– as told to The Silver Women
Women who inspired you as a young girl?
Has to be my mother first – a truly wonderful woman – not just my opinion, she was admired and loved by so many people. She wanted to be a teacher but left school at 13 to become a nanny. At 19 years old she and her younger brother emigrated to Australia where she knew no one. Married my father in the depths of the Depression. In 1940 when I was born they were just getting on their feet, but then he was sent off to war in New Guinea. She couldn’t keep the house where they were living on the meager pay received by Australian soldiers and got the idea of renting an old terrace house and renting out the four extra bedrooms: a bed and breakfast boarding house. The people she took in were in need of her love and support as much as we needed an income – a single mother with young baby, a frail old woman, a refugee widow from Nazi Germany – and then there were cousins who came to live with us from time to time. My mother was a woman of faith – but her faith wasn’t for talking about – it was to be lived: ”love your neighbor,” and that was anyone she saw needed loving. My father came back from the war a broken man, and we were poor – but we never went hungry or lacked necessities. And every weekend we left behind the city slum that East Sydney was back then and visited the Art Gallery, the Museum, the Botanical Gardens – I could give a visitor a guided tour of these wonderful places that I came to know like the back of my hand. When there was a little cash to spare, we went to the Zoo and in summer we lived on the beach.
Women who inspire you now?
Now I am inspired – in awe of – the women I meet in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They suffer so much, just generally because of the past 20 years of conflict, the fact that Congo is a failed state which can’t protect its borders or lift the majority of the population out of poverty despite its natural wealth. But also just because they are women – nevertheless, they get up every morning, care for children, try to feed their families and submit to the men who rule their lives. Hundreds of thousands have endured rape torture – often more than once. Eve’s story: with two other girls aged around 16 they were gathering firewood in the forest fringes when attacked by a trio of armed men. They were given a choice to die or submit to rape. Eve told me she thought, “why should I die like so many other women? I agreed even though I knew I would be thought a slut by my village. When they had finished with us, one argued that they should kill us anyway. The others decided just to give us a warning: one girl had her breasts cut off, the second had her arms slashed with a machete – I thought they would cut off my head when they slashed from behind my ear down across my throat. I lived, and the chief got me to the hospital for treatment. I thought I had a lucky escape when the other girl died, but a few months later I realized I was pregnant and would never have a man accept me as a wife.” Eve kept the son born of the rape, thankful that he looked like her and not the rapist. She managed to get some training in literacy and returned to her village to teach other women to read – but that isn’t the end – last year she was raped again – and this year gave birth to twins. Her struggle puts 1st world problems in perspective.
Most valuable lesson taught by your Mother or any other women growing up?
My mother taught me to make the best of what we had and to be willing to share: when the widow’s daughter and 2 granddaughters miraculously escaped the Holocaust, she gave them some of my clothes and toys – I didn’t mind the clothes much but made a bit of a fuss about sharing my toys. I wouldn’t say that family inspired me as such – but their experience opened my eyes to the suffering around us and perhaps is part of the reason the plight of refugees/displaced people has concerned me all my life.
Do you think older women are valued or celebrated enough?
Women, in general, have made some progress since I was young – but I still think for the most part we are invisible, if we do achieve, the challenges we had to overcome to get there are often disregarded. I am speaking about the attitude of many men but dare I say, young women, are often just as bad! Don’t want to dwell on this.
Through my decades!
20’s: From an early age I had always thought I would be a teacher – especially I wanted to go to Africa and teach the children there who had no schools or doctors. I did apply for a Teachers College Scholarship but when it came to the time I had become interested in occupational therapy – a career which was half teacher/half nurse – never occurred to me I might be a doctor! My father had objected at first – thought I would be better off preparing for motherhood doing domestic science and learning to type to keep myself before I got married. So I did a year of occupational therapy enjoyed the crafts, was interested in the psychology, anatomy and physiology, a little freaked out by my practical experience at a psychiatric hospital. And by the end of that year decided I really wanted to be a teacher – so took the scholarship and did a 2-year course then taught in a public school for three years. Loved it but then began to think about how I was going to get to Africa to teach those little children. I applied to the Anglican Church Missionary Society and was told I now had to do a year studying at Deaconess House. I stayed for 3 years, stimulated by the opportunity to study Greek, the historical context of the books that make up the Bible, working two days a week in a parish church, mostly with women and the sick and elderly but most of all loved the time and freedom to explore ideas about the source and meaning of life…and death. At the end of those three years, I saw an ad from the Australian Council of Churches in a Sydney paper for volunteers to go to work with children in refugee camps in South Vietnam – it was like a bolt from the blue – this is my next adventure. But I had never worked overseas and the organization suggested I needed experience away from home. This was the summer of 1967 and Tasmania was hit by devastating bushfires. I was asked to go to work with the survivors – lived in a caravan in a football field throughout the winter of 1967 helping people who had lost communities, homes, farms, income and loved ones.
