“Nina’s going to Australia!” three-year-old me sang in the waiting-room of the Australian Embassy in Belgrade.
Fallen faces glanced up at the outburst; their owners wrapped their tattered clothes tightly around their frail bodies. Some even spared me a watery smile.
I had spent my short life in a war-torn country, although I had not directly felt its effects. Despite being so young, I was excited by the prospect of moving to another country – one which my parents had glamorised, and which signified hope.
The lady behind the desk laughed.
I sailed into Sydney international airport on a mountain of suitcases, greeting my new home. People from all walks of life surged past me, travelling to their own versions of paradise. My dad pushed me through the unfamiliar faces to a group of adults calling out my name, their cheers echoing through the terminal. My family.
Onlookers glanced at us as they passed, and just as quickly averted their gaze. The moment was ours, in a crowded arrivals lounge which would forever represent the door between our past and our future. They were unaware, behind the hugs and laughter, of our salty tears.
Outside, bundled in a thick winter coat, I welcomed the sun warming my face. Its rays illuminated all before us, kissing the greenery and the giant metal sculptures. I stared in awe as the cars crawled past. Horns blaring. Lights flashing. My first taste of life in Australia.
Thanks to family members who had preceded us, we were able to settle reasonably smoothly into Sydney’s Northern Beaches and set about making a life for ourselves. As my parents concentrated on finding jobs and learning English, I busied myself with what was most important. Scouring the land. In other words, playing.
A country crippled by ethnic conflict had been my playground for the first few years of my life. Waking up to thick clouds of ash and debris hiding the sun, following night-time shelling and bomb explosions, had been my reality.
Serbs living in Croatia, my family were among more than 39,000 people from the former Yugoslavia resettled in Australia, amid the wars that wracked the Balkans between 1992 and 2002. (That number was in addition to the annual quota of refugees.)
Questions were raised then about Australia’s ability to integrate relatively large numbers of migrants from one region within a short period, just as questions are now being asked, more than a decade on, about the extra 12,000 Syrian refugees which the country has promised to resettle. The resurgence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party at the last federal election, and her second inflammatory maiden speech in parliament, have further heightened anti-immigrant sentiment.
I can only draw on my own experience, which was of a warm reception by almost everyone we encountered in our early years in our adopted country. Teachers encouraged me to perfect my English, and neighbours welcomed us into the community. Australia lived up to our dreams of a better world. At the same time, we maintained strong ties with our Serbian culture, community and language.
My childhood friends were intrigued that I knew another language, and they drooled over all the various foods they would try in my mother’s kitchen.
In my primary school of 250 students, there were more than 40 nationalities. One day each year, we would celebrate that diversity with cultural dances, exotic foods and stirring music. Whether you had come from another continent or were Australian-born, a connection was forged on that day.
Rather than separate us, our differences bonded us children together, sparking a mutual fascination and warmth that created lasting friendships.
And those of us who were new arrivals had something in common: whether we ate cevapi (a Balkan dish of grilled minced meat) for lunch or performed the haka, whether we spoke Tibetan in the playground or enjoyed a meat pie from the canteen, we had all overcome adversity and the challenge of adapting to a new country.
In the fear-ridden world conjured up by the likes of Hanson, things could have been very different. I could have been shunned for speaking a language other than English, or had my ability to integrate in Australia questioned simply because I belonged to an Eastern European Orthodox church. I could have eaten alone in the playground, my friends put off by my darker features.
But that’s not the Australia which I experienced and live in today.
The optimism and excitement of that little girl who sang in the waiting room of the Australian Embassy were realised more fully than my three-year-old self could ever have imagined.
Top image from Takver’s Flickr page under Creative Commons licence.