Aussies from Elsewhere: Our First Day … and Beyond

Stephen Brook, in The Australian, 26 January 2015

For those who came to Australia across the seas, what was day one like? … not beaches, barbecues and booze?**

His Excellency The Honourable Hieu Van Le 1977, aged 23, from Vietnam

Hieu Van Le

My wife Lan and I arrived in Darwin Harbour early one morning, having travelled by boat as refugees from post-war Vietnam. We didn’t comprehend how large Australia was until we flew to ­Adelaide. As the hours passed, Lan asked me to check if the crew weren’t flying us back to Vietnam. We will always remember that first night walking out of the Pennington Migrant Hostel in Adelaide — the streets were so quiet. Having grown up in the war, we could now appreciate what it was like to live in a peaceful country.

Throughout the first months, we were overwhelmed by the generosity of people offering assis­tance and making us feel welcome.

Now, at the age of 62, it is truly a privilege to serve this great nation as Governor of South Australia.

Brian Schmidt, 1980, aged 12, from the USA

Brian Schmidt

I came with my grandma to visit my uncle in Darwin. We celebrated my cousin’s fourth birthday and had fish and chips. It was hot, the ground was red and I was struck by the numerous number of Aboriginal people. It was completely different from the green mountains of Montana I came from, although the varied fortunes of the indigenous people was a common theme.

Fourteen years later I was back, migrating with my wife, an Australian I met while studying at Har­vard. We came because we were both happy with it as a place to live and we were both able to get good jobs here after an international search for both of us. Now I’m 48 and vice-chancellor of the Australian National University and was awarded the Nobel prize for Phy­sics in 2011.

Charlie Duca, 1996, aged 27, from Malta

Charlie Duca.

You have to under­stand that the village I came from had hardly any gay people. I arrived in Sydney with my girlfriend for a holiday before going to Japan. I felt it was exactly like Malta but much bigger. We went to stay in a hotel in Coogee with a lot of flies. Man, there were so many.

We slept and woke at 3am. We got the bus to the city and it stopped at Oxford Street. It was very busy. It happened to be the night of the Sleaze Ball. All I could see were men wearing leather trousers with their bums hanging out. I was so shocked. I found a phone box and called at great ­expense my Australian friend in London. Obviously I freaked out. He said: “Don’t worry, Charlie, you’ll get used to it.” I told him I didn’t want to.

Two days later I moved to Blacktown. I stayed there about 10 days. I knew about City Gym before I came to Australia, so I went to have a look at it and eventually got work as a personal trainer. I married my girlfriend and we live with our daughter one block from Oxford Street. We never got to Japan but it’s on our list.

Marcia Hines, 1970, aged 16, from the USA

Marcia Hines.

I came to Sydney to work with Harry M. Miller in his production of Hair. I was 16 years old and I remember flying in and seeing Sydney Harbour and the Opera House, still under construction. I was collected and taken to my accommodation to drop off my luggage and then I went straight to the Metro Theatre in Kings Cross to meet the people in the show.

I arrived on my own and I found it to be very different to my home town of Boston. Everything seemed to close early and shopping on weekends was unheard of.

I stayed because Australians embraced me as one of their own and I was offered great roles, ­including Mary in Jesus Christ Super­star. Now I am 62 and writing this in a chilly New York apartment getting ready to do the G’Day USA show. Then it’s swiftly back for the Adelaide season of the disco burlesque show, Velvet.

Gnanaraja “Raj” Jesuraja, 2009, aged 27, from Sri Lanka

Gnanaraja “Raj” Jesuraja.

I came by asylum boat from Indo­nesia to Christmas ­Island. I am a Tamil and I fled the conflict in my home country. There were 193 other asylum seekers on the boat. As we arrived at Flying Fish Cove, I saw fishermen. There was so much forest I thought the people of the island lived in the forest. Some guards at the deten­tion centre were kind to us. After I was freed I enjoyed seeing kangaroos and ­koalas and the wonderful landscape.

I stayed because Australia has freedom. Now I am 35 and I am a cleaner at Campsie Public School in Sydney. My wife and daughter have joined me. We have had two more children and we are very. very happy.

Bronte Campbell, 2001, aged 7, from Malawi

Bronte Campbell.

When our plane arrived in Brisbane, my lasting impression was how clean everything seemed. There was no rubbish in the streets, the roads were tarred, the buildings weren’t covered in dust. It seemed much bigger, much brighter than Malawi in Africa. That was why we had come, of course. My parents had decided to move to a country that could provide a bigger, brighter ­future for their four, soon to be five, children, as mum was seven months’ pregnant with my youngest sister.

My clearest memory was getting up early every Monday to watch the rubbish truck. The hydrau­lic arm that reached out, lifted and emptied the bin was fascinating to all us kids; we’d never seen anything like it. Now I am 21 and I have ceased to be impressed with the rubbish truck but have never ceased to be grateful for all that Australia can offer me, the best of which is the opportunity to stand behind the starting blocks in the green and gold and swim for my country.

Jiri Lochman, 1980, aged 29, from Czecho­slovakia

Jiri Lochman.

