Th­ese ex­tended fam­i­lies jour­neyed the roads of Aus­tralia for 90 years.

Australian Geographic - - Geo buzz -

AFTER THE TRANS­PORTA­TION of English Gyp­sies as con­victs dur­ing the late 18th cen­tury, a sec­ond wave of Gyp­sies ar­rived in Aus­tralia in 1898, as refugees from the first Greco-Turk­ish war. Th­ese ‘Greek Gyp­sies’ were de­scended from slaves of Mol­davia and Wal­lachia: about half of Europe’s Gyp­sies were en­slaved in th­ese two his­tor­i­cal re­gions of Ro­ma­nia be­tween the 13th and 19th cen­turies.

After ar­riv­ing in Ade­laide, this ini­tial group of 25, headed by ‘King’ Jo­han Ste­rio, was forced to re­sort to for­tune-telling and beg­ging to sur­vive. They trav­elled to Mel­bourne and Syd­ney by foot, horse-and-cart and some­times train, in search of work. The group in­cluded a young Mary Ste­rio and her hus­band Christo – Nick Mor­gan’s pa­ter­nal grand­par­ents.

A few years later, the Jo­han fam­ily em­i­grated from Greece on cat­tle boats and, not long after that, the Jo­han and Ste­rio fam­i­lies be­gan to travel and work to­gether, and even­tu­ally in­ter­mar­ried. Nick’s mother, Han­nah, was a de­scen­dant of the Jo­han clan.

While on the road in the early 1900s, when some groups were truly broke and couldn’t feed their kids, the women would per­form bujo, a form of steal­ing dis­guised as a Gypsy bless­ing. They would never, how­ever, re­move all the avail­able cash – just enough to get them to the next town.

Th­ese ex­tended fam­i­lies jour­neyed the roads of Aus­tralia for 90 years, per­form­ing as en­ter­tain­ers in sideshows, as box­ers in Jimmy Shar­man’s troop, and as for­tunetellers. They only re­tired from per­ma­nent trav­el­ling in 1982, after the death of their then Queen Ruby Ste­rio. “I was at that fu­neral,” Nick re­calls. “We all stopped trav­el­ling [after that] be­cause of the el­ders. They were all get­ting too old and sick… They needed to be close to hos­pi­tals and spe­cial­ists.”

To­day, most Ro­mani fam­i­lies have aban­doned their tra­di­tional no­madic life­style and now tend to travel long dis­tances in car­a­vans for plea­sure rather than work. How­ever, some still drive from state to state, sleep­ing in tents at pub­lic car­a­van parks as they pick up ca­sual work.

DUR­ING THE EARLY 20th cen­tur y, many of Aus­tralia’s Ro­mani fam­i­lies lived on the road, but they didn’t all travel in car­a­vans. Most drove cars and slept be­tween feather-filled quilts in can­vas tents erected in the bush.

In 1934 The Kad­ina and Wal­la­roo Times re­ported on scores of cars cross­ing the Nullar­bor Plain as fam­i­lies

made their way from Perth to Mel­bourne, where they hoped to find work as show peo­ple and for­tune-tell­ers dur­ing the city’s cen­ten­nial cel­e­bra­tions. The news­pa­per’s jour­nal­ist noted that the Gypsy fam­i­lies had shipped their ve­hi­cles from the USA, where they’d been trav­el­ling and work­ing ear­lier: “There were about 37 per­sons, in­clud­ing chil­dren, packed into f ive lux­u­ri­ous lim­ou­sines and coupes. So lim­ited was the space, that one tiny lit­tle chap was no­ticed packed into a wa­ter bucket.”

The Great De­pres­sion had a deep im­pact on Ro­mani Gypsy life in Aus­tralia. Sud­denly, there was no money to be made from for­tune-telling, car­ni­val games or sea­sonal farm work. And so the Roma adapted yet again to the chang­ing eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal cli­mate.

In Tasmania dur­ing the early 1930s, for ex­am­ple, a Ro­mani woman nick­named Peggy Brown carved home­made pegs from wil­low trees, bound at one end with a strip of metal, which she sold to ru­ral women. She trav­elled all over south-east­ern Tasmania in an old twowheeled cart pulled by a horse – from as far south as Cygnet to as far north as Oat­lands, a dis­tance of about 100km. Ac­cord­ing to lo­cals I’ve met in the area, she had a ham­mock where her dogs slept strung be­tween the axles of her wagon. “We were fright­ened that if we didn’t buy some­thing off her, she’d turn us into a green frog,” re­mem­bers Don Nor­ton, a life­long lo­cal of the area. “Or a rat!” he adds, laugh­ing.

