Ockers, opportunity and the open road
For Polish migrant Peter Fikus Australia has been a land of opportunity, a great place to raise a family and its wide open spaces have been the backdrop for his passion for motorcycle riding.
Moving ‘down under’ also gave him refuge from the austerity and blandness of communist era Poland and the political and social trauma that came with the end of Marxism in his homeland.
But at the age of 11, it was a difficult decision to leave behind his mother and everything he had known and move to the other side of the world.
“I came to Australia when I was 13 – two years after I first decided to come. I came to live with my dad. He came here two years earlier with my step-mum,” Peter said.
“When my dad moved here, he asked if I wanted to come and live here too,” he said.
“My mum left the decision up to me and after a bit of thinking I decided to come.
“But it took two years because of the bureaucracy and all the paperwork. In those days the Polish authorities didn’t like people leaving the country.
“In fact, my dad escaped from Poland. He went to Bulgaria on holiday and never came back.
“He ended up in a displaced persons camp in Austria and eventually was resettled in Australia,” Peter said.
During the Cold War severe emigration restrictions were imposed by countries in the Eastern Bloc, which consisted of the Soviet Union and its satellite state in Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland.
Legal migration was usually only possible in order to reunite families or to allow members of minority ethnic groups to return to their homelands.
Eastern Bloc governments argued that strict limits to emigration were necessary to prevent a brain drain. Western governments argued that they represented a violation of human rights and defectors were routinely welcomed in the West.
In Poland more than 1.8 million people – or about six per cent of the population – left the country between the end of WWII and 1982.
Finally, in 1989 a wave of revolutions sometimes called the ‘Autumn of Nations’, swept across the Eastern Bloc.
In Poland in April 1989, the Solidarity organization was legalised and allowed to participate in parliamentary elections. It won a stunning 99 out of the 100 available parliamentary seats.
But Peter says life was difficult for most people in Poland in the 1980s.
“Life wasn’t easy. We were witnessing the end of communism and martial law was imposed.
“There was no food in the shops and you had to queue for everything. People had to line up at the grocery stores.
Peter says that even though he was still a boy, he knew what was going on.
“I could see that communism was falling apart and it was inevitable.
“Under communism we were looked after in many respects. There was free health and housing provided by the government.
“But really there were no opportunities. My family owned a monuments business – my grandfather and father were stonemasons. But I could not see much of a future for myself and that was part of the reason I decided to come to Australia,” he said.
Peter remembers vividly travelling alone for the first time.
“I remember being at Frankfurt Airport on the way here and thinking how big it was and hoping I got on the right plane,” he said.
Peter spend his first few months in the Sydney beachside suburb of Maroubra before moving to Caringbah, on the southern shore of Botany Bay.
“Moving to Australia was a big change for me. Everything was different. I took a while to learn English so Dad put me in an intensive language school for six month and then I started high school in Year 8.
“At my school I was basically the only migrant. But it wasn’t too bad. I fitted in in the end and finished high school,” he said.
After travelling for couple of years, Peter decided to take up his father’s trade as a stonemason.
He had been working during the school holidays since he was 15 and now runs his own business in Melbourne’s east.
“I met my wife in Sydney but we moved to Melbourne when we had kids because she wanted to be closer to her family,” Peter said.
They now have three children aged 16, 13 and 11.
His father Jan and step-mother have retired to Darwin.
Peter has been back to Poland three times – twice in the past two years to see his ageing mother.
“Poland has changed enormously. It has become very westernised. A lot of people speak English whereas we learned Russian at school,” he said.
On balance, Peter says coming to Australia was the best decision of his life. He says he has been able to provide a good life for his family, build a business and follow his passion for motorcycles.
“Coming here has been a good thing. If I’d stayed in Poland I don’t know what my future might have been.
“I don’t think there would have been as many opportunities.”
Peter recalls having to make the decision to move to the other side of the world at the age of 11.
“It was hard for me to make the decision to leave mum but my grandparents pushed me to come. I think they could see that I could make a better life for myself here.
“I love Australia. It’s a good country, there are lots of opportunities and lots of good down-to-earth people,” Peter said.