Then on to South Vietnam – worked with children in refugee camps on sand dunes along the coast far from Saigon, survived the Tet offensive in an underground bunker courtesy of the US Army. Traveled the length and breadth of the country training teachers and child care workers in Christian schools and orphanages. My time in Tasmania had been good preparation for dealing with the suffering of the people of Vietnam who had experienced traumatic events but had no social services, no insurance to help them back on their feet but had to go on with life with no guarantee the conflict wouldn’t flare up around them in the place they sought safety. I stayed in Vietnam for 8 Years.
30’s: Evacuated 1975 when North Vietnamese took the South and spent the next 4 years in study at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu – BA Intercultural communication and Master of Social Work. With the Institute where I did my internship, I got a Federal Government Grant to set up a mental health program for refugees of Indochina. In my mid-30s(1979) accepted into a Ph.D. program at Berkeley, California, my research on Vietnamese refugees resettled in the Bay area – loved the campus life, running the fire trails in the Berkeley Hills and also student concessions for amazing performances in San Francisco’s Opera House and Davies Hall. I then went back to Honolulu to teach at the UH School of Social Work. Employed under a Pacific Basin Child Welfare grant so I made frequent trips to American Samoa, Guam, and all the Hawaiian Island to conduct workshops with local social workers and community leaders- such a hardship assignment!
“What am I most grateful for?
Being born in affluent, egalitarian and beautiful Australia.”
40’s / 50’s: By my late 40’s I returned to Australia. For the next 17 years, through my 50s and into my early 60s I taught at the University of New South Wales School of Social Work – found good use for my international experience: 1988 government grant to set up a Crosscultural Social Work Education Centre, 1994 set up a Postgraduate Program in International Social Development – 2001-2 set up Centre for Refugee Research. Wonderful experiences and contacts in attending International Social Work and Social Development conferences all over the world.
60’s / 70’s: Retired in my early 60’s due to ill health – In 2006 published Rain in My Heart about the children I had met in South Vietnam – 2004 received Medal in the Order of Australia for my work with refugees, immigrants, and international students. For about 5 years in my 60’s, I was involved with my darling mother as she became more and more physically frail but as bright and compassionate as ever. After Mother died, I heard about the war and women in Congo. My 70’s – I have made 10 visits to Congo to work with a group of Pygmies and have been into the forest to see gorillas in the wild. I am now 79.
Challenges over the years?
Probably physical: small stature as well as a woman – not very commanding – hard to exert power initially until they see determination!– although in Vietnam I was tall for the Vietnamese – small for the Americans, tall for the Pygmies in Congo but small for the other Africans.
Thoughts on aging,
The downside…physical problems – eyes, ears, organs, joints all wearing out. Bring on stem cell regeneration of everything!
The upside… the choice of what I do with my time.
Your advice to young women of today?
Look for the SILVER lining – keep hope alive for the future – however bad you feel about failing that exam, that guy who cheated on you, the fool you made of yourself on a social occasion, even that illness of someone you love or your own – find the upside – the people, the resource, whatever that you can be thankful for.
– Barbara Ferguson
Images courtesy of Barbara unless credited otherwise.
FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS!
How to choose! – favorite authors Alexander McCall Smith – wise and leaves the
reader with a lot to think about –love historical novelists like Philippa Gregory- like to escape with a Dick Francis mystery or a Lee Child thriller – always the violence raises for me a question about when is it ok to use violence – he uses it against pure evil…
Music – prefer a live performance of just about anything – but can’t live without classic FM playing Puccini, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Sibelius, Dvorak, Glass, etc– but also ABBA or film scores…
naturals – but did once love and used all the time Estee Lauder White Linen – then they changed it…
like music – prefer alive – like the gardenia or the fuchsia growing outside my front door.
But my middle name is Rose and of course, roses have everything – even the thorns to remind us that life has challenges!
City or place:
I think it is wherever I am, where I call home at the time
– loved Saigon even in the war – who wouldn’t love Honolulu – loved Berkeley – but perhaps to say Sydney – my area here by the Bay now – so close to the airport but not oppressively developed.
–has to be Vietnamese – fresh, tasty spices added after cooking rather than having to endure a burnt mouth because someone likes to add too much chili.
Skincare product you can’t live without:
Estee Lauder Night Repair – been using since it came out, which I think was when I was in Hawaii – although now I also use Clinique Dramatically Different moisturizer during the day.
Impressionists – first time I saw Starry Starry Night when Musee D’orsee came to Melbourne it took my breath away. If someone gave me a Picasso I wouldn’t put it on the wall – I’d sell to get a Monet…
Book: Rain in my heart Memories of children and war in South Vietnam,1967-1975
Available on Amazon
About Pygmy Child Care (PCC)
Note from Barbara Ferguson