Migrant Voices – Maria Presti

Lloyd Triestino MV AustraliaMaria Presti sailed to Australia with her new husband when she was 21 years old. She lost her parents and close family, the places she loved, its environment and my culture. However, in Maria's case, it was a decision which she took and took voluntarily.

I was born in 1939 in a small mountain town near Messina, Sicily. I am the eldest of four children with two sisters and one brother. I completed my education, both primary and secondary in my hometown. I would have liked to continue my studies, but I would have had to go to the city and that meant moving away from home.

My parents had a plot of land, where they worked and planted all sorts of grains and vegetables and grew all the supplies needed by the family. There were also cows for milk and ricotta cheese for the family and some for sale. We had a small grocery shop and very often I had to help my mother with it and the housework. When I finished school, my mother taught me how to sew and sent me to a sewing school. She used to buy material, and I would have to make clothes for myself and my sisters.

I married my husband, by proxy because my father wouldn't allow me to come to Australia without being married; and Filippo did not have the money for a return trip to Australia. Because I was under 21 years of age, I needed my dad's consent to marry. My dad didn't like my decision to go away, but I was determined to marry my husband, come here, but not to live in Australia all my life.

When I left it was very, very sad. I left my family, friends, relatives and everything I had known and loved for 20 years. When I think back to that time, the sadness is still with me.

I came on a ship called "Australia". It took 28 long days. During that time I began to realise just how far Australia was! The day I arrived in Melbourne my husband was there waiting for me with some people from my own home town. It was lovely to see him, after four years, and those familiar faces even though only for a few hours, because the next day we travelled by train to Shepparton, where I have lived 47 years, all my life in Australia.

I left Italy in winter and arrived here in summer, which was a shock. I wasn't used to Australian summers and the hot weather drained all my energy and made me feel tired. This was the first of many changes I had to face. My courage, my hope and my faith in God and my husband didn't let me down.

The first period was like a honeymoon for us. We were very happy. We set up our home but I had to learn a few new things, like how to light a Primus for cooking meals. I found some things funny and some things strange. And of course learning the English Language was a major hurdle. I would hear people talking in the neighborhood and not understand anything. I felt like a blind person, fumbling in the dark, but I tried hard to learn and understand English.

Initially I did a correspondence course, which involve listening to the radio at 5:30 in the morning and then complete some written exercises. I found the early morning too difficult so I completed the written part in the evening. Consequently my written English is better than my spoken English. Besides, my working life and my home duties didn't allow me to have much time to study English.

However, I was more determined to understand, especially when my daughter started to go to school and I had to go and talk to the teachers. I again enrolled in various English courses where I met people from different countries and other Italian women, so we were forced to use English to communicate. I also had an Australian lady who tutored me at home in English conversations. This helped to improve my spoken English and my confidence.

The wife of my husband's boss regularly called in to chat and gave me advice about everything, which was very helpful. And a neighbor's daughter who was my age also came regularly with a list of English words and I had to translate them into Italian. It helped her too as her boyfriend was Italian! All my neighbors were Australian and they were very patient, helpful and considerate when communicating with me.

The Catholic religion was a major part of life for me in my home town. I had always been part of the youth group affiliated with my local Catholic Church. However, in Australia, my local Catholic Church appeared to have a different set of values to what I had grown up with and was a point of major shock and confusion. For example, I thought dancing with boys was a sin but at St. Mel's Church in Shepparton there would be a dance regularly. However, all this did not change my faith in God.

I have been working for more than 10 years now as a volunteer with Vision Australia. (Baringa Centre). I am the co-leader of a telelink (conference link) program, which links by telephone a group of nine - 10 including myself, -- elderly Italian people for one hour each week. Some of them are house-bound, isolated and lonely. I find it rewarding, because I can give a little happiness to those who came here before me and had no opportunity to learn English.

An immigrant is like a plant transplanted into a rich soil. With nurturing and feeding it will grow well. With hard work, determination and a positive frame of mind it is possible to overcome the hurdles of an adopted nation.

A few months after the conference, Maria sent in the following thoughts arising from watching a film about the Stolen Generation:

When I thought about the experience of the man who had his parents, brothers and sisters taken from him by brute force. He lost all his close relatives, his country and culture. I had some idea of what he must have experienced as we had something in common. I too had lost my parents and close family, the places I loved, its environment and my culture. However, in my case, it was a decision which I took and took voluntarily. But, it brought home to me just how unfair and lacking in respect it is to impose policies of assimilation.


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