple will travel all the way across our sunburnt country to Canberra. Who knows? Anything is possible. And while I don’t have the answer to the current myriad refugee or immigration dilemmas that face Australia today, I think that if these issues are considered and discussed within a framework of compassion, mutual respect and the context of a global village, then maybe better decisions will be made than have been in the past. And if things go pear shaped in the future and we ever need a cup of sugar from our neighbours, then they’re more likely to hand it over.
Neither Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd nor Chris Bowen have accepted my friend requests on Facebook (yet!!) so this is all I have. But I still think it is a good plan and I’m sticking to it. So before you think that all of this stuff about immigration policy and refugees is “secret Canberra business” and that you’re just one, inconsequential drop in the ocean when it comes to politics, remember this: one small drop in the Suez Canal in 1958 is still making waves on Australian Shores today. And that’s what my mum wants you to know.
Did you come to Australia from somewhere else? Did your parents or grandparents?