First Day: Leaving the Cook Islands alone to get an education in Australia


Margaret Nekeare-Cowan moved to Australia from Rarotonga as a teenager, overcoming shyness and language barriers to raise five children and become an advocate for Sydney's Cook Islands community.

Margaret Nekeare-Cowan looks down as she steps inside the church, drawing her right hand up to her forehead and dotting either side of her chest.

It's a scorching day in the Sydney suburb of Blacktown, with temperatures reaching 35 degrees, and clouds of hot air drift through the small open door.

"I believe that I've experienced some miracles in my life," she says.

"Coming here, alone, and making it through all the challenges in this big country. That’s why I guess I’ve kept so close to my faith."

Ms Nekeare-Cowan first came to Australia from the Cook Islands in 1991 to study at university in Townsville. At 18, it was the first time she had left home and the first time she had been on a plane.

"Coming into Queensland and looking out the window, there was just land," she says, sweeping her hands across an invisible surface. "Lots and lots of land."

"You step out and get that 'whoof' of hot air. I’ve never experienced that at home. That heat wave…just hitting you in the face."

Ms Nekeare-Cowan was one of a group of students selected for a scholarship through what was then known as AusAid. After arriving in Townsville, the group was taken to a hotel where they would stay for their first few nights.

"When we arrived at the hotel, I hadn't called home yet because I didn’t know what to do," she says. "I didn’t know that you could get phone card and things like that so I didn’t ring home at all."

'Where was I going to stay?'

Life in Australia wasn’t easy at first, and when the students were told they needed to organise permanent accommodation, Ms Nekeare-Cowan was surprised.

"Where was I going to stay? I thought it was all taken care of but it wasn't," she says.

She found a room advertised in the home of a local couple, David and Sylvia, whose children had grown up and left home. The couple were kind, and Ms Nekeare-Cowan decided to take the room, but the costs were another surprise.

"My allowance had to cover all these things: My food, my board, my expenses," she says. "I had no idea about all these things prior to arriving in Australia."

Ms Nekeare-Cowan also struggled with the language, particularly getting her head around colloquial expressions and Aussie slang. "I remember asking Dave what 'pushing up daisies' meant," she says, laughing. "And he said, 'No, you don’t use that'." 

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As time went by, Ms Nekeare-Cowan began to make friends and her confidence grew. Photographs kept in an album at her home in Sydney show the teenager climbing trees with friends, looking relaxed in a black cap and shades, her backpack slung over a branch.

Another shows a smiling Ms Nekeare-Cowan sitting next to a huge pile of CDs, reaching out toward the camera. A third shows her and a group of friends posing in front of Parliament House.

After a year in Townsville she decided to stop studying engineering and change to physiotherapy. She moved to Sydney and in with a cousin. Being around family helped her to connect with other Cook Islanders and in 1997 she met the man who would later become her husband, Keith Cowan.

"I was pretty much a tomboy when I grew up so relationships were far from my mind," she says. "He was persistent I guess."

"He is Cook Islander too, with Scottish heritage, so perhaps a lot of charm there too to turn this strong-minded person into the soft lady you see today."

The relationship also meant Ms Nekeare-Cowan took on the responsibility of helping to raise Keith's three daughters from a previous relationship.

"I hadn't thought of any children and learning to love them first was important for me," she says. "If I didn't love them first then when I had my own it would [have] be ‘You sit here, you sit there’ and that was not going to happen in my home."

The couple later had two sons, now aged 12 and six.

Cook Islands in Sydney

Today, Ms Nekeare-Cowan works actively in Sydney's Cook Islands community as president of the Australian Cook Islands Community Council NSW, organising community events and helping families adjust to Australian life. She says some of the main issues faced by migrants coming to Australia from the Cook Islands include education, citizenship issues and being separated from family.

"A lot of families are struggling for their children, even children that are born at home in the Cook Islands that leave home at the age of three or five. They come here and lose the language and so forth so it’s difficult,” she says.

Two of Ms Nekeare-Cowan's brothers now live in Australia - both in Townsville - and one of her sisters, who has special needs, lives at home with her. A second sister still lives back in the Cook Islands, as does her mother.

Ms Nekeare-Cowan says she speaks to her mum on the phone and on email quite a lot. Unfortunately, they aren't able to see each other face to face as much as they would like.

"It's not always easy because we are afraid of her health as well," she says. "Because if she comes here and she gets ill…we are not wealthy people to afford her medication and things like that."

Ms Nekeare-Cowan says she is grateful for all the opportunities she’s had since arriving in Australia and is keen to keep her children connected to their heritage and their faith.

"When you’ve experienced goodness in your life, happiness in your life, you want to impart that as well," she says.

"So that’s why as mother I want my children to be happy, I want them to have a decent life and to be decent citizens as well."

This story was produced as part of the SBS series, First Day, airing on SBS World News throughout January.

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