For as long as I can remember, people have told me their stories.
Like last week. Although I was pressed for time, I suddenly found myself captive audience to hearing the life story of my seamstress.
Oops, that sounded a bit fancy. “My seamstress”.
When in fact, *Oksana is anything but fancy. Rather, she is a local lady who fixes my hems, takes seams in an out according to my weight fluctuations, and all for an amazingly price for which she is forever apologising.
Over the years, despite language barriers (her English is not great and my Russian is limited to “Opa”, which roughly translates to “Woo Hoo”) I have always engaged in a bit of light conversation with Oksana whenever I go to collect my goods.
General chit-chat about our children and their schools; and now in Oksana’s case, the Uni course her daughter has commenced.
I am not sure what it was about last week that was different. Midway through a holiday, perhaps I was giving off relaxed vibes?
Because from a simple observation about how fast she was at changing the thread on her machine and re-sewing my son’s trouser hems, I learned Oksana came to Australia 20 years ago as a refugee.
That she is not as I always assumed, Russian, but in fact Belorussian. I was not entirely sure what the difference is, but clearly it is a big one to Oksana given her reaction to the Russian President’s name, and her general comments about Communists.
Oksana told me frightening stories of her life growing up as a girl who was part Jewish, with the “wrong” colouring for her homeland. Of having to carry two passports, so one could clearly identify her as Jewish. Feeling caught between two worlds and never really fitting into either.
Of running away in the middle of the night to Austria, a teenage single mother with an 11 month old baby boy. No papers, no money, no real idea of where she was heading.
With the help of an Austrian friend she eventually made her made to Beirut and spent four years there. The way she tells it, she lived in fear every single day of those four years.
Still to this day, Oksana cannot walk near a rubbish bin that has been left on the street, for fear of bombs being detonated in the bin.
Some of the tales Oksana told me of that time, she could only tell me pieces of. Her emotions were still too strong to really talk about those events, she simply shivered and shook her head.
Eventually she made her way to Australia as a refugee; I did not manage to get all the details of this trip.
Once in Australia, the former Engineer and fashion designer, managed to scrap a living together by altering the clothes of people like me.
“I’ve had a hard life” she said repeatedly. “Australia has been good, but not so cheap now. Not like when I first came”.
Even now her woes continue. Her husband, also a Belorussian migrant, is unwell after recent surgery that seems to have been botched by the hospital. Mind you, Oksana is not focusing on thoughts of compensation. She is concentrating on praying her husband stays alive.
As I listened to Oksana’s story, I was at a loss for words. Sure, my life has been a little difficult of late.
But there is nothing in my history which in any way matches what Oksana has been through.
I walked away from our talk feeling sad for everything she has experienced, but also feeling grateful.
Grateful she had shared this story with me. Grateful she has made her way to our lucky country. And grateful for my own secure, happy life.
And ever so grateful that people want to share their stories with me.
Cheers till next time,
*Oksana is not her real name. Just my favourite Russian one.