|The hostel was a long,
long way from Italy. The food the young mother had tried to persuade her
children to eat was strange and unpalatable.
The younger boy had embarrassed them all by slopping his stew on the
canteen table as he pushed his plate angrily away. Now, smacked, washed
and tucked into bed, he was stili gulping down sobs as his mother fought
her own wave of homesick despair.
Then out of the worn black handbag which also had come all the way from
Sicily to Sydney she took a cheap transistor radio and clicked it on.
Music from Naple§ eased the panic of knell¬ness and, as the record
finished, a woman's voice, speaking in her own language, brought 'a
message of welcome, comfort and advice.
For this woman and for many of the Italian migrants landing in this
strange country, unable to speak any English, the nightly Italian
language radio sessions of Lena Gustin broadcast on 2CH-Sydney have
meant more than words can say.
Over the first difficult months of adjustment as she struggled to pick
up a smattering of English, tried to ' put on a calm face when her
children found school bewildering and alien, and her husband went from
job to casual job, Lena's radio program was her life-line.
When she and her family had found their feet sufficiently to team up
with another family and rent a house with a garden to grow salads and a
shared kitchen where the homely aromas of pasta, mortadella, salami,
cheeses and vino mingled re¬assuringly, she - sat down to write to the
woman whose broadcasts meant so much to her.
Vie` migh - have started the letter, "Dame Lena," for Lena Gustin is one
of the very few women to have been honoured with the Cross of Knighthood
by the Italian Republic. Or she could equally cprrectly have sent her
letter to Signora Lena Gustin, M.B.E., for Lena recently became the
first Italian Australian woman to be made Member of the British Empire.
Instead, she headed her letter "To Mamma Lena, Station 2CH-Sydney." It
is as "Mamma Lena" that lively-minded, warm-hearted Lena Gustin is known
by the Italia/ community of Australia.
They brought themselves —
and incredible hope
Lena, her journalist husband, Dino, and their two children, Rosa/ha and
Robert, who are now at University, came to Australia from Italy 11 years
ago. Like most migrants, they 'brought nothing much except themselves, a
considerable fund of courage and their hopes for a future to be found
War-time privations of Europe had cost the life of their first baby and
post-war conditions did not seem to offer much for their two other
children. So they struck out for Australia.
Their first couple of yearshere provided the personal experiences which
Lena, backed by her husband, has turned to good account in easing the
transition from Italy to Australia for so many of her fellow countrymen
It is for this work in aiding migrants and their families to find .their
feet and remain as assimilated citizens that Lena has been recognised
both by Italy and by the Queen.
Through her radio sessions, by a women's news and problems section of an
Italian language newspaper and lately through a newspaper she and her
husband have started, Lena Austin has set her very considerable energies
to smoothing the path of Italian migrants in a new country.
WOMAN'S DAY, July 25, 1968
Mamma Lena, whose "voice of
an angel" brings the Italian migrants in Australia great comfort.
|Her problems don't only arrive by
mail at 2CH at the rate oo 100 -fietters• a day. They also--walk up
the path of her unpretentious house at Bankstown and are asked to
sit down and have coffee at every hour of the night and day.
Some of the problems are simple, but others need the help of Lena's
Jobs, houses, matters of health, finance, taxa¬tion, business,
difficult enough for anyone, but made twice as hard for the migrant
by his lack of English, all land. on Lena's desk and into her lap.
Possibly her greatest contribution to the welfare of Italian migrant
families has been in the field of housing. "To get each family out
of the hostels and into a house as quickly as possible, that is the
point," she said.
By ANNE DUPREE
Lena wouldn't have it any other way. But if you ask her what is the
most frequent problem she meets, she hesitates. "Family, work, love,
health .. . I am asked about all these," she says.
One problem she frequently encounters is how much freedom children,
particularly daughters, should be allowed.
Lena said, "This is a question where I feel much responsibility. If
I say to the mother, `Yes, give your daughter more freedom,' and the
daughter uses the freedom in the wrong way, then I am partly to
blame if anything bad happens.
"The problem of freedom occurs particularly in families from the
south of Italy, where it is traditional for the parents to 'be very,
"Here they try to keep the same tight rein; the children mustn't go
out at night or with the company they like. When the boys and girls
start work the, parents take all their pay and save it for them. The
children see the others they work with spending money and having a
free time and
|it causes trouble in the
"In some families, even when a girl is in her twenties, the parents will
take her pay and not let her go out. The adjustment the parents make to
Australian conditions depends a lot on their standard of education.
"Many families, after 10 or 15 years here, are quite different in their
mind. They see that in every part of the world relations between the
generations are changing and young people need more freedom.
"Our association (The National Association for Migrant Families, known
as A.N.F.E.) is visit¬ing the Cabramatta and Villawood hostels. We know
the food is good. But it is so different. And there are no interpreters
there to help new people make a telephone call or send a message in an
emergency. They feel so helpless.
"So on my radio sessions I keep announcing that so-and-so, who has come
from this or that part of Italy and has so many children, is looking for
"People who have room to take them get in touch with me and then the
immigration offi¬cials visit the house and decide if it is suitable and
for how many. That way we get the new people fitted into the community."
Australian homes for
Right now Lena's one-woman housing coin-mission is busier than ever.
"Operation Sicily," the project which will settle 3,000 people froth the
earthquake-hit villages of Sicily, is under way.
So far 1,000 Sicilians- have arrived and the rest will be here
Lena said, "These people have lost everything. Our association
(A.N.F.E.) takes clothes to the hostel. Also we take Italian food . .
spaghetti, tomato paste, oil, salami, mortadella, cheese and two bottles
of wine ... so the families can have it at the hostel.
"If after two or three months we don't hear any more of the family, we
are happy because it means they have work and are settling in."
It.is hard to imagine how one woman manages to get through the amount of
work Lena Gustin disposes of every day. Over Station 2CH she has , 10
Italian language programs every week . . . a 15-minute news session
every day, two sessions from 6.45 to 9.30 p.m. -- Arrivederci Roma (on
Mondays) and Carosello and Sorella Radio (on Wednesdays) and a
shorter program on Tuesday at 6 p.m.
Recently, Lena and her husband, Dino, added a weekly newspaper,
"Settegiorni;" to their interests.
Page one news in an early issue was that the editor had been honoured by
the Queen with an M.B.E. Proud as she is of the honour and of the
telegrams of congratulation which flooded in from Canberra and Macquarie
Street, Knight of the Italian Republic Lena Gustin probably prizes her
unofficial title most of all.
From Hay to Orange to the Queensland border she is known as "Mother of
the Italians." Three years ago songwriter Nino Cavallero was moved to
write a graceful tribute to a most sincere woman. It is a pop song
called "Mamma Lena."
Some of the words go like this: "Mamma Lena, you bring hope to our
hearts and lessen our sorrows and nostalgia. You bring hope that we will
see Italy again some day. Mamma Lena, please talk to me again and bring
me hope that tomorrow will be better than today. Your sincere voice
sounds like the voice of an angel. You are my mother who keeps me
company in the night."