A story about survival by MCWH staff member Ozana Bozic

RoadsFirst published in ISSUE No 25  – WOMEN’S  HEALTH  LODDON MALLEE NEWS JOURNAL on 29 November 2007

 

This story reveals just some of the challenges that many immigrant and refugee women experience from the time of leaving their homeland to their settlement in Australia. It is also a testimony derived from our own experiences and the experiences of other women that we have been privileged to know. Finally, it is a tribute to the strength of immigrant and refugee women.

We travel often, sometimes not even thinking about the road taking us from one destination to another. Roads to work, roads to shops, roads to a friend or road to a holiday. As it turned out for me, my life changed and I will always remember two roads and two routes, which changed my life in every possible way.

I had to leave my homeland because civil war started in 1992. The only way out was a road traveled in haste, through the mountain region, a road traveled with love and determination that we had to live and go on. The road was symbolically named – The Salvation road.

For people who decided not to flee, but to stay, despite constant shelling and fighting, food was their salvation. For anyone who was lucky to have a chance to escape and seek refuge somewhere else, the road was a salvation.

I found myself on the road to salvation together with my children, being part of the lucky ones; happy to be among lucky people but heart-broken leaving many thousands behind. I could still remember with an excruciating pain in my heart – faces… hundreds of frozen faces that expressed a deep pain and hopelessness as we were leaving the town and they were waving goodbye with their eyes wide open in a desperate attempt to remember the faces of their loved ones going to the unknown.

We both took a risk – the ones left behind risked being killed or tortured or starved to death. We (‘the lucky ones’) risked being stopped on the road and taken away by enemy forces, possibly killed. We were terrified of this unknown – how would we manage to survive on our journey to ‘safety’? Worst of all were the bewildering thoughts we faced: would we ever see our loved ones again, our home and everything that meant to us? Our journey to the unknown was an act of faith, as was our faith that our loved ones who were left behind would survive.

This road was closing one part of my life and opening a new and unknown life ahead of me. I knew little of what the future was going to bring me on this new journey.

Women from our country were faced with multiple challenges requiring enormous energy, stamina and commitment. Women who had to go through transit countries on their journey to safety, and spend several years there waiting for permanent settlement had to go through the misery of refugee life which contributed further to our psychological pain and suffering. Some of the women that I knew had to continually move from one country to another, against their choice. Every time they were faced with a new and foreign environment, sometimes hostility and humiliation. Each time children  and  their  mothers  (us)  had  to  undergo the enormous effects of having to adapt and adjust to new schools,  new languages,  new cultures, new systems. We had to make new friends, find our way around a new city … survive!

Did we think that we as mothers and carers and breadwinners needed anything? No! To even be able to think of our needs at that time would have been a real luxury! We had other priorities in our everyday lives … the wellbeing of our children, helping families back home who had to survive without the most basic necessities such as a food, electricity, water, gas, nor to mention the 24 hour fear of been killed.

Dealing with our children’s experiences of settling into schools and their peer groups was another big obstacle – how to help them with their homework, how to support them emotionally and fill other gaps to ensure a healthy childhood? It was a constant battle. How to replace the people and things that they missed out on and that were so dear to them? How to help them feel that they belonged to their peer group while still maintaining the values that we wanted them to grow up with? We’d often wake up panicking that we hadn’t yet finished what we intended to do, so we decided the only way was to double the load, while trying to grapple time, time that become our worst enemy.

On the other hand, led by the instinct and dedication to survive, women discovered some incredible skills and abilities that had been hidden and suppressed for a very long time. Those discoveries have made these women more confident, stronger, independent and dedicated. Driven by the desire to survive, women who experienced these disasters deserve to be seen as heroines.

I was impressed by the strength and dedication of all those women, including myself, making our way through that difficult time. Not only did we manage to survive through such a difficult time and, on many occasions within hostile surroundings, but we also managed to play the multiple roles of mothers, carers, counselors, teachers, cooks, laborers, mediators, advocates, managers and you name it, what else! We risked our lives to gain our lives. I’ve always wondered where we drew such energy and Strength from! Later on I learnt that it is called survival.

 

Written by Ozana Bozic and edited by Amira Rahamanovic

Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health

 

 

Media Release: Voices of Change-Marking International Zero Tolerance Day to Female Genital Mutilation

Women from countries where female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) is practiced are the best agents to put an end to the harmful practice.  This is the message at the core of the ‘Voices of Change’ event being held today to mark International Zero Tolerance Day to Female Genital Mutilation.

