IS ANYONE else drawn to opportunity shops? You can certainly turn up some very interesting things, like the Gould platycercus excimius print (aka the eastern rosella) which the Professor found some years ago in a shop run by ladies from a hospital auxiliary, who wanted only $10 for a picture worth considerably more than that. Last week, a bit of a potter in another op shop produced a further gem, a copy of Sailing To Freedom by Voldemar Veedam. The spine is cracked, the paper has yellowed and the book must be handled with great care, but what can you expect for a buck? A quick little lesson in the real meaning of the term “asylum seekers”, actually.
Published in 1954, it recounts the story of 16 Estonians who bought a leaky old tub, fixed it up as best they were able and fled the Soviets’ occupation of their country. They headed for America and made it, where it seems the author and his companions rebuilt their lives so successfully that they vanished entirely from the record. No mention of plots to blow up US military bases, no denunciations of their new homeland’s religious heritage or infidel mores -- they seem to have given no trouble whatsoever, at least that is what a little googling suggests.
It is one of those little cosmic coincidences that today’s Fairfax press also touches on the story of a Latvian in a new land. It is a column penned by octagenarian author Betty Birskys, who in 1951 wed another of the many brave souls who escaped Russia’s tyranny. She recounts her late husband’s adventure, how he paid his debt to the country that took him in by accepting without protest the assigned chores of cutting cane and laying sleepers, work that must have been hard for an educated man but was part of the compact that produced first a residency permit and, after that, full citizenship. Mrs Birsky is right to take pride in her hubby’s achievement, as may all Australians in the success of what was the largest and most peaceful integration of migrants and strange cultures anywhere in the world.
Trouble is, Birskys must have been having a bit of a senior moment when she sat down to lament how the current problem with uninvited and undocumented arrivals is “tearing the country apart.” If that is the case, it must be in precincts far removed from the Billabong, where no one has been burning crosses and racist mayhem has yet to roll over the back fence and knock down the bird bath. What there is, however, is the thought that much opinion page space, the efforts of innumerable social workers and massive expenditures of public monies could be put to better use if only the latest crop of boat people was more like her husband. People, in other words, who are grateful, accepting, industrious and, best of all, never become a charge on the public purse.
If Mrs Birskys believes we need to put the current divisions behind us, more arrivals prepared to work for their happiness would do much to soothe a restive public. Policies that recognise Australian residency as a precious gift, one that needs to be earned not merely claimed, might help too.