When I left Pakistan, I was so hysterical my father had to literally hold me up to coax me onto the flight!
Dad had initially applied for our whole family to come to Australia, but was rejected because of his age. However, the letter said, ‘We note your daughter Mary has a Bachelor of Commerce and we invite her to apply in her own right.’
When he read that, he looked at me and said, “You’re going to Australia.”
I just burst out into tears. At that time, I was 21, but I had lived a very sheltered life. I had never been more than 50km away from home and rarely by myself.
Anyway, he filled out the forms – probably he forged my signature! And a few months later we got a letter inviting me to come to the Australian High Commission for an interview.
Well, I just felt completely beside myself. Then my father suggested my older brother and his family also apply, and as they also got called for an interview, some of my fears were put to rest.
Later, we got a letter saying please send Mary’s passport for the residency visa, and my brother got a rejection letter!
I was absolutely astounded. Every time I saw my father, I cried. And he would angrily yell at me, “You are getting the chance of a lifetime! I’m sending you for a better future. Not only for yourself but for the family eventually. For all of us.”
So, there I was 3 months later, very upset, at the airport. And I continued to cry hysterically virtually all the way from Karachi to Sydney.
I do remember one shining beacon in this teary journey. This Lufthansa flight attendant kept asking me in her broken English if I was sick. But I just could not articulate to her through my sobs what was happening. So she said that when she finished her shift, she would talk to me.
When she came back, she asked me, “Is your heart breaking?” and I said yes. At first, she thought it was a man, until I told her in my tearful way what had happened.
Then she said she was going to ask her crew for a word in English. And when she returned, she said, “You are going to be creating opportunities not only for yourself, but for the rest of your family.’ She said that the word she went to ask about was ‘pioneer’. Several times, she said to me, “You are a pioneer.”
I did not feel like a pioneer and I did not feel brave, but after that, I started sobbing a little more quietly.
Things got better once I landed. My father’s friend’s daughter, Maria, met me at Sydney airport and took me to a house in Marrickville, which was owned by a lovely old Italian lady, a widow, who we all called Mumma Grasso. All the girls living there were from other countries. It was actually the most beautiful house I’ve ever lived in.
I started to look for jobs. At my third interview, I was interviewed by Mr Smeal, a lovely man at the Sydney Wentworth Hotel, who needed a credit assistant. And when I got home, Mumma Grasso was waiting by the front door saying, “Maria, Maria, you got a call from Mr Smeal, I write his number down, he gonna give you job!” I think she was more excited than I was!
Later, Mr Smeal told me that his daughter was the same age as me and she had just that week told her parents that she was pregnant as a single mother. And he’d thought, ‘Here’s Mary come all the way from another country, born the same year, starting a new life.’ So he felt he just had to offer me this job.
Mr Smeal helped me a lot. When he found out about my brother’s visa, he said we should write to the Minister for Immigration, and I said, “You know the Minister for Immigration?” because in Pakistan you never write to anybody unless you know them!
He helped me draft a letter about how I came to be in Australia by myself, and also about how we felt an injustice had been done, in that my brother should not have been led right up to the interview and then rejected without a strong reason.
Within a few weeks, Immigration said they would review the case. This very nice official interviewed me, and said that although Mr Smeal had given me a great character reference, unfortunately the salary of $200 a week I was earning was too low to support my brother and his family. He said I needed to earn at least $250 per week, and that perhaps I should ask for a pay rise.
Mr Smeal said, “Mary, there are too many people above me who make these decisions, and as much as I’d love to, I don’t think I could go that far”. Then he said that although he would hate to lose me, he thought I should look for another job.
So I went for an interview at another company, and immediately got the job! Then, like a pest, I went back to the guy at Immigration, who said, “What? You’re back already?” And I said, “Yes, you told me to get a job paying $250, and I got $260 a week.” He said, “Right, then, your brother and his family are in.” As a result, they arrived just in time for Christmas 1981!
Mr Smeal was upset, but he said “I understand you’re doing this for your family. And if things ever change and you’re looking for a job that doesn’t pay very well, come back and see me!”
Around that time, I met my husband, but before we got married, I actually also managed to sponsor my dad, my stepmother and my 2 younger siblings to come here. Later, I sponsored another brother, his wife and his 4 children.
Recently, I wrote to the National Archives of Australia and found a record of my arrival on Lufthansa flight LH690. I want to try to contact that flight attendant, to tell her what a difference she made to my life. She coined that term ‘pioneer’, and now I think heck yes, I do deserve that! I’ve impacted at least 15 lives immediately and then there’s also the children and grandchildren born here, plus my in-laws’ families.
When my father died, all my siblings were by his bedside, and I said, “It was only through the sheer dominance that this man had over me that we are all here today”. Plus Mr Smeal knowing the right words to write to the Minister for Immigration – straight to the top, not to some clerk!
Photographer: Anne Casey Silver Pepper Photography
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