I was going to write a piece on single mothers in general, but my conversations with one special woman – encompassing tales from home, stories of immigration, assimilation and plain old-fashioned womanhood – led me to write her story as representative of many.
Cezarina Modi arrived in Australia as a refugee with 7 kids in tow. She last saw her husband 12 years ago, and has no news of him or his family and many attempts to locate him have proved futile. She presumes him to be dead.
Back in South Sudan, Cezarina was a homemaker and her husband, a primary school teacher, was the family’s breadwinner.
War in South Sudan forced Cezarina to flee to Cairo, Egypt, and, as might be expected in a war zone, arranging the trip was a bureaucratic nightmare. Eventually however, the family found themselves in Egypt where life as a refugee was particularly difficult, with income only coming from the irregular cleaning jobs she managed to find. The large community of South Sudanese in Cairo provided a source of cheap labour, and finding jobs was not easy, particularly for men. However women had better luck with cleaning and domestic work.
They lived in Egypt for 4 ½ years, which Cezarina does not remember with fondness.
She said that working in the houses of more prosperous families was wearing on her spirit and her strength. She describes the need to ‘stay quiet’ to show subservience, which she endured for the sake of retaining employment and wages varied according to the temperament of those for whom she worked.
The Modi children continued their schooling in Egypt where the curriculum was taught in Arabic at a school run by the Christian Church where the education was free.
At last, on the whim of a UNHCR bureaucrat, in an arbitrary process which may have resulted in settlement in America, Canada or even Finland, the family was granted entry to Australia. Anglicare in Port Adelaide provided their first home and with absolutely no comprehension of the English language or knowledge of western culture the Modi’s embarked on their new life.
With the aid of a translator, a social worker and financial support, Cezarina managed to navigate the trials of western life, including shopping, doctor’s appointments and enrolling herself and her children in school. She spent a year studying English at Thebarton Senior College, to the stage where she can now understand spoken English but has difficulty speaking or writing fluently. She notes however that this difficulty is easily taken care of as translators are usually available at public facilities.
Her life continues to revolve around her children and is plagued by the normal fears and challenges of any mother who has fought to secure a safe future for her family. To add to her troubles she suffers from diabetes and a gum infection in an already ailing body causing her to stop her work as a cleaner at the Adelaide Oval.
She now depends entirely on Centrelink payments and remains at home to mother her younger children, one of whom has a disability. While she has no family here, she has made friends amongst Adelaide’s South Sudanese community.
If I’m honest with myself, the fairy tale ending that I envisaged did not materialise.
While Cezarina’s story proves that Australia can provide opportunities for single mothers to thrive, success cannot only be measured in the number of refugees who manage to find themselves in gainful, fulfilling employment or at university. It can also come to those who, despite the changes and the challenges, have managed to retain the simple essence of the African people – togetherness.
My hope is that Cezarina Modi will eventually achieve her dreams and her destiny. As a mother, this would see her children enjoying prosperity and realising their potential because of the opportunities she has strived to give them. She will continue to live her dreams through them, ensuring they take full advantage of all that this country can offer them.
As one who finds so much to complain about, I was humbled by her simple story of perseverance.