Monday, 27 February 2017

Orphan migrants in 1960s Australia

I was born and raised in Australia, going to school from 1956 to 1969 which was a prime period of immigration from western Europe. It’s only recently that it has dawned on me that some youngsters at school with me were of the supposed orphan generation, now being investigated:
I spent most of my infant and primary education at Boronia Park public school in suburban Sydney. It was probably typical of most schools in Australia as among us were children whose families had emigrated from the UK, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia and Hungary. Some of these children were alone.
Close to the school was the well-respected Sir Moses Montefiore home (known unfortunately to locals as the “Jews’ home”) which in the early 1960s had lone youngsters who had come to Sydney as Displaced Persons from Europe. They came to classes for a term or two and then moved on without a farewell. We weren’t told what happened to them – had they rejoined their family or found foster parents? Had they been adopted? Where had they gone? I assume that all was well for them, and no rumours have arisen.
The one boy whose circumstances worried me later was a Scottish lad. We were told that he had come to Sydney to live with his aunt and uncle, which may have been a convenient euphemism for adoptive parents. He was so angry and upset all the time – a schoolyard fight waiting to happen. John told us regularly that he hated Australia, hated living here and loathed his “family”. To this day, I wonder whether he was cruelly uprooted from his home, which may have been Glasgow, and literally shipped half around the world. At least he wasn’t enclosed in one of the residential schools now being investigated.
Australia opened its arms to the world and gave a new life to many. However, to be a migrant child with a non-British name and very limited English was a tough introduction. Nicknames abounded, amusing to those who set them but hard on the recipient. Being white, of British stock and possessing a “normal” name was to be superior. One Norwegian lad named Rune really copped it at primary school as no-one had ever heard his first name before. He’d be greeted with chants of “Roo-nee, Roo-nee” until we found he was quite OK after all. However, if a migrant student was good at sport then acceptance was immediate - he or she was wanted on your team.
This was a time when corporal punishment of boys seemed to be the norm, especially in secondary school when disciplinary issues where addressed with six whacks of the cane across the palm of your outstretched hand. There was also more handling of students than is allowed now. Almost all my teachers were kindly and helpful; they wanted us to succeed but in the two high schools I attended there were always a couple of male teachers who revelled in use of the cane.
During my mid-teens, when I was mixing through sailing or rugby with boys from schools run by Marist or Christian Brothers, it seemed that the state school disciplinary regime was relatively gentle. According to them, caning, detention and harsh sport exercise were their norm.

By the late 1960s, harsh discipline was fading away and the sheer number of fellow students who were from migrant backgrounds had changed the playground situation. But I wonder what happened to some of those children and had they been safe, after all.

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