ELEVEN years ago, Mariamma Cheriyan arrived in Australia with little more than a passport and a certificate of nursing. She had limited English, almost no money, no job and she’d come alone. Left behind in India were her husband and three young daughters, the youngest just six and four years old.
A hospital in a weirdly named country town called Wonthaggi was the first to offer her an interview. When they followed up with the offer of a job, she accepted instantly.
Gippsland was like nothing she had ever experienced before. "I had only seen places like this in pictures or on TV," she says. "The trees, the flowers, the green.”
She settled in, sharing accommodation with another Indian nurse.. She was able to buy all the food she liked, rice, fruit, spices, fish, although the prices worried her. She struggled with the language – people spoke so fast – but slowly built up a storehouse of words.
Public transport was the biggest issue. She couldn’t get to Melbourne easily to see the friends she’d made in her course and Saint Joseph's Catholic Church was half an hour's walk away every Sunday morning, rain, hail or shine.
She kept her mind on the job. It was too painful to let her thoughts dwell on her family. “When I think about home, I feel to cry,” she says.
Ten months on she received her permanent resident’s visa, went home and collected her family.
What drives a woman to leave her children, to let go of all that is safe and familiar? To step into the abyss and trust she will not fall?
“I was frightened,” Mariamma admits, “but I am a good believer. I know if I need help I will get it.”
But it’s more than that. She’d come from Kerala, a state in South India on the Malabar coast with a rich history dating back several millennia and a population of 33 million. More powerful, however, than landscape and culture, the sights, sounds and smells of the place that had moulded and sustained her for over three decades; more powerful even than their ties with the extended family they left behind, was something else.
When she left, none of them said: Don’t go. They knew they would follow.
Her eldest daughter, Roshni, like her father, found the move painful because they had more attachments back in India than the youngest, but today she is a registered nurse and is married with a baby. Mariamma’s second daughter, Reshma, one of the top 10 students at Wonthaggi Secondary College last year, is a first year bio medical student at Monash.
Rani is in Year 11 and is yet to decide on her career direction. Mariamma’s husband Paul initially worked at Tabro, later moved to the herb farm and today is at Seahaven Nursing Home.
Mariamma is proud of her own progress. She came to Wonthaggi as an RN1 nurse, not knowing if she would get a job. Today she is the health services co-ordinator. She is grateful to the colleagues who helped her so much. “They understood my ability and helped to bring me out of my shell.”
They miss their extended family; the children especially miss their cousins with whom they were close. They keep in touch by phone and skype. Mariamma’s mother is 88 now and has dementia. But all the same, they are glad to be here.
“Wonthaggi a good place,” says Mariamma. “When I came I had nothing. Now by the grace of God, we have a good future.”
She is amazed at the possibilities on offer in Australia. “If I can achieve all this starting with so little, what can ordinary Australians achieve?” she asks.
What inspires the great journeys? Many things, surely. But perhaps, in part, it’s a special kind of commitment. A commitment to potential, to finding a place that allows you to grow to your best possible shape.
What greater gift to make to one’s children? What hazards too daunting?