• Family photo of the Surjadis (L to R): Liwe, Marcus, Martin and Ivan. (Supplied )Source: Supplied
When it comes to food, Australia may well be the lucky country. Ivan Surjadi tells SBS how his family moved to Australia to access affordable and safe gluten-free food for his children who have coeliac disease and Tourette syndrome.
Ivan Surjadi, Presented by
Yasmin Noone

18 Jun 2020 - 2:01 PM  UPDATED 18 Jun 2020 - 2:02 PM

I was born in Indonesia but left there when I was 12-years-old. I moved around a lot and met my now wife, who’s also Indonesian, in the USA in 1996.

We later moved to Singapore where we got married and lived for about 17 years before migrating to Melbourne in 2014.

Together, we have two children: Marcus, 18, who has coeliac disease, and Martin, 16, who has a gluten and dairy intolerance as well as Tourette syndrome.

Our children both love living here in Australia. In Singapore, generally speaking, people used to see Martin’s tics and look at him strangely. Tourette Syndrome is not very [visible] or common in Singapore, so social acceptance was difficult. Awareness about coeliac disease and other food allergies isn’t very strong either.

So the primary reason we moved to Australia was to access gluten-free and dairy-free food that was reasonably priced and safe for our children to eat.

We found out that Marcus had coeliac disease when he was 10-years-old. Thereafter, we saw doctors about it but there wasn't much information provided to us because they weren’t very familiar with the disease.

In Singapore, it was also very difficult to [know if] gluten was in the food you were eating because detection on food packaging labels was poor.  

In Australia, a product will clearly say whether it contains gluten or is gluten-free on food packaging. But in Singapore, we used to just scroll through all of the ingredients and try to figure out ourselves if the product had gluten in it.

The result was that Marcus [consumed gluten several times] and was always in and out of the hospital. Within one year, I remember bringing Marcus to the emergency department more than 10 times.

So the primary reason we moved to Australia was to access gluten-free and dairy-free food that was reasonably priced and safe for our children to eat.

Devoting our lives to gluten-free food

In Australia now, I feel very comfortable and secure that the products we are giving them both are safer than what we had to choose from in Singapore.

In April last year, my wife and I also opened a 100 per cent gluten-free bakery and cafe, Wellzones GF, in Camberwell.

Although my wife and I used to work in the corporate world, we wanted to run this bakery to show how parents of children with food allergies that we understand what they are going through. Sometimes, parents just need a place to go to eat that they know is safe for their children because it’s 100 per cent gluten-free.

Going through the accreditation process with Coeliac Australia to make our business gluten-free made us realise how strict gluten-free testing on food products was in Australia. We were asked to test all our products and change some of our ingredients to make our entire business 100 per cent gluten-free. Having been accredited means our bakery and café is now very safe for everyone to eat at.

Coping with coeliac disease at Christmas

Christmas time however presents new challenges for parents and children living with food allergies as they get invited to eat at gatherings and parties held at non-certified food outlets and people’s homes.

If we are invited to someone’s house for a party, we bring our own food for Martin and Marcus to eat. Our friends understand why but sometimes they want to help. We usually tell them politely that it’s easier for us to bring food rather than have them prepare it so there’s no risk of cross-contamination.

When we go to restaurants or cafes, we always check with the operator first whether the venue is certified gluten-free or has gluten-free dedicated appliances.

If we don’t check first, there’s always a chance that Marcus may eat food that’s cross-contaminated with gluten because when you have coeliac disease that could result in a dangerous and critical event.

These days, our boys are really enjoying their life here.

Marcus and Martin are now doing okay health-wise. We find it much easier to avoid food products containing gluten in Australia compared to Singapore. We have also removed dairy from Martin's diet as much as possible. Martin's hasn't had any major Tourette attacks since living in Australia. We feel that his new diet and well-balanced lifestyle contribute positively to his overall well-being.

Operating the gluten-free bakery/cafe is also a great reward for us as it brings us a lot of happiness. When little children come into the café, their faces light up as they look at all the deserts they can choose from that are safe for them to eat.

These children may not have experienced so much joy around food before – the topic of food is usually so full of anxiety for them because there are so many worries that they will eat something that will hurt them. It’s a really nice feeling to see children with happy faces in our gluten-free bakery and know that these children are just being…children.

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