Crossing the Desert

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The tired confusion on my face, and the strained smile on my mother’s tells a story. I know where I am, but I cannot remember it. Strangely enough, I can remember standing in the snow in Germany many months earlier dressed in a green, hooded, furry coat, but I cannot remember standing beside my mother and brother, in our winter clothes in the heat of late summer, in 1951 at Central Station in Sydney, after a hellish journey across the desert.

But I do know exactly how you were feeling Mum, because years later, you told me. You could barely hold yourself together, and yet, you did. With two babies, what else could you do?

Soon after we arrived at the Northam Refugee Camp in Western Australia, my grandparents who were already in Sydney, started the process of getting us over to New South Wales.

The first leg of our journey was by bus to Kalgoorlie, then across the desert by rail. When we boarded the train, families were separated—women and children at one end and men at the other, meeting only in the dining carriage for meals. There was no access to water and no provision for the needs of babies, especially for those like my brother, who was bottle-fed. Dad managed to get hot water to wash the bottles, but Mum was left with the dirty nappies. She washed them in the hand basin of the toilet late at night and held them out of the train window to dry. It worked well until one night there was a desert storm, and all the nappies were covered in red dust! Disheartened, she wept.  

We arrived in Melbourne at 9 p.m. seven days later, but the ordeal did not end there. And I know just how you felt with what came next Mum. You and Dad were told that you had to change trains in Melbourne for Sydney, but no one bothered to tell you that the train for Sydney departed the following morning. You had no access to timetables nor were you given any information as to where you could find accommodation for the night. With no English, you had no idea how to ask.

You were not only isolated, given what happened next, you were also ignored.

You had nowhere to go, so all you could do was sit and wait. Fortunately, it was summer so being out at night was not overly cold. And that is exactly what you did. You sat on the station, with your babies, all night. It would have been clear to the station master that you needed help—a family who did not speak English, but true to the xenophobia at the time, without a glance or a word, he turned off all the lights, locked the doors to the station buildings and waiting rooms, and left.

My father, who could always move mountains and get things done, must have felt useless and completely emasculated. He carried out a bench from the platform and moved it to the side of the building to afford some protection for the hours to come. Mum laid me down on the seat between her and Dad, and my brother, who luckily had a full bottle, fell asleep in her arms. And that is how we spent the night, with no food or water.

When the sun came up, exhausted, we boarded the train for Sydney. While we were not separated this time, Mum was in such a distressed state she had no memory of this last part of the journey. The experience had stripped her bare, emotionally, and physically.

As with all non-English speaking migrants, the introduction to our new life was proving to be very tough indeed. All we had left was the hope that what was to come, would be better. 

© Inara Hawley

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