“Una mattina all’alba vedemmo l’Australia per la prima volta. Una striscia di terra piatta, il cielo azzurro ed una cortina di nuvole bassissime. Sembrava che schiacciassero la terra.” (One morning at dawn we saw Australia for the first time. A strip of flat land, a blue sky, and a very low curtain of clouds. They seemed to be squashing the land).
“We were there on deck staring at this strangely fascinating vista. Especially we children who were on the ship. Here, finally, was our new homeland.”
This is Stefania Pieri’s first sighting of Australia after forty days at sea on the Galileo Galilei, which was carrying the last assisted migrants from Italy. It was October 1974, and Stefania was a little girl following her mothers’ whim to travel to Australia in search of a new and different life in a country she had only heard about.
Theirs was not a story of leaving Italy because of dire economic hardship. The family lived in Rome, had all their family in or around Rome, were engaged in work and had prospects of a decent, if not affluent future. Her father Sergio was an expert butcher and ran a small business, while her mother Anna Maria was a highly regarded fashion seamstress.
“Mamma aveva letto una propaganda che diceva ‘Dài a tuoi figli una prospettiva nella terra del sole, I’Australia’, e nel giro di pochi mesi annunciò che saremmo partiti. Papà era anche lui convinto che l’Australia offriva opportunità per loro come genitori e per i loro tre figli. I nonni però non ci credevano. Erano tristi. Ma ecco che siamo andati alla cieca. Non avevamo nessuno in Australia. Non sapevamo nulla dell’Australia.” (My mother had read a piece of propaganda that said, “Give your children a new outlook in the Land of the Sun, Australia,” and within the space of a few months she announced that we would be leaving. Even Dad was convinced that there was opportunity for them as parents and their three children. But our grandparents were not as convinced. They were sad. But there you have it—we left in the dark. We had no one in Australia. We knew nothing about Australia).
As she speaks Stefania smiles, recollecting her parents’ mental picture of Australia; the kangaroos roaming the streets, the blonde-haired children with their glorious tans, the wide open spaces that seemed to go on forever. And the contented women with their lovely little cottages and gardens.
Australia was so vastly different in their eyes to Italy that the journey was a kind of exploratory adventure, a chance to discover a world they could never hope to replicate in Rome. But Stefania left Italy with a heavy heart.
“Ero turbata dalla partenza,” she tells me. “Siamo partiti da Napoli. Mi ricordo che trascorremmo del tempo in un vecchio edifico con lunghi corridoi e letti tipo ospedale. Brutto posto. Ero triste. Anche perché non volevo lasciare mia nonna in particolare. Ma la sensazione più forte di distacco la sentii a Messina. Lì abbiamo veramente lasciato I’Italia. La gente piangeva. Era un secondo addio dopo Napoli. A quel punto ci siamo resi conto che andavamo verso l’ignoto.” (Parting really affected me. We left from Naples. I remember we spent time in an old building with long corridors and beds like in hospitals. An awful place, I was so sad. I didn’t want to leave my grandmother in particular. The most heartfelt parting though was in Messina. That’s where we really left Italy behind. People wept. It was a second farewell after Naples. It was at that moment that we realised we were really heading into the unknown).
Stefania’s impressions of the Australian way of life were coloured by the family having to spend many long months in the Maribynong hostel for new arrivals, where they had to share communal laundries, and her mother was often obliged to cook meals on an upturned iron, and where the food provided was so vastly foreign to her and her peers, that many of them either refused to eat or got ill.
“Eravamo italiani, greci, turchi, libanesi, tutti lì insieme,” Stefania recollects. “C’era un’atmosfera di depressione fra noi. Era tutto strano. Gli odori, i modi di comportarsi…Sono rimasta quando ho visto ragazzi della mia età provenienti dall’Inghilterra già senza denti.” (We were Italians, Greeks, Turks, Lebanese, all of us together. And there was an atmosphere depression amongst us. Everything was odd. The smells, the mannerisms … I was shocked when I saw English migrants of my age who had no teeth).