An­other fam­ily, the Fos­ters, left Syd­ney dur­ing the De­pres­sion and trav­elled from farm to farm across the state, putting on shows in sheds to en­ter­tain work­ers for small cash do­na­tions – enough to feed the fam­ily and get them to their next des­ti­na­tion. In win­ter, how­ever, when there were no sheep to shear, the Fos­ters joined all the other un­em­ployed ‘showies’ who would wait out the cold weather in a camp­ing area in western NSW be­tween Bourke and Bre­war­rina.

There, on the banks of the Dar­ling River, they con­structed a tent city where they didn’t have to pay rent, rates, or util­i­ties, or spend money on food. The men pro­vided for their fam­i­lies by hunt­ing feral pigs and rab­bits and catch­ing f ish, while the women for­aged and cooked and baked bread in camp ovens.

THE THIRD WAVE of Gyp­sies to ar­rive in Aus­tralia came from all parts of Europe. Fol­low­ing World War II, Aus­tralia was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing labour mar­ket short­ages and ini­ti­ated a pro­gram of high-scale im­mi­gra­tion. “The days of our iso­la­tion are over,” said then

fed­eral min­is­ter Arthur Cal­well in Novem­ber 1946, when he an­nounced the new pol­icy. Ini­tially, Cal­well had hoped to at­tract 10 Bri­tons for ev­ery con­ti­nen­tal mi­grant. How­ever, Aus­tralia was so des­per­ate to in­crease its pop­u­la­tion that his plans were quickly jet­ti­soned. The dis­tant, south­ern land rapidly be­came a de­sir­able des­ti­na­tion for Euro­pean refugees and im­mi­grants seek­ing a safer and bet­ter life.

For the next 17 years, the gov­ern­ment would pay, or partly pay, the fares of a mil­lion post-war refugees of Greek, Dutch, Ger­man, Ital­ian, Yu­goslav and Pol­ish ex­trac­tion. This, of course, in­cluded Gyp­sies, al­though most would never have dared pro­nounce their eth­nic­ity.

Upon ar­rival in Aus­tralia, one Ro­mani Gypsy fam­ily – the Ab­du­ra­manoskis, from Mace­do­nia – re­fused to hide their Ro­mani her­itage and, from the late 1960s went on to cre­ate the largest and most es­tab­lished Gypsy com­mu­nity in the coun­try. Over the decades, through both im­mi­gra­tion and pro­cre­ation, the fam­ily has grown from its orig­i­nal four mem­bers to well over 400.

The early years were tough ones for the dis­placed fam­ily, as ma­tri­arch Zera re­cently conf irmed to me. At her fam­ily home in Perth, she ex­plained the sense of deep loss and con­fu­sion she felt when she and her hus­band, Estref, ar­rived in Aus­tralia. “I kept ask­ing my­self, ‘Where am I go­ing?’” she said. “No sleep­ing. No eat­ing. I cried all the time.”

She was 18 years old and al­ready had a two-year-old daugh­ter. Still, she and her rel­a­tives went on to or­gan­ise Ro­mani soc­cer teams, dance troupes, a weekly ra­dio pro­gram and lan­guage lessons for their mem­bers in both their own lan­guage (Ro­manes) and English.

THE MOST RE­CENT in­take of Gypsy im­mi­grants to Aus­tralia, in the late 1980s, has been a re­sult of the Roma f lee­ing post-com­mu­nist Euro­pean coun­tries, such as East Ger­many, Al­ba­nia, Bul­garia, Cze­choslo­vakia, Yu­goslavia and Hun­gary. Th­ese were coun­tries where many had been forced to set­tle in high­rise slums and to work in dead-end jobs. Again, most did not claim their eth­nic iden­tity upon en­ter­ing Aus­tralia and still only re­veal it to fel­low Roma.

One ex­am­ple of this fourth wave of im­mi­grants is Hun­gar­ian Gypsy Maria Il­lés, 73, who lives in a state hous­ing depart­ment f lat in Port Mel­bourne. She and her fam­ily spent three years in three dif­fer­ent Euro­pean refugee camps be­fore they were ap­proved to en­ter Aus­tralia in the early 1990s.