We left Czecho­slovakia in 1978, when I was 27 and my wife Marie was 23. I had written songs against the Communist regime and they were banned, my passport was confiscated and I was forced to work as a hospital ­orderly. We escaped to a refugee camp in Austria where we married. We could have gone to Canada, where we knew people, but we chose Australia because we ­wanted to strike out on our own.

We arrived by plane to Sydney and were taken by a limousine to a hostel in Coogee. I never discovered why it was a limo and we have never ridden in one since. We felt most at home when we drove around the country and came to Western Australia, where we live. I have never felt alienated and have made very nice friends in Australia, though after I got my citizenship, one official said to me: “With a strong accent like yours, you will never be an Australian.”

Working at Perth Zoo, I ­became smitten with mammals. Marie and I run a wildlife photo­graphy business and publish books. I am 65 years old and would rather be a Czech in Australia than an Australian in the Czech Republic. There aren’t many places as ­accommodating. I love Australia and I’m not afraid of saying it.

Adipoetra Halim, 1995, aged 18, from Indonesia

Adipoetra Halim.

I came here on a family holiday: my parents, siblings, aunt and cousins. We stayed at the heritage Le Meridien at Rialto in Melbourne. It was the Queen’s birthday and almost the whole town was shut. I discovered what the “hook” turn was.

I came back for university in 1999 and never returned to my home in Medan, north Sumatra. The family started a development business, the Halim Group, and we are restoring The Windsor to its former glory. I have not figured out why the Victorian government keeps putting roadblocks in the way. The Windsor is the only ­remaining 19th century purpose-built grand hotel of the Victorian era. We want to save it.

Naguib ‘Nick’ Kaldas, 1969, aged 12, from Egypt

Naguib ‘Nick’ Kaldas.

We arrived at Sydney Airport, which was like a large barn. Our parents simply sought a better life for us. The future in Egypt after the Six Day War was not good. On our first day we tried to make contact with the sole family we had a remote connection to. They were out of town. Once we found them, they helped us enormously. Everything seemed very strange, even the way of ordering food in a restaurant. We were overawed but thankfully the one thing we had going for us was that we all spoke English.

We had no relatives or friends here. The Coptic Orthodox Church played a major role in ­facilitating connections. Now the first Coptic Orthodox Church in Australia, in Sydenham, is marked for demolition and arguments occur about tearing down a significant piece of local Egyptian community history.

My family stayed because of the opportunities. This is very much home for all of us. I am proud to be Egyptian but even more proud to be Australian. Now I am the deputy commissioner of police, second in charge of NSW Police. My father passed away, my mother and sister retired. My younger brother was a doctor; he left medicine and became a priest.

Chris Flynn, 1999, aged 27, from Britain

Chris Flynn.

I flew directly into Melbourne from Man­chester and wanted to get as far away as possible from Belfast. I had seen enough guns, explosions and men in black balaclavas to last a lifetime. Australia seemed far enough away to be safe. On my first day, I had a latte at the Victoria Market, discovering it was the same hot beverage us simpletons from the Old Country called, “milky coffee”. A scam artist on Elizabeth Street tried to convince me to loan him $100, but I wasn’t fooled.

I stayed because Australians were kind to me, and because you had mangoes, which I’d never ­tasted, and because no one wanted to shoot me. I am a 44-year-old ­author of two books and an animal welfare officer at the RSPCA, where I mostly take care of sick kittens (really). My life is peaceful.

Sami Shah, 2012, aged 34, from Pakistan

Sami Shah.

We landed in Perth just as the tip of a hurricane grazed the city. My arrival was heralded by half the plane’s passengers vomiting. I migrated with my wife and daughter. We chose Australia because it had an awesome feminist, atheist prime minister, a booming economy and political stability. Remember those halcyon days?

On the first day I bought a car. The friends we were staying with sold it to me. Six months later I wrapped it around a tree while swerving around a kangaroo.

Australia was, to my surprise, a lot more developed than the Discovery Channel and Animal Pla­net had led me to believe. Home was a city of 24 million people, all fighting for elbow room. Perth is a city of three people, two of whom don’t like the third. The difference was beyond comprehension. We moved to Melbourne; now I am getting ready to fly back to Perth for my Fringe Festival shows, working on a novel and generally luxuriating in the small joys and privileges that life here has to offer.

Federico Zanellato, 2002, aged 22, from Italy

Federico Zanellato.

I flew to Sydney to try a different lifestyle. I’m from Padua and was leaving the grey London … the mix of surfing beaches, nature and friendly people made me decide to stay for two years with various visas. It came to a point where I had to fly back to Italy.

I was not planning to come back. In 2008, my wife Michela was so curious to visit the country I was always talking about and we decided to spend four weeks’ holidays to catch up with old friends.

She immediately fell in love. For the next two years we planned to came back permanently. Italy’s political and moral situation was not bearable any longer. It is not easy to leave family, friends and our comfort zone. But after nearly six years we are permanent residents with beautiful two-year-old Australian twin girls and our own restaurant, LuMi, that was in The Australian’s Hot 50 last year and won its Hottest Dish award.