She tells the story rather poignantly of a woman who complained that her clothes were disappearing in the washing machine, only to be told that she had been putting her clothes into the flushing toilet—something the woman had never seen before.
Stefania takes no mocking pleasure in recounting these facts. They are simply realities from her experiences of being a migrant in a country they did not understand and which, on the whole, did not understand them nor their needs and expectations.
In talking to Stefania at length it is not surprising to learn that she has been politically active from a young age. Perhaps it was her upbringing. Perhaps it was the exposure to many of the inadequacies and injustices of being a foreigner in a new country. Whatever the spark for her philanthropic interests, Stefania has been at the forefront of Italy’s political movements even before she returned there as a nineteen-year-old.
“I saw many of the injustices towards us migrants first-hand,” she tells me in the English she first learned at the migrant hostel. “When we finally left the hostel and moved into a small house I saw how hard my parents had to work. How not speaking the language disempowered us. For us kids for example, the schools, particularly the public schools, were not set up to cater to our particular needs. The curriculum was rather inadequate. There was no one to give you advice or an opinion about what you might do, what path you might take.”
“Io sono andata avanti perché avevo frequentato la scuola in Italia,” she says with feeling. “Ho preso lo HSC, ma non ero soddisfatta. Mi mancava qualcosa. Non mi sentivo né carne né pesce. Pian piano sono cominciati i dubbi. Non soltanto a me, ma anche a mamma. Papà non aveva problemi a lavorare come macellaio. Aveva a che fare con altri Italiani nella maggior parte e la lingua Inglese non era una cosa significativa per lui.” (I progressed because I had some Italian schooling behind me. I did my HSC, but I wasn’t satisfied. There was something missing. I felt neither meat nor fish. Slowly doubts crept in. And not just for me, but my mother also. As far as my father was concerned, his work as a butcher was going well. He had a lot to do with other Italians and so the necessity for English wasn’t as significant for him).
What seemed to stay the family’s hand toward moving back to Rome, was that Stefania’s mother managed to finally become noticed for her skills as a dressmaker amongst Melbourne society’s upper echelons. A family friend from Toscana happened to have married a woman who had contacts in this area and introduced Stefania’s mother to them. Soon Stefania’s mother was dressing the well-to-do and developing a clientele and reputation for excellence.
Having seen her own way through secondary school, Stefania came to the realisation that one of the factors holding many people of her age and generation back, was that the parents in most cases worked so hard that they had little time to cultivate the English language, to foster a love of education beyond the fundamental essentials, and by default could not provide the guidance many of these younger migrant children needed to seek out higher education.
It was at this point, and now eighteen or so years old that Stefania became politically active and started to volunteer with Italian groups and newly arrived Italian migrants. She joined the Federazione Italiana Lavoratori Emigranti e Famiglie (FILEF) with the politician and advocate for Italian migrants in Australia, Giovanni Sgrò as its president. It was a return to Italy as a nineteen-year-old, to visit her nonna and renew contact with childhood friends that cemented Stefania’s awareness. The new and exciting militant political movement afoot in her land of birth to which she was drawn and which re-emphasised her feeling of being caught between two worlds.
At this juncture in our conversation Stefania makes two rather interesting observations. The first is that, despite all the apparent cues to the contrary, her mother was starting to have doubts about living in Australia. In her own words she says, “Non ha mai sentito che I’Australia potesse essere come la sua terra nativa.” (She never felt as though Australia could be like her native country). More significantly Stefania says that for many years she had been searching for some concrete sense of her own identity, and finally found it or at least nourished it through her political activities.
Stefania’s experiences of her own early struggles with a school system that didn’t cater to her needs, a lack of political awareness and interest amongst her Australian-born contemporaries, and a shift in the Australian political landscape in the early 1970’s with the development of multiculturalism and the push for bilingualism in schools under the Whitlam Federal government, gave rise to a desire to foster her interest in migrant issues more deeply.
