Giuliana Otmarich

I was born in Pordenone Friuli a few years after my parents left their native city of Fiume (now part of Croatia) during the war. They opted not to return and so became part of the mass exodus of ethnic Italian refugees from the former Italian territories of Dalmazia – Venezia Giulia.

Already dislocated in a chaotic post war Italy it was not difficult for them to decide to take the even bigger step of migration to another country under the UN’s International Refugee Organisation scheme. America was the preferred choice, Australia the available one.

I was just under four years old when we arrived here in 1951. After a few months in Bonegilla migrant camp we settled in Adelaide where we formed strong bonds with other Giuliani/Dalmati – bonds that sustained us in those initial bewildering years and became over time even stronger than family ties back in Italy .

I attended Mt Carmel Primary School and Mary McKillop College, both schools staffed in those days by the Sisters of St Joseph. Many of these nuns were wonderful teachers and had a major influence on my education but it was my parents, particularly my father who encouraged my determination to succeed at school and go on to tertiary education. I attended Adelaide University where I completed an Arts Degree and a post graduate Diploma in Education before starting my first job as a high school teacher.

During my childhood years my parents, especially my mother constantly nurtured my Italian identity. To their dying day they always spoke to me in Italian even though they reverted to dialect with each other. At a young age they taught me to read and write in Italian mainly through letters to relatives. Feeling very homesick my mother always talked about family, home and her life back in Fiume and Italy. Friends would often visit and there would be long discussions in Italian around the table about European history, politics and culture – discussions that I found fascinating and much more interesting than anything I heard in the alien Australian world outside. Consequently from an early age I formed the impression that my culture of origin was far richer and more interesting than what Australia had to offer. So as well as taking on board my mother’s nostalgia I developed my own longing to go back to Italy.

My first trip back at the age of seventeen was momentous, exhilarating and traumatic. Italy was even more wonderful than I had imagined but I was shocked to find it wasn’t the homecoming I had expected. I felt very much an outsider. In spite of my cultural and linguistic ties I was faced with the fact that after spending my formative years in this country my “Australianness” far outweighed my “Italianness”. My strong Italian identity was deeply shaken.

I came back here with the same nostalgia now augmented by a feeling of being excluded from the country where I thought I belonged. As a consequence I did not return to Italy for many years.

After graduating I did a relatively short stint teaching in state and private secondary schools then took time off to have my son and be a stay at home mum. When I went back to work two years later I started a new career path teaching English as a second language in TAFE.

This became my life’s work and I spent the next thirty odd years teaching the language and culture of this country to adult migrants and refugees from all sorts of different backgrounds. It was the shared experience of migration that drew me to these people and to working with them. I found no matter where they came from – countries as diverse as Chile and Vietnam, Poland and China – no matter what their backgrounds – skilled trades people, rural workers, students, highly educated professionals – they were all going through the unique and momentous experience of being migrants. They were all dealing with similar difficulties, challenges and changes that this experience presents.

I felt privileged being in a position to assist them and great empathy for their journey. They mirrored for me the stages I had already gone through and by implication the stage I was in. This helped me to better understand and heal my fractured identity. I GIU migration is a journey that never ends. Once you embark on it there’s no going back. You survive the difficulties. You rise to the challenges. You adapt to and absorb the changes. But most of all you come to terms with the on going tension between your past and present cultural identities and the inevitable fading of the former to make way for the latter.

Once I reached this stage of acceptance I could begin to see the positives – the enormous courage, resilience and skill that migration demands of people, the personal satisfaction of surviving dislocation and successful re-settlement, the interesting dual perspective that a bi-lingual and bi-cultural background bestows, the rewards of having cultural and linguistic access to more than one country and the enriching complexity of living with two competing cultural identities.

I did finally return to Italy and have returned many times, always with great affection for the country and my family there. My visits now are always happy positive experiences as I see myself clearly an Australian and at the same time feel the ties with my country of birth stronger than ever. This gives me a great sense of resolution and satisfaction.

A few years ago I left TAFE and my work teaching English as a second language and currently I work at The Cancer Council South Australia in programs for culturally and linguistically diverse communities – providing information on cancer prevention to women in those communities. I find it interesting that my life long work with migrants continues still. Obviously it is work with which I feel most comfortable and at ease and through which I feel I can contribute the most. In my current role I am often asked to deliver cancer prevention information in Italian and I am most pleased to find that with a bit of dusting down my mother tongue is still very much alive and my love for my culture of origin is still strong and nourishing.

November 2007