Women’s Health in the North, Mercy Health, Monash Health, North Yarra Community Health, Doutta Galla Community Health and Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health (MCWH) have worked together to stage the ‘Voices of Change’ event.

Executive Director of MCWH, Dr Adele Murdolo said that it is important to recognise the pivotal role women from affected communities play in preventing and eliminating FGM/C.

‘The global evidence is quite clear that community-based approaches are the most effective.  Our event is a rare opportunity to listen to and learn from women who have been working very hard with their communities to stop the practice.’

Dr Murdolo said that women affected by FGM/C, as the group most directly impacted by the practice, are at the core of successful programs.

‘We rarely hear about the good news stories and successes of the work being done in relation to FGM/C and it’s our intention to celebrate and recognise the tireless activism and engagement of women from the community, who are leading the way for the rest of us.’

Juliana Nkrumah AM, one of the guest speakers at the event, said that any effort to put an end to FGM/C should be motivated by the need to help women in affected communities speak for themselves.

‘It’s essential that we support women and girls by investing in awareness-raising as a way of increasing their decision-making power.  It’s the only way cultural change will come about.’

 

FARREP Statewide Planning Meeting

Maria Ibrahim, from North Yarra Community Health; Aisha El-Hag from Doutta Galla Community Health and Wemi Oyekanmi from Mercy Hospital for Women contributed to the Statewide FARREP Planning day at MCWH.

Maria Ibrahim from North Yarra Community Health; Aisha El-Hag from Doutta Galla Community Health and Wemi Oyekanmi from Mercy Hospital for Women at the Statewide FARREP Planning day.

Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health was pleased to host the Family and Reproductive Rights Education Program (FARREP) statewide planning meeting last week. Funded by the Victorian Department of Health, FARREP is the Victorian program that works with communities that are affected by FGM/C. FARREP provides support to women and conducts FGM/C prevention programs with affected communities across the state, creating links to services and improving sexual and reproductive health.

Apart from the obvious pleasure of catching up with old friends, the day was a great opportunity to make better use of our resources by sharing our plans for the year. A series of working groups were established to better share our expertise in providing professional education, school-based programs, community education, direct support to women, and evaluation.

The WRAP: International Women’s Day Edition

International Women’s Day!

Change Must Happen/Empowerment is Vital image courtesy of UN Women Asia & the Pacific on flickr.

Change Must Happen/Empowerment is Vital image courtesy of UN Women Asia & the Pacific on flickr.

 

March 8 is a special day for women all over the world. It’s a day to celebrate women in all their political, cultural, generational, spiritual, physical, and economic variety which is quite a lot of celebrating, so it’s little wonder that in quite a few countries it’s a public holiday (hint hint).

We’re celebrating at MCWH with a special edition of the WRAP, from our executive director Dr. Adele Murdolo, followed by 60 seconds with her mum.

And speaking of strong migrant feminist role models, we hope that you’ve got your tickets to our special forum “Does feminism speak for all women?” on March 18th at the Melbourne Town Hall. We want you to be part of the conversation!

Wishing you an inspiring International Women’s Day,
from all the staff at MCWH

Striking women in 1909 New York

Striking women in 1909 New York

Well-behaved women do not make history

Adele Murdolo – Executive Director of Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health

 

Mae West had it right – well-behaved women do not make history. Indeed, for the most part we have badly behaved women to thank for our annual celebration of International Women’s Day. It’s a day that we commemorate the capacity of women all around the world to take political action on their own behalf and on behalf of others. We celebrate women who do not behave well in order to make the world a better and fairer place to live.

Of the many examples of women behaving badly in the early twentieth century that I could mention, there is one in particular that is lodged in my political consciousness (click the links for others). In the winter of 1909 in New York, women garment workers staged a general strike. 20-30,000 women workers, many of them migrant women, struck for 13 weeks in freezing temperatures for better pay and working conditions. These women were willing to loose their pay and jobs, even though they were often the family breadwinners. They were arrested and scape-goated by police, employers, politicians and the media. But still they persevered and through their perseverance, these brave, wise migrant women workers helped to pave the way for the long road toward much-needed legislative labour reforms in the US.