“There was a new sense amongst Italian migrants of the early to mid 1970’s to actually get to know Australia as a country,” she explained. “I myself went into the outback to try and get a sense of this aspect of the Australian life and culture.” Stefania suggests that partly out of this there developed a new appreciation amongst Italian migrants for education as a key factor in being able to assimilate themselves and their families into the Australian way of life. “Ci fu un periodo in cui gli Italiani non sapevano interpretare i bisogni dei ragazzi, dei propri figli…” (There was a time when Italians didn’t seem to be able to discern the needs of their children). Having one’s children educated at the highest levels, university, tertiary, became the way forward. There was an awakening to the changing needs of the second generation, which were not simply about getting whatever job was available, but striving to step away from the initial drive of migration, which was primarily economic in nature.
So at age nineteen, Stefania travelled back to Italy with a new social consciousness as it were, and not surprisingly, found herself drawn to the political scene in Italy at the time. As a result, she returned to Australia but couldn’t settle back in to what had been. She began a series of journeys between the two countries, often with one of her sisters. In 1982, she finally reconciled herself to the fact that she could pursue her desires to help Italians and Italian migrants best by being in the country of her birth, eventually taking up a position as it turned out with the Italian Senator from Australia Marco Fedi, himself a once prominent member of FILEF.
Stefania explained that initially there was no concrete decision on either her or her sister’s behalf to abandon Australia for Italy. It was a conviction their mother came to, fearing her daughters would do so. As she had done in Italy previously, Stefania’s mother sold the family home on a whim in preparation to follow her daughters back to Italy.
That was in 1981, although it would take another year of to and fro between Italy and Australia before Stefania herself made the ultimate decision to move back to Rome. Surprisingly, her parents didn’t return to Rome though where exactly they went Stefania doesn’t say.
“Io mi sono sentita quasi in dovere di tornare poi in Italia,” she goes on saying. “In Australia non sono riuscita a fare la strada che volevo. Volevo andare all’università. A scuola ero stata obligata a fare “woodwork”, “cooking classes”… materie che non mi andavano.” (I felt almost obliged to return to Italy. I wasn’t able to follow the road I wanted in Australia. I wanted to go to university. At school, I was obliged to study woodwork and cooking … Subjects I didn’t want to study). Stefania lapses into English to add, “for children of migrant’s in the 1970’s there was a vacuum into which many of us fell. A gap between what we saw possible and what was available. Our parents, for all their efforts, were too focused on getting ahead economically to really have an understanding of the wider implications of education for their children -daughters in particular perhaps. There developed a real sense of disillusion with what Australian society could offer as all it seemed able to provide was simply work and more work … for them and their children.”
Perhaps this explains why today Stefania is such an advocate for the children of migrant families to have access to as broad and encompassing an education as it is possible, and why she has such empathy for the needs of migrants and their children to find room in today’s Italy by means of educational opportunities.
Stefania remembers her time at Brunswick High in inner Melbourne, as a tumultuous time. It was a period of social change—the rise of the concept of multiculturalism, a growing awareness of the disparity between those who could afford higher education and those who couldn’t, those who aspired to breaking the cycle of following parents into menial jobs and those who sought to make their own futures.
There was, Stefania argues, a rethinking of the obligations between the migrating parents and their children who either had no choice but to migrate with them or were born into a country where their parents were still relative outsiders, and as a consequence the lines between parental expectations and filial desires blurred.
In essence, the burgeoning economic well being of the migrant gave permission for subsequent generations to demand more out of the country of settlement than mere financial success. For Stefania, the answer lay in returning to Italy to pursue her goal of working with and improving the life of migrants in her own native country.
It would appear to this writer at least, that for Stefania Pieri this is an issue less about assimilation than it is about social justice.