Lella Cariddi, herself a migrant, has been helping women share their stories. (ABC News: Nicole Mills)
Lella Cariddi remembers being “in a state of total ignorance” about what to expect when her family moved from Italy to Australia.
She settled in Bendigo in country Victoria and said many migrants displayed a sense of submission in their new home.
“There was no formal welcome mat,” she said.
“If you went out in the street and you didn’t speak English you didn’t speak at all.”
Ms Cariddi now works as a curator for Multicultural Arts Victoria and has been on a three-year mission to share the forgotten stories of Australia’s migration history.
Recently, her focus shifted to women’s migration stories.
She said in the early days of mass migration, many new arrivals were beholden to the government for a job and didn’t want to be seen as “complainers”.
“They lived a censored lifestyle so people didn’t speak out, people didn’t necessarily share their experience.
“As a consequence, the experience of those millions who arrived by ship between the late 1940s and the late 1970s, those stories do not appear in the annals of Australian history.
“A great number have been lost, others have been overlooked or forgotten, and it’s really going through this archaeological process of excavation to bring to light some of those experiences.”
Ms Cariddi said those who shared their stories as part of her projects often felt a sense of relief. Many felt proud their story was worth telling at all.
“Every story is unique in terms of background and in terms of experience,” she said.
“But what comes through is that regardless of the family makeup, the women feature largely in the settlement, in the family’s success and what ensued afterwards.
“They were the glue that held everything together.”
Housebound, suffering with disconnection
Ms Cariddi also has her own migration story to tell.
Her father was a Morse code operator in Mussolini’s army in World War II but was captured by the Allies and sent to a prison camp in Kenya where disease was rife and food scarce.
After eight years he was allowed to return home and meet his daughter for the first time.
“Italy, like the rest of Europe, was a devastated continent,” Ms Cariddi said.
“Everything had been destroyed; bridges, roads, rail tracks. There were only jobs in reconstruction.”
Although he suffered terribly in the prison camps, Ms Cariddi said her father didn’t hold a grudge and decided to move the family to Australia in search of a better life.
He migrated first but it took him five years to save enough money to bring the rest of the family.
Ms Cariddi said one of the hardest things was saying goodbye to her grandparents.
“Because of the long trip — you were lucky if you could get to Australia from Europe in 30 days — plus the cost, there was no hope of ever going back.
“You came and it was forever, so in a way it was kind of like part of a funeral while you were still living.
“My mother especially, she suffered with disconnection. She was housebound.
“My sisters and I not so much because we went to school, we did things, but my mother silently suffered total disconnection, disconnection from her family but also cultural disconnection.”
Ms Cariddi said it was important these stories of hardship and reinvention were not lost.
“This is social history which lies at the foundation of modern Australia and says who we are,” she said.
“It is critical that the younger generation understands these beginnings.”
Never felt quite at home
Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper hid from the Nazis in a cellar during WWII. (ABC News: Nicole Mills)
Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper is nearing the end of her life. She has stage four metastatic cancer.
“I’m 80 years old so I don’t really mind that much that I haven’t got long to live,” she said.
“I think … maybe I’ll change my mind when I’m at the gasping stage.
“I’ve had an interesting life. It hasn’t always been good but it’s been interesting.”
The poet and teacher was born in Holland to Jewish parents.
During WWII her mother worked for the Resistance and her father was in the army and deployed overseas.
Ms Elliott-Kleerkoper spent the war in a stranger’s house, often locked inside a dark cellar to stay hidden.
“Usually when you talk about the Holocaust what is presented is a camp, and even among Jews it is said that you haven’t suffered unless you’ve been in a camp,” she said.
“They just don’t understand what it meant to be separated from my family and like a parcel, like a suitcase, handed in to a bunch of strangers.
“My mother said, ‘Goodbye I’ll be back soon’, and disappeared for three years. I said: ‘Soon? Soon? What does soon mean? When is my mother coming back?'”
Her parents survived the war and she was 11 when the family moved to Australia in 1948.
Ms Elliott-Kleerkoper said it was the worst age to leave her homeland, having only just established some friendships after the war.
“I had a life and they just ripped me out of there. I don’t know if that wasn’t worse.
“If you decide to go and you go as an adult, that’s a very different thing to if you’ve been dragged there as a child.”
She resented having to move to Australia and said she never felt quite at home.
But hearing other women’s tales of their migration experiences made her feel less alone.
“These are stories that are important and have been neglected,” she said.
“We’re sharing differences as well as similarities. I think it does make you feel at home, more at peace.”
‘You can lose your family’
Nela Trifkovic shared her story of migration from Bosnia & Herzegovina. (ABC News: Nicole Mills)
When war broke out in Bosnia in the early 1990s, Nela Trifkovic’s family was left in a state of shock and denial.
Like many others in the former Yugoslavia they believed the war would end quickly and failed to imagine the horrors that would ensue.
“A lot of us were very wounded by that war because we didn’t see it coming.”
In the end, it was her grandmother who made the decision to move the family away from Europe.
“I remember we were watching some news about the latest disaster and [my grandmother] said, ‘I survived WWII, this is not going to stop, and even if it stops it’s not going to be good enough for [Nela]’,” Ms Trifkovic said.
Their migration options were Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia — and Australia was the first to come back saying yes.
“We didn’t know anyone in Australia. I had to go and buy an atlas to look up Perth because we’d never heard of Perth. That’s how random it was.”
Ms Trifkovic is an artist, performer and music teacher and studied at the WA Academy of Performing Arts.
During her undergraduate years she also worked as an interpreter and noticed that in a lot of families from the former Yugoslavia, women were not on an equal footing.
“Women stayed behind to look after the family and they don’t learn the language as well sometimes if they’re stuck at home,” she said.
“Often times the man learns the language better because of their work environment, the kids learn the language from a young age.
“Not that it’s a bad thing, but you’ve been reduced to primarily being a mother and a housewife and you lose your entire family because the kids become patchy in your first language.”
Ms Trifkovic said she was amazed to hear so many people from different backgrounds sharing stories about their mothers and grandmothers.
“Having had very female-dominant family history I really thought it was important to mention the resilience and the sacrifices and the achievements of women.
“Women are incredibly resilient, and a huge part of that resilience comes from all sorts of flexibilities and creativities that you have to come up with, and some of it comes as a direct outcome of being a carer.”
To hear more stories of migration, tune in to the ABC Radio Melbourne Breakfast show on June 12 when it broadcasts live from Melbourne’s Princes Pier.