When war refugees find paradise Down Under

When a Cambodian man and his pregnant wife, having fled the Khmer Rouge, were on the bus from Sydney Airport, they quickly concluded that they were in paradise.

Despite the cold of winter, they slept on top of the blankets of their neatly made bed at the migrant hostel in 1978 because they did not want to get into any trouble for messing up the bed and be sent back to hell. Such was their ingrained fear of arbitrary power and victimisation.

After a few weeks, they stopped stealing the sauces and other condiments from the dining hall at the hostel because they realised that the food would keep coming and there was no need to hoard. They then started to act as mentors to incoming refugees assuring them that they could sleep under the blankets, and the food would arrive three times a day, every day.

When the Salvation Army helped them and their new baby into a house in suburban Sydney, it was plain on the faces of these Salvos that they were most embarrassed about the quality of the furniture they managed to scrounge for them.

The Cambodian couple thought they were in paradise again. The house and furniture were better than anything they had seen in a middle-class home in Phnom Penh.

After a few years of hard work, the father saved enough to open an electrical retailing franchise.

The mother went to the store one afternoon to fill in for an absent worker. She did not come back for 7-years. She was great at bargaining with fellow refugees. She knew that her fellow refugees only had a certain amount of money, and she bargained to find out what that was. She wrapped the goods up tightly because she knew that they took public transport home.

The word spread that her store was a good place for a bargain, and the store prospered. Their daughter grew up to be a lawyer and wrote one of the best autobiographies I have read.

I had some Cambodian friends at graduate school in Japan in 1995 to 1997. Friendly, kind people despite growing up in hell.

They also gave me great insight into the blinding power of nationalism. My two Cambodian friends, educated urbane people, referred to the time after the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia as when they were a Vietnamese colony.

Another Cambodian, who no one liked, when he annoyed his Vietnamese class mates too much, they would say, “Remember 1979.”

This taunt would throw this Cambodian into a fit of nationalist pique. He raged against the invasion. If any country would have benefited from an invasion even from hell, it would have been Cambodia under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge by 1979.

My best mate at University was the son of a war refugee from the Ukraine. His Dad was rounded up to be a slave in a Nazi factory in Germany.

My mate’s dad came to Australia because it was the first country to accept him. He did not want to go back to the Ukraine because it was now Russian rather than Polish.

Despite finding paradise in Australia, his daughter is now a senator, he was still touched by the fever of nationalism.

When he and his two sons, both graduates in economics, went back to the Ukraine to visit his brother in 1988, they had to go by a very indirect route via Warsaw, sleeping in a train station overnight, because their father refused to set foot on Russian soil.

The usual way to visit the former USSR as a Western tourist was first to fly to Moscow. His sons were as kind and level-headed as anyone you would like to meet. Both wanted to go via Moscow because their Dad might have found going the long way around too much for a retired factory worker.

Another mate of mine served on the eastern front for the Germans and later ended up as a prisoner of war in Canada. My Austrian friend had strong views on nationalism too.

When the Balkan wars broke out in the early 1990s, local ethnic social clubs in Canberra were fundraising for whatever side of that madness they supported. A few went back to join the fighting.

My friend with a passion wanted to put them all on the first boat back home to Europe so they can experience what they were bankrolling good and hard, first hand. He came Down Under to escape ethnic hatred.

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