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Welcome Wall, May 2017. Image: Andrew Frolows / ANMM.

Welcome Wall, May 2017. Image: Andrew Frolows / ANMM.

Last Sunday, 7 May 2017, saw 364 new names unveiled on our Welcome Wall in honour of all those who have migrated from around the world by sea or air to live in Australia. The museum unveils new names on the Welcome Wall twice a year. The new names now bring the total number of names on the wall to 28,657. Of these 9,330 are from England, 3,526 from Italy, 1,627 from The Netherlands, 1,630 from Germany and 1,317 from Greece.  In all, more than 200 countries are represented.

The Museum considers the arrival of waves of migrants on these shores to be one of the major themes in Australia’s maritime history. It has built the Welcome Wall on its northern boundary, facing Darling Harbour and Pyrmont Bay where many new settlers arrived.

The special guests at the unveiling ceremony included Hakan Harman, CEO, Multicultural NSWwho reflected on his own family’s migrant history and the importance of multiculturalism in Australia and Mark Coure MP, Member for Oatley representing the Premier of NSW. The singer, Alicia Ford sang the Australian National Anthem and a selection of pop classics.

The ceremony also featured three migrant speakers who had names placed on the wall. Michael Ronai talked about his Jewish parents and grandparents who escaped Germany and Austria in the 1940s. Pritika Desai, who was named the India Australia Business & Community Awards Young Community Achiever of the Year for her work on youth mental health, reflected on her Indian heritage. George Houssos honoured his Greek father and grandfather.

Video kindly produced by Sonia Gandhi, Gandhi Creations.

Sabina Peritore, Project Assistant for the Welcome Wall, would like to thank ANMM Programs Manager Neridah Wyatt-Spratt and Events Coordinator Alana Sharp, who were on site at the crack of dawn to prepare the event. Thanks also to ANMM Assistant Director of Operations, Peter Rout for hosting the ceremony.

Michael Ronai

Speaker Michael Ronai. Image: Andrew Frolows / ANMM.

Speaker Michael Ronai and his family. Image: Andrew Frolows / ANMM.

I spent some years working for the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs and represented the Department at several Citizenship ceremonies. Also, our parents came to Australia as refugees in 1938 and then 44 years later I was responsible for establishing Australia’s Latin American Refugee Program on the spot in South America.

A summary of my parents’ experiences is:

Margit Ronai (nee Kovacs)

In 1938 Australia established its first-ever Refugee program to accept Jews from Europe. Margit Ronai, aged 15, her younger sister Szuszi, aged 14, and their parents Andor and Olga Kovacs were accepted in the program. They lived in Hamburg, North Germany, but held Hungarian Passports so the Germans allowed them to apply. Only three out of 13 Hungarian Jewish families living in Hamburg were accepted by Australia and thereby escaped the Holocaust.

They travelled overland to Italy and managed to obtain passage on the Orcades travelling via the Suez Canal arriving in Sydney on 19 October 1938. When Margit met her future husband Otto in 1944, they realised that they arrived in Sydney only three days apart.

Speaker Michael Ronai. Image: Andrew Frolows / ANMM.

Speaker Michael Ronai. Image: Andrew Frolows / ANMM.

Otto Ronai

The day after the Austrian Anschluss (the Annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in March 1938), Otto’s twin brother Fritz (aged 29) and his wife Eli managed to escape Austria by crossing the border on their second attempt (they were refused at the first attempt) by using an already stamped and used exit visa (required in those times to leave Austria) as they had just returned from a holiday outside Austria. Fritz and Eli settled temporarily in England.

After the Anschluss, Otto and many other young Jewish males were held in jail for several days for no reason and just for fun. The Nazis several times lined him and several other Jews up against a wall and took potshots over their heads. He was released and returned to work in a senior administrative position in a strategic chemicals factory and had no reason at that time not to assist in training a successor appointed by the Nazis to replace him on how to manage the factory. He was then dismissed.

