ALHS Board Member, Mounira Saad was a keynote speaker at the RAHS State Conference on 2/3rd November 2002 at Wingham NSW. She was asked to speak about her experience as a new settler to Australia from Lebanon. This is the text of her paper.
When I was asked to speak at your conference I was apprehensive as I am not a public speaker. But I was honoured and proud to share my experiences and stories with you.
I was born in a small village near Tripoli on the northern coast of Lebanon. Tripoli is the second largest city. Lebanon is situated on the Mediterranean, to the West, Syria to the North and East and Israel to the South. It is a small country, 270 km in length and up to 75 km wide. The population is about 3 ½ million – ½ million being non-Lebanese.
When I left Lebanon in 1972, it was known as the Paris of the Middle East. It was also known for its banking and educational facilities. The tourist was well catered for with its International Hotels and Resorts. It is a fact that you could swim in the morning on the coast and within one hours drive be snow skiing.
Knowing this you might ask why leave such a prosperous country to come to a foreign speaking and distant Australia. Lebanon was not able to cater for the highly educated youth so migration was the only option. Many emigrated to Europe and the Americas, also Africa and Australia. My sister had settled in Australia three years earlier, so Australia was our first choice. My brother and I arrived in Australia in 1972. It was a huge step for me, traveling by plane for three days, stopping over in Hong Kong.
My first impression was the size of Australia, taking hours to fly from the northern shores to Sydney. The beautiful harbours, waterways and the cleanliness caught me by surprise. Ultimately though it was seeing my sister after 3 years that was the highlight.
After being in Australia for three months, I decided to educate myself at night and work by day. Because I was educated in Arabic and French, English was my first priority. Then a secretarial course to better my job opportunities.
My first job was as a machinist, it was unsafe and boring. Most of my fellow workers were non-English speaking, making my day sad. The only English I learnt was ‘ME GO, YOU GO, ME GO TOO’. A few months later I found a new job in a juice factory, putting bottles on the conveyor belt. Three days into the job, the manager noticed how sad I looked and offered me a job on the office switchboard. Because my English was still poor, I made some terrible mistakes. Trying to transfer calls I often hung up on people. So they moved me to filing and typing, fortunately the people around me were patient and helped my English. As time went by I moved to a better position in a larger company.
My social life was very restricted by our culture and traditions. The Church and its social functions were the main events in our community. Interaction between other Lebanese families was very important. It was at one of these church social gatherings that I met my future husband, who was from Taree. Our courtship was restricted by the old fashioned ways of my brother, who took the parental role very seriously. He would sit at the front window waiting for me, with a deadline of 11pm.
My first visit to Taree after our engagement was an experience I will never forget. We drove for six hours, the trees never ending. This made me apprehensive about marrying and moving this far away from the family and friends. My first thoughts were to convince Mick, to move to Sydney. He compromised by driving to Sydney for months until I got sick of it. I soon realised Taree was where my new family and home were.
One day soon after settling into our home, there was a knock at the door, a religious group of three were offering guidance and selling religious books. Traditionally it was bad manners not to invite guests into you home, so I did. I made them tea and biscuits. Because my English was still weak, they offered to get me a book written in Arabic, saying they would return next week.
That is when we decided going to work in our shoe store would be good experience and help with my English. Because I was forced to speak only English, my skills in the language were improved dramatically.
I was also socialising with Australians friends especially at Apex functions. Mick would also take me to see touring comedians at the RSL. The trouble was they spoke quickly and I couldn’t understand the jokes. But I found myself laughing anyway with the rest of the crowd. When Mick tried to explain the previous joke, he would miss hearing the next couple. We soon gave that a miss.
Fortunately Taree had a wonderful group of supportive Lebanese families who made me feel at home. They hold high their culture and traditions and at the same time were generous and loyal Australians. They taught me how to balance both cultures.
Some of those families had migrated in the late 1800s and through to the Second World War. Arriving in Sydney after months aboard overcrowded boats, many first settled in Redfern where a community of support had developed. From this base they set off to the country often hawking with horse and cart. The Phoenician spirit was strong and they travelled to the far corners of this country. Many settled in rural towns like Taree and Wingham, where they set up a permanent base for their families and business.
They were not afraid of hard work and were soon reaping the returns of their efforts. They were good for the towns; they generally re-invested their profits into property and helped develop the shopping centre. Their efforts were recognised during the April 2002 heritage celebrations in Taree. The GTCC commemorated the efforts of the Lebanese in the Manning Valley over the past 100 years. This is when I began my research into the early settlers and put together with Peter Dahdah an exhibition of photos and stories. Some of this exhibition is here today.
The exhibition has been taken on board by the Australian Lebanese Historical Society and more will be done to broaden the history of the Manning and other similar towns.
A full weekend was organised by us to revisit the Manning by the families who had moved away. It included a civic welcome and tree planting by the Council. A bus tour of the Manning and a traditional Lebanese dinner with entertainment to finish off. 230 people including some Australian friends enjoyed a fantastic get together for a memorable weekend.
It is sad knowing so many of the pioneers have passed away and little record of their life stories have been kept. Hopefully we stirred up some interest in keeping our families’ history in more detail. Many of the descendants of the pioneers are still running the family business and are an important part of the business strength of the Manning.
As a member of the board of the Australian Lebanese Historical Society Inc. and a member of a Lebanese pioneer family, I’d like to thank Mari Metzke from the RAHS and Eric Richardson, Chairman of the Manning Valley Heritage Council for inviting me here to share with you my experience over the last 30 years.
Although I am very proud and love my mother country Lebanon, to whom I owe my roots, my loyalty is with my adoptive country Australia to whom I owe success, security and freedom. As Peter Allan would sing I still call Australia home.