By Vivian Parry.
It is 2010.
Monday morning 9.a.m. I phone Sister Catherine of the Brigidine Justice Community to ask her for her wish list for the forthcoming year. Sisters Bridget and Catherine are responsible for the Brigidine Asylum Seekers Project. The Project aims to provide hospitality, practical support and Justice for Asylum seekers. These two ladies well into retirement age, work tirelessly for the men, women and children arriving in Australia as refugees from places such as Darfur, Burma, and Afghanistan, Home for these desperate people, is now the detention centre at Maribyrnong. Often sick, frightened and unable to sort through the maize of red tape thrust upon them, the Asylum seekers are relieved beyond our comprehension to meet these two patient and caring women. The forms will be explained and documents sorted, letters written, and good clothing, toiletries and treats for the children handed out. The Brigidine Justice Community’s motto is “Strength and kindness” their special saying is “I was a stranger and you made me welcome” The Brigidine Sisters are true to their word..
It is 1939.
My Mother, her parents and sister arrive by ship and dock at Port Melbourne. Aided by Dutch cousins, they have escaped Nazi Germany. My Grandfather, a Dentist whose surgery was destroyed on Kristallnacht (his trigger to finally leave), had a few years before, taken the first of his precautionary measures by storing small quantities of gold as Dentists were still allowed to purchase gold for their work. He was advised by a trusted Colleague to convert this gold into jewelry, a legal, desirable commodity to trade for the family’s freedom. The second precaution he undertook was to write to the American and Australian Authorities asking if he would be able to continue to practice as a dentist in their Country should he have to leave Germany. The replies were affirmative from both. Choosing the Country furthest away from Europe, Australia, the family settled into a flat on the corner of Dickens and Tennyson St. Elwood. My Grandfather prepared the front room as his surgery. The table with his precisely laid out his dental tools, and for the patients, black leather and chrome Bauhaus chairs. A letter received shortly after, destroyed the family’s dreams. My Grandfather would not be allowed to Practice.. There had been a change in the regulations. A sensitive and distinguished man, having served in the first war as an officer in the German Army, my Grandfather forced himself to go against the Law and offered his services by hushed word of mouth to the local migrant Community. Family welfare came before honor if it meant food on the table. The Government sent a spy masquerading as a patient with a bad toothache. My Grandfather was snared in the trap. Broken hearted he paid his fines, the end of a dedicated career.
It is 2006.
My social worker friend at Hanover Family Services called me about a family who had come to Hanover in desperate need, a Father, Mother and their daughter. They had paid their own way to Australia and sought Refugee status. Waiting to have their case heard, their savings were now gone. Hanover through the Salvation Army provided them with accommodation, their needs were so much more. I agreed to pay their utility bills hopefully this would enable them to stay in the house past the allotted three months. I came to know the mother well. I learnt as an Asylum seeker on a “Bridging Visa E” you are not permitted to work. There was no Medicare, no Dole or Centrelink allowance. The local headmaster agreed to let the girl go to his school, Asylum seeker children were not allowed to do so. We visited the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre in West Melbourne. Refugees with No income can make one weekly visit to receive groceries from the Food Bank. The Resource Centre budgets on $6 per person a week. All Asylum Seekers and Refugees waiting on resolution of their case are required to attend the Immigration Department. We went together to Spring St and lined up in the queue, forms ready and signed. A “Check in.” for this family, repeated every three months for the past ten years. As Arnold Zable wrote in the Age May 19th, “With every passing month the agony of indefinite separation from family increased and drove many to the brink of madness.” As one Asylum seeker put it, “the visa reduced him to a nothing … a nobody.”
It is 1940.
My Grandfather is a broken man. My mother, 18 years old and the sole bread winner, rides an old bicycle from the flat in Dicken’s St, to Park St South Melbourne. Upstairs above the row of shops, is the factory where this once talented art student now folds and packs socks. Friday arrives, Pay day. The workers line up and receive their yellow envelopes. The factory owner waits at the door. He takes the packet out of my mother’s hand, removes half the contents inside, folds down the top and hands it back. Not one word is spoken, some money is better than nothing.
It is 2010.
I load up my car with quilts, sheets, pillows, men’s clothing size XXL, warm winter coats, the brand new fry pan in the box. The good second hand kettle and last but not least, babies clothing and blankets for three new born children. I have been a bit lucky. Sister Catherine’s wish list was all scooped from my stockpile in the garage. How fortunate am I to have such generous friends. Many hands make light work, the car is unloaded, the waiting tables filled. We hold each other and hug, no words are needed. I am the daughter of a Holocaust Survivor. My early childhood recollections of my migrant family are indelibly imprinted on my memory. I cannot change the past, can never erase the sadness or take away their pain. I was to young then, I am not to young now. I reflect on the day’s events. In my mind’s eye I see Sister Catherine’s hands bunched together under her chin, her gaze one of joyful anticipation as she imagines giving out these much needed goods. Not just material items but a symbol of hope and the knowledge someone does care. The midday light streaming in through the convent windows seems to illuminate the room with a golden glow. The same soft, warm glow as my Grandfather’s gold…… my inspiration.