He and his first wife, Gertie and his parents Heinrich and Elsa plus Fritz and Eli all applied for and obtained visas to Australia under the Jewish Refugee program. We believe that the Nazis did not object to providing them with the visas because he had assisted in training his successor in the chemicals factory and his parents were wealthy enough to pay the Reichsfluchsteuer (Reich Flight Tax) for the four of them. All six family members met up in England and had difficulty booking a passage to Australia. Only Otto and Gerti managed to obtain passage at first on a ship to Canada, take a train across Canada to Vancouver and then passage on the Aorangi arriving in Sydney on 22 October 1938. The other four had to wait for a later journey and arrived on the same ship on 8 April 1939. Otto joined the Australian army and served for several years during the war at Puckapunyal in central Victoria. In 1943 he divorced his first wife due to her adultery. He met and married Margit Kovacs in 1944 in Sydney. They had two sons, Robert and Michael, who together with their families attended the Welcome Wall Ceremony today.

Pritika Desai

Speaker Pritika Desai. Image: Andrew Frolows / ANMM.

Speaker Pritika Desai. Image: Andrew Frolows / ANMM.

Good morning ladies, gentlemen and invited guests. Before I begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we stand, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to elders past and present. I would also like to acknowledge the vast cultures, languages and experiences represented here today.

In 1990, two fresh-faced Indian migrants landed in Melbourne Australia with their 4-year-old daughter and $480 in their pocket, to pursue new opportunities within the hospitality industry, and a better lifestyle for their family. A year later I was born, a first-generation citizen of Australia, of Indian origin. This has become one of my many identities, part of a complex system of identities that we share as culturally, ethnically, spiritually and linguistically diverse people, living in one of the most multicultural places on earth.

Speaker Pritika Desai. Image: Andrew Frolows / ANMM.

Speaker Pritika Desai. Image: Andrew Frolows / ANMM.

Australia, for our family, became a place of endless opportunity, and at times, significant challenges. Despite initial expectations to enter the hospitality workforce, my mother spent her first 18 months boxing shoes in a shoe factory. We learnt, though, to adapt to a country ever growing and ever changing with its people. This included travelling to pursue exciting new adventures in Victoria, New South Wales and finally in the Northern Territory where we settled.

This country had become our home, a place of freedom to do, and to be. A place where my mother went from the packaging line of a factory, to an award winning restaurant owner, to a public servant in federal government. Where my father went from an executive chef, to a lecturer, to head of school at a top University. Where my sister went from a lawyer, to a policy and research manager of one of the largest companies in South-Asia, to an artist. And where I, at 26 years old, have gone from a zoologist, to a community development worker working across the country, to the founder of a well-recognised and respected youth mental health movement, to anything I could ever wish to be. And so as our time in Australia grew, so did our identity- who we are and who we had the potential to be.

However, these layering identities came with much difficulty for me. When asked where I was from or to describe who I am, I was never quite sure how to proceed with an answer. What do I say? Which do I choose? But with age, I have come to appreciate this dilemma.

I am many things, but I am one thing.

I am Australian.

You are Australian.

And what it means to be Australian is to be you, with your many identities and many stories. To be Australian is more than merely living on this soil, it is a representation of our shared history, whether you landed here by boat or by air, or have had your ancestry rooted here for thousands of years. It is us, all of us, and it has the potential to be anyone.

I am honoured to have my name engraved among over 29,000 of my fellow Australians- our shared experiences, identities and love for this country entwined by recognition on these bronze panels. Thank you to the Australian Maritime Museum for another opportunity- to speak today and be a part of the unveiling. And to the India Australia Business & Community Awards, which I have the pleasure of representing as the 2016 Young Community Achiever of the Year, for the opportunity to have my name engraved on these walls.

Thank you.

(You can hear an interview with Pritika Desai on SBS radio here.)

