I see myself as a boat person. One of those dreaded foreigners who came to this country to strike fear into the good people of Wodonga/Wangaratta/Wagga Wagga and to destroy their lifestyle.
It was a big boat though, nothing like the small, leaky fishing vessels that bring in today’s even more dreaded boat people.
This big boat with me on it was full of Europeans looking for a better life.
It was 1960 or thereabouts when the horror of World War II had had some time to soften, although it never would for people who had lived through it.
As a small child I had no real understanding of why we were leaving but I have a painful memory of the procession that accompanied us to the railway station.
I remember it because of the weeping. You feel fear when you see your parents breaking into pieces, when your grandparents whom you have never seen cry, sob uncontrollably.
My parents were not pursued by gunfire, there were no bombs exploding, just the village turning out to wave off another family that couldn’t or did not want to cope any more.
My father, a farmer’s son with small business sensibilities (he always voted Liberal), refused to join the Communists and consequently feared footsteps at night. My mother never really forgave him for not sticking it out.
It must have been a relatively quiet time in the former Yugoslavia because some people were allowed out of the country, unlike a few years before when risking being shot at one of the borders was the only way out.
We came here with two small children and four suitcases is how my mother still tells it, often followed by ‘‘but we should not have come’’.
They were technically economic migrants because they had a home and land and the country was not at war. My father probably would not have been shot at dawn, although people were known to disappear. He could have joined the Communist party and enjoyed a good life like his more pragmatic brother.
The big boat that took a month to chuff its way across the Equator was full of economic migrants desperate to get away from a depressed Europe and give their kids a better life. Everybody wants to give their kids a better life. It comes with being a parent. Some, like us, had visas, most were destined for the immigration centres.
But life was bloody hard before it got better. Many settled in and made good, some felt like traitors and failures for having come, others took the suicide option.
As I said, I see myself as a boat person, even though the boat was waterproof and comfortable, because my family left everything they knew and loved to start afresh in a country with an unknown language, an empty, alien landscape, no recognisable cultural markers. And sometimes the reception was not all that friendly. But I am angry that others like me, including some in my extended family, have forgotten or disowned the experience.
You would think that people who had suffered and survived the loss of home would have some empathy for those who also are victims of history’s upheavals.
A better life. Nobody really wants to leave home, they just want home to be easier to live in.
I have heard some shocking language at barbecues from people who should know better, where a few beers unmask inherent racism, the fear of the ‘‘other’’.
And I can’t stand the so-called right wing commentators who go out of their way to demonise, dehumanise, and criminalise desperate people, just to ignite fear and hate among those who don’t have the imagination to recognise the humanity that binds everyone.
I have no idea what the refugee solution is, and I reckon there will never be one until we change the way we think about the ‘‘other’’, and the language we use to describe them.
More virtue words are needed. Try compassion and sharing the abundance.