This extraordinary action has stuck in my mind—not because of its extraordinariness but because of its very ordinariness. At the time, these were ordinary sweatshops, ordinary working conditions for migrant workers, ordinary employers just making and selling clothes. Everybody was, according to the status quo, behaving well.

But behaving well does not lead to positive change, or even at times, to survival, especially for those most marginalised within in our globalised world. As Irma, a Filipina migrant woman working in California in the 1990s has put it:

We dream that when we work hard, we’ll be able to clothe our children decently, and still have a little time and money left for ourselves. And we dream that when we do as good as other people, we get treated the same, and that nobody puts us down because we are not like them…Then we ask ourselves: How can we make these things come true?” and so far we’ve come up with only two possible answers: win the lottery or organise.

May.-Day.11.-Pic-1.A

Like the migrant women striking in the early twentieth century, when ordinary working women, tired of risking their health for occupational hazards, organise and take action, extraordinary things happen. And that’s when history happens.

But—there’s history and then there’s History. I certainly didn’t learn about this kind of history at high school. What I didn’t learn from history books, I first learned from my mum.  My mum worked at a factory in Moorabbin, where I grew up. And one day the women at that factory, most of them migrant women, dissatisfied with the exploitative pay and conditions at their workplace, went out on strike.

I can still remember how proud my mum was about this action, as we all were. There she was, sitting outside the factory with her co-workers instead of working inside with the smelly glue and timber and constant noise. She was so proud that they were actively taking a stand, supported by their union, not putting up with being treated like they didn’t have rights or needs.
After the strike, which was successful, mum brought home a photo that one of her co-workers had taken of the group, a thermos with steaming coffee taking centre stage as a symbol of the women’s strength and full intent to stay out there as long as it took.

I learned from this action, taken that week by my mum and her co-workers at their factory, and taken throughout history at other factories by someone else’s mum or daughter or partner. I learned how extraordinary ordinary women can be … and how absent from our history books they are.

It opened my eyes—once I started to look beyond the books I could see badly-behaved women everywhere! There were women workers going out on strike and confronting sexual harassers; mothers, aunts and grandmothers bringing up kids in peaceful and progressive ways (right in the midst of this war-making world); women against all odds seeking peaceful asylum; indigenous women protecting their own land and cultures; migrant and indigenous women speaking out about racism and sexism; queer and lesbian women unapologetically taking women lovers; women escaping violence from the men in their families, their churches and their schools.

All these badly behaved women are an inspiration. They make history and we need to make sure that their bad behaviour does not go unseen, unrecognised and unrewarded. So today is the day to remember the badly behaved migrant women workers—the commemorated ones of industrial New York, as well as the forgotten ones of sunny California and suburban Moorabbin. You may even know some badly behaved women. Today is the day to thank them.

 

60 seconds with Santina Murdolo

Santina Murdolo

retired factory worker, maker of history, badly behaved grandmother of five

 

If you were a super-heroine, what powers would you like to have?
I don’t want any super power I just want to be happy.

What talent would you most like to possess?
I would like to be able to sing romantic songs. I would like to sing old Italian songs like Volare and Rose Rosse – not those songs that scream like mad.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone new to Australian culture, what would it be?
To give herself or himself time to slowly get used to it. Australia is not that bad – it’s a good country – but you do need patience and time. Slowly you get used to it.

What’s your favourite word in the English language? Why?
The first English words I learnt were ‘never never’, but I didn’t know what they meant at the time! The words I like are care, love, help, be happy. There are so many things wrong with this world so these words are important.

What would your last meal be?
A plate of pasta of course! I wouldn’t exchange that with anything!

What would you work for instead of money?
We all need money. But I would work to be with other people, to talk. I enjoyed the time that I worked.  It was hard work, manual labour and dirty. But we could talk, laugh and smile. I was happy. It sounds funny but I enjoyed it. I went to work because I needed to get out of the house, because I nearly had a nervous breakdown. I had so much to do at home but I got much happier when I went out to work.

What’s your favourite possession?
I never really had a favourite possession. Except for my house. It’s not a beautiful house but it’s mine. I’m happy to say that if I put a nail up in the house nobody can tell me to take it down.

What are you enjoying doing at the moment?
I enjoy it when I have my grand kids with me. I love to talk to them, cook for them, enjoy their company. Maybe they make more work but I wouldn’t change that for anything. I feel happy when they are there.