Worlds poles apart for refugee family

Alice, Flynn, Mia and Andrew Czerski.
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Imagine arriving in a totally foreign country, two adults, two young children, you can’t speak a word of the language and you only have $48 in your pocket.

In September 1981, Ashburton Intermediate School teacher Andrew Czerski – then aged five – his parents and three year old brother arrived in Australia as refugees.

The Czerski family were living in Warsaw, Poland. His dad saw the unrest developing, ‘‘as the solidarity movement was growing and the future didn’t look great,’’ Andrew said.

‘‘Dad decided we should leave Poland for the sake of my brother and I. We were fortunate to get passports,’’ Andrew said.

His paternal grandparents tried to talk them out of leaving and even suggested his parents go and leave the children with them. ‘‘We weren’t able to tell many people we were leaving for fear of people dobbing us in,’’ Andrew said.

Their cover story was they were going on holiday to family in Germany. In the apartment complex they lived another family were planning on doing the same thing.

From Poland they took a train to Vienna, and Andrew said ‘‘we were meet there by a friend who took us to the police station where we surrendered our passports and were given refugee status.’’

At that time there were very few people in the refugee camp. As the authorities were trying to keep families together, the Czerski family were taken 50kms out of Vienna to Reichenau and put in a motel type of accommodation with no cooking facilities.

‘‘Each day we would receive a tray with military type meals on it for us toeat. The local policeman would bring us and other refugee families these trays. There was a lot of tin stuff as it was cheap and easy to get,’’ Andrew said.

Then it came time to find a country for them to go to.

‘‘We could have gone to the United States of America but there was a five year wait, Canada was too cold for mum, or there was Australia.

‘‘We didn’t know anything about Australia and mum said let’s give it a go.’’

The other family from their apartment building in Poland also went to Vienna and Andrew’s dad went to meet them as the Czerski’s had gone back to the Vienna Refugee Camp for a few days before the left for Australia. In their time in Reichenau things had really changed at the camp with several families to a room as more people realised the need to get out of Poland.

The daughter of the other family broke her arm and Andrew’s dad went with the family to the hospital. It was the day the Czerski’s’s were leaving to begin their journey to Australia.

While his dad was at the hospital, Andrew’s mum got a phone call to say they needed to pack now as they were leaving earlier.

‘‘Mum panicked as she grabbed the wet washing off the line and put it into bags and thought dad wouldn’t make it back from the hospital in time, but he did,’’ Andrew said.

From Vienna they went to Rome.

Their flight was delayed for 12 hours and in 1981 the airport wasn’t equipped with good air conditioning so it was very hot.

Unfortunately the plane only had enough food for the flight so they didn’t get any food.

‘‘The passengers were mainly refugees so we were unable to leave the airport,’’ Andrew said.

At this point his parents were wondering if they had done the right thing in leaving Poland.

The family were seated in the middle section of the plane so the children slept across the seats for the long flight and his parents just walked the isle. His parents said when they landed in Melbourne ‘‘we have walked all the way to Australia.’’

On arrival they were taken to the refugee hostel, home to a large number of Vietnamese refugees.

‘‘We were lucky compared to them who had risked everything totravel across the water in boats,’’ Andrew said.

‘‘It was like spot the white family at the hostel as we were one of about 10 non Vietnamese families. There were no other Polish families at the hostel.’’

Two days after landing in Australia Andrew was off to school.

He and his family couldn’t speak a word of English. As Andrew began to learn English he started teaching his parents.

He wasn’t the only one at the school who couldn’t speak English as there were other refugees there as well.

It was hard for his parents and as soon as they could they left the refugee hostel and got their own place.

Andrew said they had limited clothing with them.

‘‘In hindsight my mother said instead of packing our bags with clothes for the children, it should have been adult clothing as children grew out of their clothes so quickly.’’

To support the family his parents both had to get jobs. They had degrees in economics from Poland universities but these weren’t recognised in Australia.

‘‘To get them recognised was going to take two years of study and my parents couldn’t wait that long they needed jobs.’’

They worked in labouring jobs to support the family.

Andrew’s mum had to learn to drive and did this ‘‘with me sitting in the front seat giving instructions,’’ he said.

Within a few months of arriving in Australia the family were upset to see on the news images of tanks rolling down the streets of Warsaw, martial law was taking place in Poland, especially in the cities, Andrew said. Andrew’s parents, brother and his family still live in Australia.

Andrew was working in the United Kingdom when he met Ashburtonian Alice Moodie who became his wife.

With the fall of communism Andrew’s parents have been back to Poland half a dozen times.

Andrew and his brother didn’t make a trip back until after 2001, ‘‘as we didn’t want to suddenly find ourselves forced into compulsory military training,’’ Andrew said.

Andrew, Alice and their daughter Mia visited Poland when Mia was a few months old; son Flynn is yet to visit Poland.

Andrew’s mum Sophie said ‘‘We were brave not knowing English, with $48 in our pocket to leave our home country to start a new life, but we made the right choice, due to the solidarity movement gaining traction in Poland. For over 40 years now we have called Australia home.’’