My mum never did tuck shop, or came on school excursions, or signed up to volunteer. But she tried so hard - fairy bread with olive oil instead of butter became a family tradition.
Nadine Chemali

26 Jul 2018 - 1:34 PM  UPDATED 13 Feb 2019 - 8:58 AM

It was school sports day at my sons’ school, all the kids were in their house colours, green, gold, blue, red. One child wore her regular school uniform and stood out like a sore thumb. I knew she was a newly arrived migrant, tiny and adorable with beautifully braided hair; school uniform perfectly pressed. I asked her if her parents were there and she informed me they didn’t know about it. They didn’t know to buy her a special shirt, or paint her face and hair, or seemingly attend. I asked if they had read the school newsletter and she explained they couldn’t read it yet, but earnestly added that they saved them in a box on top of the fridge and attended English classes every day, so they can one day read them all. 

And my heart ached. I remembered being that child. My mum never did tuck shop, or came on school excursions, or signed up to volunteer.  Her entire world had been ripped out from under her when we moved from Lebanon in the 1980s, from a war that had taken over. My parents had to focus on building a new life. They worked too hard and initially at least, had a language barrier that meant I missed out on so many things.

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As an adult I can see how difficult it must have been for them, how trapped they must have felt, unable to be involved, anxious and unsure. Mum tried so hard - fairy bread with olive oil instead of butter became a family tradition. She didn’t quite get it right, but she tried.  When we first arrived, she saw a jar of a rich brown spread in the shops and was told it was for sandwiches. So Mum, thinking it was some delicious chocolate paste was generous, slathering it on to bread, popping it in our lunch boxes as a nice surprise. 

Of course, it was not chocolate spread, it was in fact Vegemite. And there were actual tears. I remember that night, Mum telling Dad telling the story when he came home from work, both of them howling with laughter.  My teenage sisters did not see the humour until many years later. We all love Vegemite now, but it took time to repair the relationship with that weird, delicious, yeasty glue.

Trying to fit in was a challenge. Mum attended my brother’s footy training once and it dawned on her how different she was to traditional Australian mothers. They handed her a beer (it was the '80s, when having a cold one at your son's game was the norm), swore, spoke so fast in that strong Australian mumble and handed her 26 uniforms to wash that week. They all laughed when she brought them back, washed, ironed, and folded so neatly in individual packages.

And whilst my mum over compensated by trying so hard to do as much as she could, my dad coped by cruising along.

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Dad enjoyed snoring through my entire Year Ten debating season. He wore tinted glasses but no one noticed till the finals, when he snored and mum had to slap his leg.  I stood there before a room of my peers, parents and teachers, wanting to die of embarrassment.  At the end of the night I walked to the car a few steps behind him hoping no one would notice that he was my dad.  My dad that started work at 5am and finished at 7pm, that still came to every single incredibly tedious debate, school play, parent teacher night and sports game, exhausted but proud.  

I have spent a large portion of my adult life working with newly arrived migrants. I get frustrated when I see stories on trashy current affairs shows about a random migrant that won’t learn English or assimilate.  My family wasn’t different or special, I see families that are exactly the same pass my desk every day.  

I know how hard it is for them to adjust. 

I ended up passing on my details to the family of the little girl at my son’s school.  I now give them a call whenever a school event is coming up. That little hand of friendship and help would have meant the world to my parents, and to me: A little girl that sometimes missed out.  

Nadine Chemali is a freelancer writer. Find her on Twitter @femmocollective or on Facebook

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