One woman's story of reclaiming her birthright

One woman's journey of identity realisation is a story which many migrants who now call Australia home can relate to.

As a child newly arrived in a strange land Mirjana Boznovska of Sylvania Waters recalls wrestling with her sense of identity and her culture and heritage.

Mirjana was born in a barn in the small village of Dolno Srpci in the then Yugoslavia. Her name at birth carried the meaning 'peace on earth'.

When she moved to Australia with her older sister and parents everything changed.

Even her literal identity - her name - came into question as a child.

A teacher at school in the 1960s changed her name - not by Mirjana's choice - because she struggled to pronounce her name in class.

She was called 'Maria', throughout her school life and the name stuck for more than 50 years. It's a scenario that is perhaps commonly shared by children of newly arrived migrants in the 1960s and 70s.

"Interestingly the teacher said to my parents 'we can't pronounce her name and will call her Maria'," Mrs Boznovska said.

"There was no option given as to what I would prefer. Though as a five-year-old I don't know that I would have appreciated the significance of that choice, nor what my parents would prefer more importantly. They never called me Maria, they called me 'Mire', which is a shortened version of Mirjana. It wasn't confusing for me as I had just accepted it as the norm."

Schooling wasn't easy at times. She experienced some bullying because she wasn't considered among the 'majority'.

"I wasn't the first nor the last - it happened back then and it happens today," Mrs Boznovska said.

"I went to a public high school where there weren't many Europeans. You were aware of body image. I wasn't the cool, sporty kid, I was the studious one in the library."

Aside from being known by a new name in the classroom and to her peers, all to be simply accepted into society, 'Maria' became attached to new 'label' - sticking to it for the next five decades.

"Having moved to a new country, the main concern of my parents at that time was to assimilate, fit in and be accepted," she said.

"I was known as Maria from then on and all throughout my life. It just stuck with me and after seven years of primary school, I continued to embrace that name beyond that time. Though all my official documents continued in Mirjana. It was the new identity I had accepted."

In 1968, 'Maria' was the top 16th most popular girl's name, according to Registry of Births, Deaths & Marriages. It progressively fell down the list as each decade passed.

After schooling, Mrs Boznovska moved into a "socially acceptable job" - accounting in the corporate world, much to the delight of her parents.

It was a trip back to her original home that paved the way to a 'newfound' sense of a lost identity and a decision to reclaim her birth name.

The now mother-of-four who is also a published author, writer and motivational speaker, has only been back to Macedonia twice - once when she was 10 years of age, and the second time, only just in 2018 for her 50th birthday.

"I found it incredibly soulful and nourishing going back to my birth place, and not a lot of it was left standing, in this beautiful mountainous village," she said.

"I hadn't really given much thought to my name but it was only a result of visiting my birth place and considering my background, where I saw it as potential growth and healing, rather than being hard done by or a victim of cultural mentality."

She says exposing her own children to the value of cultural background requires more of a conscious effort nowadays.

"My eldest, a son, 29 and daughter, 26, when they were young they were often looked after by my parents and spoke our native language, it was easy for them, and it's easier speaking English. For my younger two I try to sit down with them and talk about my cultural background, about how life was back then," she said.

"I took my two youngest daughters, aged 11 and 9, to Macedonia, and they found it fascinating going into the room where my grandmother lived, and seeing the school she attended."

"Australia has always been home for me. But I see my story as one of celebration, which inspired me to embrace my authenticity and uniqueness, and not conform.

"We won't always have a choice to what we experience, but we will always have a choice as to how we experience it and what we do with it."