Cabramatta and the refugees

I caught the first part of the documentary Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta on SBS last Sunday night.  It was well done and I’ll definitely be watching the next episode.

This area of Sydney features fairly prominently in some parts of my family’s story in Australia, and I found a lot of the stories told by the migrants about getting to Australia, how and why they came, and what their lives were like when they got here bore many similarities to those of my mum’s family.

The way the documentary was presented gave the impression that the ‘multiculturalism’ label was first applied when Malcolm Fraser gave permission for the Vietnamese migrants to settle here. It gave the sense that, because of the white Australia policy, multiculturalism and migration could not have existed previously. Which is if course wrong, because it did. Australia is virtually all migrants. And I know this because my family arrived from Germany in 1950. But let’s back up a bit here.

Watching and listening to the migrants’ stories of what it was like having to run from certain death in your own country, to possible death on the journey to a strange country you know little about and where you don’t speak the language, just made me cry. It was an absolutely gut-wrenching story. Who knows, for example, what traumas were experienced ever after by the young children and babies who were shipped out without their parents to this place. I can’t imagine the horror of the ordeal and my heart breaks for those people who had no choice but to endure it.

I also understand that this documentary was about the Vietnamese migrants and the creation of Cabramatta, a drug infested, dangerous slum full of gang members and other criminals, as we knew it (or as it was portrayed) in the 80s and 90s. I realise they had to stick to the topic at hand and I wouldn’t expect such a documentary to go off on tangents to explain the stories of other migrant groups in the area.  But I feel the need to point out that just because you’re a migrant whose parents spoke no English and worked 18 hour days and beat you up when they were drunk doesn’t mean you can join a gang.

I was 10 in 1988, and I was one of six flower girls at my cousin’s wedding at a church in Cabramatta. My grandfather was one of the founding members of this church, having mortgaged the tiny family home sometime in the 60s to finance its construction. The wedding began with everyone gathering, as you do in Serbian tradition, at the bride’s family’s house. In Cabramatta. John Street, to be exact. We had photos and got dressed and had our hair done and oohed and aahed over the electric blue polka dot organza the bridesmaid dresses were made of (1988, remember), we ate gibanica and icing-sugar dusted cakes, and tried not to mess up our hair while exploring the massive house. This was the family home, where my aunt and uncle brought up their four kids. It was the typical wog mansion: white stone balustrades, statues of lions on posts either side of the drive, and two flag poles, one for the Serbian flag and one for the Australian flag. Brown glossy patterned tiles covered the floor downstairs, there was a bar with miniature decorative opanke hanging on the wall, and the huge formal dining room featured lots of red plush velvet and massive pictures of romanticised mediaeval battle scenes in thick gilt frames dominated. This was Cabramatta for me. I knew nothing of the murders and drug deals going on just down the street.

These poor Vietnamese refugees were escaping from death in their own country, due to war. There were few places that would accept them. Australia was a good option because it had plenty of space and still needed more people to populate it. They spoke no English. They had nothing but the clothes on their backs. They worked hard. They drank to get through the trauma of what they’d experienced, and the hard life they’d come to know in Australia. They didn’t get much time with their children, of which they had many. Their children had to fend for themselves, and there was something of a void between them, especially given the fact that the kids spoke English and would carry on conversations in English so their parents couldn’t understand. Kids who spoke English often advocated for their parents. The kids grew up doing it tough, making do with little attention, bigger siblings caring for and lording it over littler siblings.  Everyone ended up better off financially in the long run, but they all suffered huge traumas and were significantly psychologically scarred, which manifested in various negative ways throughout their lives.  This is also my mum’s family’s story.

They came, as I said, from war-torn Germany in 1950 on a boat with hundreds of others. My grandparents spoke only Serbian and German, as well as a smattering of some other languages like Hungarian and Turkish, but no English.  They had four children, the youngest, my mum, not yet two years old.  There had been talk of going to America, or Canada, who were offering similar opportunities for migration at the time, but Australia was chosen  because some distant family members had less than favourable experiences migrating to north America.  There was nothing left for them in Europe.  They had been rejected by a landlord for a house because my grandfather was Serbian.  My grandmother got things for the family on the black market.  Money was worthless; my mum remembers cutting the pictures out of the big German notes as a child.  My grandfather was a strong, stocky, positive man, a shoemaker by trade, and a very talented, quick-witted man.  He had been poor his whole life, the eldest of 14 children, having left home at age 10 because his father abandoned the family.  My grandmother was from a slightly higher class background, although her family had been torn apart during the war, her mother tortured and killed in a work camp by the Russians, her sisters dumped somewhere in the middle of Eastern Europe, her father and brother taken as translators, others just slaughtered. She reluctantly left, with the children she had never really wanted to have, to a life she couldn’t imagine enduring, across the other side of the world.  There was an outbreak of some contagious virus on board the ship and my mum was taken into a quarantined area for some time; she still has nightmares about it, despite being so little.  Upon arrival in Australia, they were herded into a migrant camp somewhere round Liverpool for a few months.  Their eldest son, who was ten, spoke some English he’d learnt at school, and paperwork was sorted out and land was granted; temporary land, upon which my grandfather built a two-room shack.  Life was hard and Australia was a harsh, crude environment.  My grandfather barely saw his family six days a week, getting up at 4am to work constructing Sydney’s railways and bridges.  He worked so hard, and his only vice was alcohol, which he indulged in when pay day came around.  It wasn’t that he drank away all the money, far from it in fact, as within a few years the family were living in a larger house and the land was a fully functioning farm with food crops and animals, the picture of self-sufficiency, thanks to my grandmother as well who slaved away in the garden from dawn til dusk, all the while giving birth to five more children.  Alcohol was not my grandfather’s friend.  He became violent, uncharacteristically so, and the violence was arbitrary.  Needless to say, more trauma was experienced by his wife and children because of this, and I can imagine he felt incredibly ashamed.

