Refugees’ son who in­hab­ited two worlds

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Grow­ing up in Aus­tralia, the chil­dren of refugees have al­ways had it harder than the rest of us, forced to learn a sec­ond lan­guage, adopt a for­eign cul­ture and tip­toe along a tightrope that di­vides the old coun­try from the new. Tra­di­tional val­ues im­posed by the fam­ily in­evitably clash with those en­joyed in the school play­ground, cre­at­ing great sto­ries of drama, pathos or hu­mour. For­tu­nately, with the pub­li­ca­tion of Whole Wild World, award-win­ning jour­nal­ist Tom Du­se­vic has achieved all three.

Dur­ing the 1950s in Croa­tia, Du­se­vic’s fa­ther, Joso, was im­pris­oned for 3½ years for dis­tribut­ing anti-com­mu­nist pro­pa­ganda. Mean­while, to sup­port her­self, his mother, Milenka, be­came an olive oil smug­gler, car­ry­ing 20-litre urns on her head in the dead of night from vil­lage to vil­lage. Af­ter his re­lease from prison, Joso fled to Aus­tralia as an as­sisted mi­grant, while Milenka saved enough money to buy a share in a fish­ing boat with 15 other Croa­t­ians, plan­ning to es­cape to Italy. The en­gine failed and the crew aban­doned the asy­lum-seek­ers.

Even­tu­ally they were dis­cov­ered by Ital­ian au­thor­i­ties and Milenka spent two years in four refugee camps. She man­aged to make con­tact with a Croa­t­ian Catholic priest in Syd­ney who spon­sored her passage to Aus­tralia as a new set­tler. “In March 1958,” writes Du­se­vic, “the record shows Milenka, a state­less, sin­gle, do­mes­tic ser­vant, thirty-two, (nudged down, she’d soon be thirty-four) boarded the Aure­lia in Genoa for a five-week passage to Syd­ney.” Lit­tle did Milenka know that on the very same ship trav­elled an older wo­man who would one day be­come her mother-in-law.

In a beau­ti­fully com­pressed chap­ter, Du­se­vic nar­rates the sep­a­rate jour­neys of his mother and fa­ther to Syd­ney, and the ways they ini­tially strove to set­tle and make a liv­ing: Joso as a cane cut­ter; Milenka a house­keeper for rich fam­i­lies in the eastern sub­urbs of Syd­ney. When the two fi­nally meet in New­town and fall in love, the story as­sumes an even deeper poignancy: Milenka is at the tail-end of her child-bear­ing years and it’s al­most a mir­a­cle that af­ter her mar­riage to Joso she man­ages to bear a son, Sam, and, just shy of her 40th birth­day, gives birth to her sec­ond, Tom. By then they are liv­ing in south­west­ern Syd­ney, a mecca for Le­banese, Ital­ian and other Croa­t­ian im­mi­grants.

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