When my mum was 8 years old, she found out that her mother was going to sell her to pay off a debt. She ran away to a convent, and after that, she was looked after by the Catholic church. Throughout her childhood, she was moved from convent to convent because of the civil war between the Tamils and the Sinhalese. It was a very difficult time for her. She saw people being killed in the street. When she was 10 years old – she went to visit a friend, and saw soldiers joking and laughing in the kitchen, eating her food, while her friend was hanging from the ceiling.
Because my grandmother was Tamil and my grandfather was Sinhalese, my mum could speak both languages. One time, she was walking in the street with her pregnant Tamil friend, and a group of Sinhalese men started threatening them with machetes. When my mother showed them her ID card which showed she had a Sinhalese surname, they started shouting even more. She then said to them in Sinhalese “Which half are you going to cut because I’m both Tamil and Sinhalese.’ Apparently, they were so shocked at her standing up for herself, they left the women alone.
At the age of 17, she went to work as a nanny and house cleaner in Jordan. It was a very different environment for her, coming from a Sri Lankan Catholic background to an Arabic country, but my mother embraced the Jordanian way of life.
Four years later, when she went back to Sri Lanka, one of the nuns told her she had a nephew in Sydney who was looking for a live-in nanny and cleaner for his family, so she decided to try life in Australia. But that family didn’t treat her very well. She worked 16 hours a day, she was underpaid, and she was never given a day off. It was a very tough time for her.
After a year, she met my dad. He worked as a cleaner at the doctor’s practice, but came to help out at the house when the family had dinner parties. According to Mum, it was not ‘love or even like at first sight!’ She always laughs when she tells me this.
Dad had left Fiji to study Engineering at UTS, and was supporting himself by working as a cleaner in the evenings. At times, he lived on bread and water; he owned just one brown suit; and had just enough money to pay for his rent. But he took her to the movies for their first date. After a while, they realised they both wanted to start a better life together.
When my mother started to show ‘defiance’ to the doctor’s family by taking one day off a week, the family were not happy. They then sponsored another Sri Lankan girl to come, and kicked Mum out onto the street with nowhere to go and very little money. Luckily, my dad was able to take her to his niece’s house in Sydney to live until she got back on her feet.
Later, my mum worked in various retail jobs and then moved on to administrative jobs in medical centres, and my dad became an engineering manager.
My sister and I had a very normal childhood. Although I sometimes heard snippets of Mum’s story which made me curious, she kept her whole life story a secret. I didn’t know anything about it until I went to Sri Lanka with her in my 20s, and met with one of the nuns who had taken care of her. She told me some of my mother’s stories, and after that, Mum started to open up a bit more. It was a complete shock to hear about all that she had been through, as it was so different to the privileged life I had led in Australia.
Knowing her life story has not only changed the way I see her but also the way I see myself. It has shown me how much I have to be thankful for, and the sacrifices she has made to get to where she is. I love her so much. She’s one of the most resilient, compassionate, loving women I know, and I’m so grateful she’s my mum.
I wouldn’t be who I am without her.
Mum born in Sri Lanka, Dad born in Fiji
Arrived in Australia 1981 and 1975
Photographer: Anne Casey Silver Pepper Photography
Read more great migrant stories in the NHOA e-books available for tablet and kindle: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B0842BCWYT