This was the life of European migrants to Australia.  The White Australia policy may have still been in place, but it had absolutely no bearing here.  Migrants arrived, they had virtually the same experiences as the Vietnamese migrants of the 70s and 80s.  Yes, some turned bad.  But not all.  In fact, despite the traumas and psychological injury suffered, the rifts caused in the family, I can safely say that not one of my mum’s siblings or her siblings’ children became gang members or drug dealers or lived on the street.  I don’t want to downplay the experience of the Asian migrants to Australia, as in some ways it was worse than what my family experienced (although it’s all relative of course), but what struck me about Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta was that they were somewhat blaming their choices to join gangs and take drugs on their terrible experience as migrants.  They were ignored by their parents, their father beat them in an alcohol-fuelled rage, their parents’ spoke no English, life was hard, and they ended up joining a gang.  More than that, I got the distinct impression that the documentary would have us believe that it was Australia’s inherent racist nature that made life so hard for the migrants.  It made me think, is racism worse when there is more difference to be noticed?  So, okay, my grandparents didn’t speak English; but they were white European, their language was really the main difference, not the way they looked.  They ate a little differently, but they were Christians.  So they were not as ‘different’ from the Aussies as the Vietnamese refugees were.  Perhaps this made it that much harder.  My grandparents were used to discrimination, the rejection by a German landlord back in Augsburg because of my grandfather’s Yugoslav ethnicity a case in point, whereas the Vietnamese had come from a country where 99% of the population were the same race, colour, creed, religion, retained a very similar cultural identity.  So discrimination may have been even more of a difficult thing for them to deal with.

What I wonder is this: does the very nature of the Vietnamese culture, being perhaps significantly more removed from the Australian culture than the European culture, make the Vietnamese migrants’ assimilation as new migrants nearly impossible?  And therefore is it inevitable that Asians will have a more difficult time fitting in to life here?  Or was it the timing that did it, the fact that it was the 70s and 80s, drugs and gangs were more prominent, there to fall into?  Was it because they had to leave their country so suddenly in fear of their lives?  Or were us European refugees just lucky not to fall into that cycle of drugs and gangs?  I don’t know the answer.  But I must highlight this: migrants did it tough, no matter where they came from, and multiculturalism in Australia is far from real today.  We have a long way to go before we realise what a true multicultural society is, how to be civil to each other.  I myself use words like ‘wog’ arbitrarily, without even thinking; that’s a product of the society we live in today.  Maybe one day we will truly know what it’s like to truly embrace other cultures, assimilate without being forced out of our own identities.

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Author: curiosikat

Writer, editor, linguist, social historian...

1 thought on “Cabramatta and the refugees”

  1. An intersting read that got me thinking. I think most immigrant communities go through a settling in phase and, in that time, are often subject to greater levels of criminality often from within their own ethnic grouping. The external pressure of new cultures, discrimination, language etc create an environment that is constantly challenging and provoking. Some fall at this hurdle and take to a counter-culture lifestyle. To assume that this is linked to a greater level of ‘alienness’ amongst a newly arrived migrant group such as the Vietnamese (or more lately the Sudanese) is to downplay or misunderstand the immigrant experience. As an example look at Vietnamese immigrants living in the Marrickville area and you will see no such crime patterns.

    The Serbian and Croation migrants for example resulted in some quite hard core criminal elements ostensibly set up to support war efforts back home. Further back we see similar things amongst Irish catholic migrants and more lately we see this amongst some of the Sudanese population in Blacktown.

    Essentially it seems to be a part of the migrant experience that some areas, and some people (but by no means a majority) will fall into a counter-culture pattern. Associated with this is ethnic clumping which often makes it more difficult for newer migrants to adapt to the multitude of differences in their new country.

    My point here being that it (criminal, counter-culture behavior) is very little to do with race, ethnicity, language or religion and more to do with immigrant enclaves and the immigrant experience.
    At least that’s the way I see it (and I’m from a very English speaking, Anglo-Saxon, Caucasian immigrant background) 🙂

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