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

Over The Sea to Freedom


After the Second World War, the International Refugee Organisation improvised shelter wherever they could for Displaced People. Primarily this was in military barracks, but also in hotels, castles, hospitals, private homes and even in partly destroyed buildings. By the end of 1945 there were literally hundreds of DP Camps throughout Europe, controlled and managed by the Americans and the British. As people found homes refugees were consolidated into fewer camps which meant a lot of moving. While the immediate concern was to provide shelter, nutrition and basic health care, conditions were generally harsh with restricted rations and curfews. All refugees came to these camps not only emotionally broken, but physically debilitated. Having experienced terrible hardships, including lack of food, personal hygiene and medical care, they also had to deal with the after effects of oppression, constant fear, terror and even abuse. People were often sick, lice-ridden, traumatised and very suspicious. But together they made the best of it; their personal experiences became a shared experience, and community spirit prevailed. Camp residents set up churches, choirs, newspapers, sports groups and schools. They also organised song festivals and wherever possible people picked up their trade or profession and began to work and teach others. They were filled with high hopes and anticipation. My parents and I were amongst those displaced people, and this is the story of how we arrived in Australia.

Ulm Refugee Camp

Refugee Camp in Ulm, Germany

My Latvian parents met and married in a refugee camp in Germany. As much as they would have wanted, they could not go back to a Latvia ruled by Communists. So after months and months of waiting, and months and months of moving from camp to camp we were finally accepted by Australia. All countries accepting refugees after the Second World War had strict rules and regulations, and one of the regulations for Australia was that a child had to be two years of age. I was not yet of age, so we had to wait, and we had to keep moving ~ we lived in a constant state of preparedness. This of course was very stressful, especially with a baby, for we never knew what the following day would bring. And moving was never easy ~ we were loaded into open trucks with only what we could carry, often at night in wind and rain. When a camp couldn’t take us, we stayed in the trucks overnight covered with blankets. It wasn’t easy trying to feed, change and settle a baby in the back of an open truck filled with strangers. At times there was no food or water, let alone clean nappies; survival was a day-at-a-time experience, and my parents got through every minute of it. They found the strength and the faith to go on, to do their best, to give and to love. Yes, it is always at the hardest of times that the human spirit shines the brightest.


When Fishing Becomes A Feast


My father loved fishing. He was brought up by a river and I can’t remember a time during my childhood when fishing was not part of our life. We went fishing every single weekend ~ Dad, Mum my younger brother and me.

In the early days we had no car nor did we have the money to hire a motorboat. You see we were refugees, part of the intake by the Australian government after the Second World War to populate the country, and life was tough. Not only did we have no money, my parents were trying to fit into a country which at the time was very xenophobic. It was during this time that fishing became a crucial part of our life for it was what provided us with most of our food. There were many times when the fish we caught that day was our evening meal. So while fishing was Dad’s great love, it was also what sustained us.

Fishing Every Saturday Mum would pack the lunch, Dad, the bait and lines, and we’d head off to One Point at Georges River in Sydney. We’d then pile into our hired dinghy and Dad would row us out to the deep part of the river and let the boat slowly drift. He fished all day ~ from morning till sunset. To keep the fish fresh and alive, Dad hung a mesh bag over the side of the boat. In those days there was no law about throwing back the little ones so we kept and ate everything we caught. And if I remember rightly, the little ones were the most delicious!

Sometimes we pulled into a sandy inlet for lunch, but mostly we spent the day on the water. My brother and I sat in the open boat with wide brimmed hats, our fingers rippling through the shiny dark green water. They were quiet peaceful days, moving with the rise and fall of river as it gently lapped the side of the boat. Occasionally the silence was broken by the plopping sound of a leaping fish, and at other times we gazed in amazement as the river filled with jellyfish and surrounded our boat. When we got older my brother and I also fished. I caught a few, and my brother, two years younger, caught a few less than me. We really weren’t fisherman material. It was my sister, born some years later, who turned out to be a match for Dad.

A Feast of FishOf course, the best part of the day was the delicious feast back home, which my mother managed to produce with expert ease at the end of a long day of fishing. Dad did the scaling and gutting, and then Mum crumbed and fried our bounty on an old gas stove just the way Dad liked it. Then, as with everything she cooked, she served it on a big platter in the middle of the table. It was wonderful, and the fish were scrumptious! I can still taste the buttery sweet flakes. It truly was finger licking good!

While this may seem to be a simple story about fishing, it really is far from it. Fishing allowed us to experience the joy of a table laden with food. And food was very much part of celebrating life in our family. As I grew older I understood that these feasts symbolised a celebration of survival and freedom ~ they were the antithesis to the insanity of war, deprivation, fear and loss which my parents experienced. While life was not easy in a new country, we never took our circumstances or our new life for granted. Our bountiful table was a representation of all the good things we valued, and for us, every feast was without doubt a fortunate one.

Inara Hawley © 2013