Sit­ting in her tidy kitchen, I asked Maria if she’d no­ticed much racism in Aus­tralia. She smiled and shook her head. “I don’t think so. Here ev­ery­one a dif­fer­ent race,” she said. “I like Aus­tralia very much. I al­ways thank God we come to Aus­tralia.”

Just about ev­ery Ro­mani Gypsy I’ve met has conf irmed that Aus­tralia is a haven for their peo­ple. After all, un­like in Europe, Aus­tralia has never passed laws that dis­crim­i­nate against them specif­i­cally. In gen­eral, Gyp­sies here have largely been left to live in peace and ob­scu­rity for more than two cen­turies.

WHEN WE FIN­ISH our lunch, Nick Mor­gan and I leave the pub to­gether. After a f ive-minute drive we pull up in front of a neat, sin­gle-storey brick home. A vin­tage sil­ver-and-yel­low car­a­van sits be­neath a car­port. I ask Nick if he still trav­els. He grins. “One year we had my daugh­ter, her hus­band, her five kids and me, all sleep­ing in that tiny car­a­van,” he says. “We had a ball.”

He leads me through the front door of the house, into the liv­ing room, and through to the kitchen. Like all the Ro­mani homes I have vis­ited, it is im­mac­u­lately clean and neat. We place our drinks in the fridge and re­tire to the large back­yard with a tin­nie each, where a tall, ma­jes­tic gum tree rises into the sky.

A cute black-haired tod­dler ap­pears in the door­way, grin­ning. “That’s my grand­son KD,” Nick says.

I wave to KD and he waves back. Sud­denly, Nick has a gui­tar in his arms and breaks into a song. As I gaze up through the branches of the gum tree at the fad­ing light, I re­alise I’m get­ting pleas­antly drunk. Pale stars ap­pear above me like lu­mi­nous foot­prints across the sky.

The grin­ning tod­dler starts sway­ing back and forth to the mu­sic. I stand and swing him up into my arms. As Nick con­tin­ues strum­ming and singing, I dance around the yard with KD, a sixth-gen­er­a­tion Aus­tralian Gypsy, who throws his head back and be­gins to laugh.

Nick Nikolic (at left) is a Rom from for­mer Yu­goslavia, while his friend Hank is a Rom born in the Nether­lands. Both im­mi­grated to Aus­tralia in the 1970s.

Cather­ine Johns, seen here on her ru­ral prop­erty in SA in 2006, is also de­scended from the Ro­manichal Gyp­sies of Eng­land and Wales.

In 1902 Aus­tralia’s Gyp­sies from Greece camped for sev­eral months on Bondi Beach, sell­ing hand­made goods and telling for­tunes.

Ro­mani Gypsy Peggy Brown trav­elled alone dur­ing the 1930s and ’40s around Tasmania in a horse­drawn cart, sell­ing wooden pegs to ru­ral women.

RO­MAN­TI­CISED GYPSY STEREO­TYPES PER­VADED the 19th-cen­tury Euro­pean cul­tural imag­i­na­tion. Ex­em­pli­fy­ing a kind of free-spir­ited de­fi­ance, beau­ti­ful gypsy hero­ines ap­pear in the nov­els of Dick­ens, Vic­tor Hugo and Wal­ter Scott and, notably, as the tragic lead in Bizet’s opera Car­men.

Zera and Estref Ab­du­ra­manoski, who im­mi­grated to Aus­tralia from Mace­do­nia in the late 1960s, now live in Perth.

Proud Ro­mani Gypsy Maria Il­lés came to Aus­tralia in the early 1990s after spend­ing three years in Euro­pean refugee camps fol­low­ing po­lit­i­cal up­heaval in Hun­gary.

Much folk­lore sur­rounds Gypsy car­a­vans, and the knowl­edge and prac­tice of this is still cul­ti­vated by Aus­tralia’s Ro­mani peo­ple. This show­man’s car­a­van, built by Basil Smith, is in Mar­gate, TAS.

‘Queen’ Mary Ste­rio’s only sur­viv­ing grand­son, Nick Mor­gan, this year vis­ited the home in Wool­loomooloo, Syd­ney, where his Gypsy an­ces­tors lived dur­ing WWII.

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