Refugees’ son who inhabited two worlds
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.