Michelle Simmons, 1999, aged 32, from Britain

Michelle Simmons.

I came to take up an Australian ­Research Council QEII research Fellowship. Australia was supporting young researchers and giving them academic freedom. In the UK then new ideas, particularly if they were ambitious, were met with cynicism. In Australia, there is a can-do attitude.

Now I am 48 and I have established a great research team making devices at the atomic-scale. We made the world’s first single atom transistor, the thinnest conducting wires and are making all the components of a quantum integrated circuit — the building block of a new computer called a quantum computer with a predicted exponential increase in computational power. I also have a fantastic Australian husband and three beautiful children.

Cameron Huang, 1987, aged 15, from Taiwan

Cameron Huang.

The sight of deep blue skies, the smell of freshly cut grass and the sound of children playing in the backyard a strange form of baseball I later learnt was cricket. Those were sensations I had never experienced before I ­arrived on these shores as a curious teenage boy. I came with my father and family from the bustling metropolis of Taipei. On our first day I recall arriving in the empty streets of suburban Strathfield, wondering where everyone had gone. My father was a business ­migrant and in three years had ­established a property development company that won an ethnic business award. I earnt a master’s degree and followed in his footsteps. Now I am 43 and was executive producer of Holding The Man, which won great praise at Sydney and Melbourne film festivals.

Peter Høj, 1987, aged 29, from Denmark

Peter Hoj.

I arrived from Copen­hagen with my Australian wife, Robyn van Heeswijck, and our two young children, Torbjørn and Stine. Robyn and I had both been awarded PhDs and came here to do post-docs. Our first day was spent checking out our new neighbourhood of Carlton. Having come from a Danish winter, my first impression was — bloody warm. I have the best memories of outback camping with kids and parents sleeping in a trekking tent.

My children have lived most of their lives here. We lost Robyn to breast cancer in 2003. We stayed because we loved Australia and her memory — she was so much smarter than us. Now I am 58, vice-chancellor at the University of Queensland and my partner is Mandy Thomas, dean of Creative Industries at QUT. She too is smarter than us — we are lucky.

Sara James, 1994, aged 33, from the USA

Sara James.

I came to visit my boyfriend, Andrew Butcher, at his family farm in Muckleford, Vic­toria. Little did I imagine we’d ­return with a young family on New Year’s Eve, 2007, this time permanently. After frigid New York, I wilted in withering heat that felt even hotter converted to Fahrenheit — 104 degrees.

I came both for love and adventure. I’d travelled widely as an NBC television correspondent but never lived overseas, much less set up house on a dirt road adjacent rolling bushland.

Our move stretched, challenged and changed me. I’ve used existing skills in new ways, from reporting on the fascinating tableaux that is modern Australia to delving into the past for my next book, historical fiction. The move sparked a passion for local wildlife, nurtured my family and intensified our support for those with disabilities. After eight years, we all call Australia home.

Rafael Bonachela, 2008, aged 36, from Spain

Rafael Bonachela.

I came alone to spend two months here, commissioned to create a dance work for Sydney Dance Company. I went in to the studios where I would be working and was blown away to find they were ­located in a historic building, on a wharf right over the harbour. The details of that first day are a bit of a blur now, but I ­remember returning to my hotel at the end of the day feeling excited to be here, with such a thrilling ­opportunity ahead.

I returned to London after my work 360° premiered. A few months later I caught up with SDC general manager Noel Staunton, and over a glass of champagne he offered me the job of artistic director. It was like a dream come true and a few weeks after that I was on my way back. I arrived in November and spent my first evening as an Australian ­employee at the opening night of Baz Luhrmann’s epic film, Australia.

Gianni (John) Carfi, 1968, aged 1, from Italy

Gianni (John) Carfi

We came to Australia to seek our fortune and return back to Italy due to some of the embellished stories of those who had come earlier. My father had already been in Australia for a couple of years, so my mother was forced to make the boat trip with four children under the age of 9, including the youngest, me. When the ship docked the port was crowded, and my mother had us all looking out for my father, who had come to meet us. He was yelling out to us and waving a scarf (along with everyone else). My mother kissed the ground and blessed herself, thankful to have arrived in Australia, and to have finally ended the hellish voyage. My father took us in a taxi to my aunt’s house, were we had a nice family reunion lunch with my mother’s family, all speaking rapidly in their native dialect. So far, so good.

It was wide, open, and bare! We came from a small hilltop village with little stone houses crowded around walled piazzas feeding into cobblestone lanes designed for horse and cart. Everything seemed enormous, and the people could have been speaking Chinese for all we knew. The thing that left the biggest impression was the food! Not quite the delicious multicultural fusion available in Australia today, and certainly nothing like the produce we were accustomed to back home. The lifestyle for the new migrant was very different.

Compiled by Lisa Allen, Nicole Jeffrey, Paige Taylor, Julie Hare, Necia Wilden, Victoria Laurie

** is a Thuppahi editorial addition which borrows words deployed elsewhere in this Aussie celebration of Australia Day

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