Go back to where you came from! A favourite rallying cry of racists and rednecks. As a white, 2nd generation Australian I’ve never been the butt of it, but my mum, the daughter of refugees with odd accents and smelly cheese, heard it a fair bit.

So, as refugees pour into Europe, I retraced my grandmother’s refugee steps out of Europe. I found myself in the ruins of a grand old mansion in the hills of an obscure Eastern European country. Surrounded by distant cousins whose grannies had hunkered down when war struck, rather than grabbing a suitcase and making a dash for it like mine had.

Ruins of where we came from, Eastern Europe

Turns out the restlessness and the tendency to ditch where you come from that’s seen me turn my back on Australia for Asia and Europe for years at a time goes back generations. My grandmother’s parents saw the borders around their town being redrawn after WWI and sold up and left, before the new authorities could seize their lands. My grandmother was six when she chalked-up her first refugee claim. Her cousins all stayed and were shunted out of their grand houses into shabbier ones, then a generation later into even shabbier communist-era flats.
My grandmother grew up in a big European capital, among other faded former aristocratic families trying to keep up the veneer of glamour on shoestring budgets. When the fun of living in summer resorts in the mountains to escape Second World War bombings wore off she grabbed what she could carry, and, pregnant with my mother, she hit the road again. She chalked-up her second refugee claim and ended up on a boat bound for Sydney (Ottawa having lost the coin-toss.)
I’d grown up assuming she’d had to leave. But then I went back to where she came from. Right back, into the back blocks of the back blocks of Eastern Europe. And there were all these cousins – grandchildren of her cousins. And they were all still there. They’d survived just fine. Sure they had watched while each generation had been stripped of property by the state, or arrested for ‘agitating’. But they’d survived. My granny’s parents could have stayed. They would (probably) not have been killed or jailed or tortured. At least not much. So refugee claim number one: bunk.

Then I checked out the European capital she had fled, where her apartment was flattened by allied bombs. Again, distant cousins, all alive. None had happy memories of the post-WWII years and the communist rule that followed. But no torture, some persecution but nothing you could prove. No deaths. Refugee claim number two was just as bunk.

I look at people now, fleeing actual, proper, certain death. Making desperate dangerous journeys to Europe and Australia. If their grandkids go back to where they came from they’re not likely to find a lot of cousins who turned out just fine. It’s pretty confronting to realise my granny was, when I compare her to a woman escaping a war zone today, a pretty piss-weak refugee.

When her boat docked in Australia for the first time, locals came down to the jetty with fresh fruit for the kids on board. Shit, she got lucky.


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