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Gergis only planned to stay for five years, but 52 years later he 'thanks God' for Australia

Gergis Gebrayel migrated to Australia more than 52 years ago. Source: Gergis Gebrayel

Gergis Gebrayel recalls that he had to use hand gestures to communicate with his first Australian work colleagues because he didn't speak English. This was just one of many stories from his time in "the best country in the world".

Lebanese migrant Gergis Gebrayel arrived in Australia on July 15, 1968, settling in Sydney. He still counts the days since he left his ancestral homeland, a tally that has surpassed 19,000.

Hailing from the small mountainous village in northern Lebanon, Karm El Mohr – or ‘the foal vineyard’ in English - he made his first big step at the age of 18 when he moved to the country's capital city, Beirut.

“I am 72 years old, I have never dreamt of anything other than my village Karm El Mohr where we would work in the fields with my dad,” he tells SBS Arabic24.

With a deep affinity for Lebanon, moving abroad wasn't part of the plan until a relative in Australia extended an invitation for the then 19-year-old to migrate.

“They told me if you are paid one Lira a day [in Lebanon], in Australia, you will be paid one dollar an hour,” he says.

“I thought I would go to Australia for five years, make some money and then come back to Lebanon.”

Supplied
Gebrayel was 18 when he left his village and 19 when he migrated to Australia.
Supplied

Things didn’t go quite as planned once he settled.

“Whoever comes to Sydney, can’t leave it. Australia, as you see in the news, is the best country in the world in terms of how it treats its citizens.

“I thank God. He gave us a good family, and it became harder and harder for us to leave our kids and grandchildren here and go back to Lebanon.”

Australia during the late ‘60s was a “very different place”, he recalls.

Following his arrival, he secured a job in a factory that printed cigarette and biscuit packets.

He soon realised that his lack of English language skills posed a big obstacle, but one that he was determined to overcome using a basic method.

“I got a job in a factory, but it was hard, I didn’t know the language, and I couldn’t read or write, but Australia needed workers.

“I couldn’t communicate with the Australians, but I worked through sign language, for example, if they want me to sweep the floor, someone would bring the broom and make a sweeping hand gesture and hand it over to me.”

'You got to feeling sad for yourself'

Gebrayel spent his first six months in Australia living in a room of a relative’s Campsie home with three other workers from Lebanon.

He recalls that his roommates each had a bed and would place their suitcases and belongings underneath.

“We didn’t know the country, we couldn’t go anywhere, so we would stay in the room and play cards.”

An experience that stuck in his mind was a time he got lost on his walk home from work, which made him question his decision to migrate to Australia.

“We didn’t take transport, we would walk for half an hour or 45 minutes each way.

“The person who used to walk with me home asked me one day if I can walk back home alone. I felt too embarrassed to say no.

“I still remember the street name that I got lost on, Mary Street, I found myself on the Hume Highway instead, and I was like ‘this is not the area’.”

Desperate to reach his destination as the time had passed 1:30am, he decided to walk back to the factory to make a second attempt at walking home, but he ended up at the highway once again.

“You got to feeling sad for yourself, I started crying and I felt sorry, and I asked myself, what happened? why have I put myself in a situation like this?

“Somehow God inspired me, and I found the way back and went home.”

It was the first time he felt the true meaning of being separated from his home country.

“When I came back home, I found that no one missed me, no one was worried and I asked myself, who would be concerned? You don’t have a mother, a brother, or a wife.”

Five decades on from that experience and although he still misses Lebanon, Gebrayel is thankful to have come to Australia, saying the risk “paid off”.

Australia gave me more than enough for me and my family for several generations to come.

“It took a lot of hard labour and work where we contributed to building this great country.”

Granville train disaster

Gebrayel says one of the hardest moments of his life was witnessing the aftermath of the Granville train disaster in 1977.

During that tragic event, a crowded commuter train derailed, running into the supports of a road bridge that collapsed onto two of the train's passenger carriages.

The incident claimed 83 lives and went down in history as Australia’s worst rail disaster.

Granville rail disaster
The scene of the Granville train disaster.
Flickr: Blue Mountains Library - Local Studies

On this day, Gebrayel was on his way to visit his brother who lived 200 metres from the bridge.

“When we heard a sound of a collapse we ran outside,” he recalls.

“We found the bridge already collapsed and the scene was full of police and ambulances.

“Doctors, nurses and people with knowledge of first aid were the only ones allowed to help. I stood there watching and seeing people screaming, but I wasn’t allowed to help.

“I cried that day because I couldn’t help. I wished I was a doctor or a nurse.”

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