Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Immigrating to Australia

In 1968 my mother, father and I emigrated from Denmark to Australia. We sailed on the Elinis, landing in Fremantle on Australia Day, then continuing on around to Sydney where we finally disembarked. Even though we were voluntary migrants and we had our own funds we were still 'housed' in the migrant camp at Bonegilla, just inside the Victorian border, which operated between 1947 and 1971. The temporary accommodation provided at Bonegilla was very basic. The buildings were mostly standard Army type huts made of unlined timber-framed huts with corrugated wall cladding and low pitched gabled roofs of corrugated iron or asbestos cement. They had originally been built to accommodate twenty people with no internal partitions. By the time we arrived the huts were partitioned into 3x4 meter spaces. They were arranged in 24 blocks, each with its own kitchen, mess huts and ablutions. Most migrants remember the 'chicken sheds' as not being suitable for families. The beds were folding camp beds on 'farm-gate' bases and there were communal washrooms.
Safely isolated on the southern bank of Lake Hume, 12km from Wodonga in North-East Victoria and over 300km from Melbourne and 600km from Sydney, Bonegilla warranted no attention from the metropolitan dailies while it ran quietly and efficiently. It did, however, concentrate the attention of the press on three occasions.
In 1949 thirteen newly-arrived children died from malnutrition in the winter of 1949. There was a flurry of activity to explain that all was well at Bonegilla. An inquiry found that children suffering from gastroenteritis had been on a ship-board diet of boiled water for a prolonged time. The inquiry was also critical of how the Bonegilla hospital was under-staffed and inadequately equipped.
Young Italian migrants protested about the lack of work in 1952. They also complained about the food they were served, the lack of heating and the paucity of the recreation facilities at Bonegilla. Their protests hurried along renovation of the huts and spurred changes to ensure food better matched national tastes.
In 1961 German and Italian migrants posted 'ugly signs' along the road to the Centre: 'We want work or back to Europe'; 'Bonegilla camp without hope'. They smashed the employment office and clashed with police. Both incidents embarrassed the government into reviewing its intake and settlement policies. A few years later Bonegilla was deemed obsolete and redundant. The last arrivals came in November 1971. The Reception Centre closed at the end of the year without much public notice.
Memories of the physical setting of the Bonegilla Reception Centre have endured: the heat, the cold, the sun, the flies, the space, the sense of isolation and bareness; Lake Hume, twisted grey gum trees, long walks to Albury, magpies carolling and crows cawing. Those who arrived as children now smile indulgently at the recall of sunburn and fears of swooping magpies, nasty spiders, possums, bull ants and snakes before they grew accustomed to the Australian sun and wildlife. They remember the perils of deep-pit latrines. (From So Much Sky a history of Bonegilla)
The Block 19 remnant of the Bonegilla Reception Centre is now listed as a National Heritage. About 24 of what were once 834 huts in the Centre as a whole remain. The barracks buildings and their layout demonstrate the basic conditions typical of migrant reception places. Block 19 retains a strong sense of what the migrant experience would have been like. 
My clearest memory from this time was playing out in the hot summer sun with two other girls (I was 4 then). I had finished of a brown glass jar of medicine so as a reward I was allowed to keep the jar to play with. I'd filled it with water and taken it outside. I took a sip of the water and offered it to one of the girls. The other girl wanted some to but I didn't want to give her any because she'd been mean to me earlier. I grabbed the jar and started running away. I tripped, dropping the bottle and smashing it. I fell onto the broken glass and several pieces cut into my left wrist. I remember riding in the ambulance with my mother trying to speak english with the paramedics and fussing over me. My dad passed us on the road. He was coming back from a round of job interviews in Sydney and wondered who the ambulance was for. I still have a messed up scar on my wrist from where the doctor stitched it - stitching was obviously not his forte.
My dad would be given a list of job interviews to attend and would set out for Sydney or Melbourne for a few days to attend them. If you rejected any your name would be put to the back of the file. Many of the immigrants resented that their qualifications were not respected and they were expected to be happy to do any sort of work. Every job interview my dad went on he would always be told 'We'll let you know' and they never did. By the time my dad worked that out he also worked out that he need a car so he could go hunt for his own job and not just the jobs the 'employment office' sent him out to. A mad Egyptian  friend we'd made at Bonegilla, Kemi Morcas, took dad to the nearest town and dad bought a silver Holden station wagon with red leather seats and off he went for a job interview at Kodak in Melbourne.
In Copenhagen he had been one of an elite team of pioneering computer programmers who worked on a massive mainframe computer at the Copenhagen university servicing the physicists at the Niels Bohr institute. There were only a few of this particular type of computer in the world. One in Copenhagen, one in London, one in Milan, IBM had a couple and I think NASA had one. Kodak were only just setting up their computer department, they had one other programmer. At the interview the chap interviewing dad said, 'Well Mike, I've got no way of knowing whether this super computer your telling me about even exists, but if it does you've got more experience that anyone here. We'll let you know'.
My dad had had enough of 'I'll let you knows' and said, 'No you won't. If you can't let me know here and now then don't bother I'll look elsewhere'.
The chap said he had to consult with his 'supervisor' and left the room for ten minutes. He came back in and said, 'Well the jobs yours on one condition'
'And what would that be?' my dad asked.
'You shave your beard off - you look like a terrorist!'
My dad thought about it for approximately one microsecond and said, 'I'll take it!'
The two later became great friends and dad found out the chap hadn't really gone out to 'consult' with his supervisor, it was just bullshit. Anyways, it meant we could get out of Bonegilla. The chap rang 'a friend' and organised a flat for us the next day and helped us move in. He organised some spare stuff we needed and came round with an esky full of 'cold ones' and some folding chairs. My dad tells this story way better and I'm encouraging him to start up his own blog to tell his stories in. Hopefully he'll have photos too - I'll keep you posted when he launches.

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