This year marks the 70th anniversary of the first official arrival of immigrants to the region when the post World War II migrant ship Fairsea docked in Newcastle with 1800 passengers. Many were accommodated at the Greta Migrant Camp, just outside the township on the New England Highway.
Originally the Greta Army Camp in which about 60,000 Aussie soldiers trained from 1939, it was dramatically transformed into the migrant camp after World War II, and for another decade from 1949 post-war arrivals continued to settle there. They have made an immeasurable contribution to the prosperity and development of the Hunter region.
Adamstown, Mayfield, Nelson Bay, and Port Stephens were other locations of the federal government’s post-war migration accommodation centres, but the Greta Migrant Camp seems to occupy a special place in Hunter Valley history.
A world away from war-torn Europe, it enabled refugees to start lives afresh, in peace and safety. Most had come from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, with later intakes from Poland, Italy, Greece, Macedonia, Hungry, Austria, Germany and Russia.
CatholicCare's assistant director, Tanya Russell, was born in Australia to Macedonian migrant parents. She says she remembers many things from growing up with parents “learning how to be Australian”.
Maitland-based writer Alek Schulha was born at the Greta camp to a Yugoslavian mother and Ukrainian father. His mother Nada and father Peter arrived at Greta in 1949 and they were the first couple married in the Russian Orthodox Church at the camp, in which Alek Schulha was also christened.
His mother worked at the camp hospital as an interpreter and his father as one of the camp’s bus drivers when it was Australia's second-largest migrant quarters, at times housing up to 9000 people.
"Between 1949 and 1960, 100,000 people representing 18 nationalities called Greta camp home,” Mr Schulha said. “It played a significant role in the development of our society as we know it today. In 1949, 1000 children had their first bush Christmas in the camp's then great hall.
“That hall was later dismantled and rebuilt at Karuah by the Tahlee Bible college. And Catholic primary schools including St James’ at Kotara South, St Benedict’s at Edgeworth and Holy Cross Glendale relocated huts from the camp.”
Vitaly Lupish arrived at the camp aged 14 having already spent more than five years living in huts in Germany during and after the war. He recalls learning to speak English at Greta, and vividly remembers the school's headmaster Bruce Cox. "He would tell us: 'You all say this with me. This. That. Those. Put your tongue between your teeth',” Mr Lupish said. “Everybody was saying 'ziss' and 'zat'. I still have an accent after all these years.”
The mass influx of Europeans changed Australia for the better, creating a more diverse and less insular nation. People from around the world are still arriving in the Hunter, enriching our culture as they seek peace and a better life.
Together with the Diocese’s Development and Relief Agency (DARA), CatholicCare’s refugee services team works with people from a variety of cultural backgrounds.
Many migrants maintain a connection with the customs of their homeland and music is a universal language that plays a significant role in bridging the continental divide. Mr Lupish is honorary patron of the Newcastle and Hunter Multicultural Choral Society, which is staging its 42nd Annual Christmas Concert, in the Sacred Heart Cathedral on Sunday, 1 December.
And on Saturday 7 December the Dutch Society Concordia is keeping another tradition alive, says honorary secretary Joop de Wit, when it stages the very popular St Nicholas Arrival at Marmong Park. That’s St Nicholas, as opposed to Santa Claus. St Nick encourages compassion and is a role model for all. Santa encourages consumption and belongs to childhood.
Bush Christmas or bayside, universal goodwill resonates throughout the Hunter