Anita Nabarro 

Anita Nabarro registered her parent’s, Rudolf Gerard  (Rudy) Nabarro and Cornelia Maria Reemst (known as Jessie in Australia), on the Welcome Wall and wanted to share their story. 

Our parents story began in Amsterdam on Monday the 29th September 1958 when we boarded the Johan van Oldenbarneveldt a migrant ocean liner. It was all a big adventure for us 6 children – can you imagine no school for 5 weeks? We did have to attend special classes but I managed to avoid them and as a 9 year-old I had the freedom to amuse myself on board.

We passed some interesting ports and also have memories of going through the Suez Canal which of course closed a few years later. Our first port of call in Australia was Fremantle and then Melbourne and finally arriving in Sydney on Saturday the 8th November 1958 on what we realised later was a heat wave.

At the time shops still closed on Saturdays at 12 noon and upon arrival, we were sent to the corner shop to purchase milk, bread and butter with an English handbook pointing to the symbols. My parents had organised accommodation through the Dutch Reformed Church living in St Marys and what was then called The Dutch Camp. I think we were luckier than most immigrants that we did not go into a migrant camp.

I cannot remember how we all survived those initial few years without electricity, gas, phone, toilet, showers which we were fortunate to have had in Haarlem. We did get a lot of support from the church in terms of essential white goods which used kerosene to operate the fridge, lights and stove. Our furniture arrived 6 weeks later. One of the wooden storage crate which our piano had been stored in became our outdoor bathroom.

My parents had the foresight to purchase about a 2 year supply of underwear and clothes before departing The Netherlands which was a blessing as money became tight. We started school just after arriving but realised that this was really the end of the school year and thus we were put into a special class with other migrant children unable to speak English.

My father initially had trouble finding work even though he was well educated and spoke several languages. He eventually found work 6 months later after walking and hitch-hiking looking for work every day. He worked at Alcan as a cleaner on eight-hour shifts and sometimes double shifts never having experienced a factory operation before in his life.

Our mother who had not worked in her married life also worked hard as a cleaner at the local primary school before and after school hours. This then gave her time to go home between the hours of 9.30am – 2.30pm to continue working at home washing, cleaning, cooking and gardening.

My Father managed to get a loan to purchase a Housing Commission 4 bed room home where they lived for more than 40 years. A few years after our arrival my father purchased a car which we also used for our special Sunday outings. We really did fit into the Australian life style going out to the beautiful Sydney beaches and national parks for picnics which to this day are wonderful memories and was such a big part of growing up in Sydney.

Dinner time was very important as a family, as this became a time to have conversation and interaction between our parents and siblings. Because we also did not have a television the family often played card games or did jigsaw puzzles. Life was difficult for my parents with six children but always managed to put food on the table and were also able to provide us with extra activities on offer at the school.

After living in Australia for 20 years they were able to save for their one and only trip back to the Netherlands to visit relatives. I know my father was disappointed in how Amsterdam had changed and was happy to be home here again in Australia.

My parents enjoyed their retirement and watch their children grow up with 10 grandchildren and now would be very proud Great Grandparents of 15 great grandchildren. Seeing their children had married Australian and New Zealand partners they decided to become New Australians. Going through the naturalisation ceremony similar to this was very rewarding and my parents were very proud to say that we had all adopted the Australian way of life.

I know our parents never regretted making the decision to leave The Netherlands in 1958 especially with our father being 48, it was very brave of them to start all over again in such a young country of the population of 9 million. As an Australian citizen we are eternally grateful to our parents who sacrificed everything to give us a better life in Australia.

— Edited by Kate Pentecost, Digital Curator and Sabina Peritore, Project Assistant Welcome Wall. With thanks to Michael Ronai, Pritika Desai, George Houssos and Anita Nabarro.


Kate Pentecost

Kate Pentecost is the Digital Curator at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Posted in: Events , Welcome Wall , Migration